by Robert E. Hunter
In a surprise move, the British parliament has rejected the Government’s motion to provide support for military action against Syria. This was a clear rebuke to Prime Minister David Cameron and, equally, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, William Hague, who as much as any leader anywhere pressed from early-on for a vigorous response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The decision by parliament did not spring from nowhere. A good deal of public and elite opinion in Britain remains badly bruised by former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s rampant enthusiasm for the US neocons’ drive to invade Iraq ten years ago. In a series of enquiries, Blair was badly tarnished — enquires that were not even contemplated in the United States for members of the administration of President George W. Bush who got so much so wrong. In one of the most telling phrases, the Blair government was accused (with reason) of having concocted a “dodgy dossier” to support claims that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. While there was nothing quite as telling as US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council, which was, in the old British phrase, “economical with the truth,” there were the revelations that intelligence was to be “fixed” around conclusions that the Iraqi WMD did exist. “Fixed,” in this context, meant that the US was determined to go to war, come what may, and the British would go along or, more correctly, would be in the van.
Thus it should not have been that surprising that the lack of clarity in the intelligence picture about the source of the August 21st chemical weapons attacks in Syria led a lot of people in Britain, including in all three major political parties, to express doubts, so much so that the British now have to be ruled out of any military action that the US government might choose to initiate.
Where does this leave President Obama? One senior British leader predicted that the US and perhaps others will go ahead with some form of military action, and they are very likely right. Already, the “commentariat” in Washington has shifted its discussion from the question “whether?” to “when?” and “how?” and suspended further disbelief about whether this is a good thing.
But not so fast. Questioning does continue on Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle, and on several grounds. One could be called the legal niceties — though not so much whether the United Nations would approve of the use of force; its remit has long since gone by the boards for a large fraction of American elected officials, and the Obama administration apparently has already given up on trying to get a UN mandate. The Russians and Chinese would veto any serious resolution in the Security Council — and the British draft tabled this week now can no longer count on the backing of the government that introduced it, a development without precedent in UN history. The idea of going to the General Assembly for an expression of concern about the use of chemical weapons, sufficient for a legal fig-leaf for the Obama administration, is itself a non-starter.
The Capitol Hill legal niceties relate to the role that Congress, or at least a large faction of it, wants to play in any US decision to become engaged actively in hostilities in or over Syria, however limited. This is not so much about the perennial debate over the meaning of the Constitution, which assigns to Congress the sole authority to declare war: that hasn’t been done since December 1941; or even the War Powers Resolution of 1973. It is rather that the average member of Congress, just returning from the so-called “district work period” (AKA holiday), will have had reinforced at least to some degree the rising consensus in the US against yet another war in the Middle East. Iraq is now more or less over; Afghanistan still has a bit of a way to go; and we need to recall that the US, while highly instrumental in forcibly deposing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi two years ago, was content — indeed a bit anxious — to have that characterized as “leading from behind.”
Even more important, perhaps, is not the question of “who struck John?” The administration says that this was the Assad government, even though it has not fallen into the trap of calling it a “slam dunk,” as the hapless Director of the CIA did in 2003 over Iraq’s supposed WMD. Nor is there questioning on Capitol Hill that there could be a “false flag” involved here — that is, someone acting as agent provocateur in order to bring the US to the point of military action against Assad, even at the cost of more lives lost on the rebel side. Important instead is the difficulty that many observers have in understanding what kind of military attack profile can be designed that will do just enough to chasten the Syrian government against a further use of chemical weapons, but not so much that it will risk tipping the balance in the Syrian civil war, dragging the United States deeply into the conflict, and perhaps leading to the overthrow of the Assad regime — to be replaced by what? The answer to that question is not even “blowing in the wind,” but could very well be those whom the US fears most in the Middle East, the Islamist fundamentalists of the worst stripe, who draw their inspiration and support not from the Saudi Arabian and Qatari governments, though, as Sunnis, they very much want Assad to go, but from wealthy individuals in these countries who bankroll the terrorists. The result is the same, and the US and others, notably Israel, fear the potential consequences.
President Obama has already delayed his impending decision to use force, even though it was telegraphed in highly-colored terms by Secretary of State John Kerry (while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been working to slow down the rush to judgment). Now Obama has to face that the ally that was most egging him on, at least within the NATO family, is no longer there; and instead of bolstering the US position has considerably weakened it. The domestic US politics may not have changed — the risk that a Democratic president will be accused of being soft or, heaven forfend, is reluctant to use military force other than to good ends — but the most strident of the public defenders abroad that the evidence and the need for action was incontrovertible has not been able to rally his own commitment to act.
The President is also caught by his own hasty remarks of a couple of years ago, both that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line,” and that Assad must go. In neither case did he do anything to back up his remarks — and opponents of deep US military engagement in Syria will not complain about that. In the latter case, however — “Assad must go” — nothing has been worked out politically or diplomatically for Syria’s future that would not, with Assad’s departure, potentially leave the minority Alawites at the brutal mercy of the rebels and especially the “moveable feast” of Sunni terrorists who have now migrated from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to the richer pickings of Syria. In the haste of some in Washington to get the president to redeem his “red line” pledge as soon as possible, the US even cancelled a meeting with the Russians in the Hague on a possible Geneva II set of peace talks; and it even tried to get the UN secretary general to remove the UN inspectors from Syria — as President George W. Bush did regarding Iraq a decade ago, with consequences that still plague the region and the US reputation there.
Perhaps, therefore, what the British parliament has done is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps it will lead the US administration to slow down a bit. This is not so much to let the UN determine formally that chemical weapons were used (that does seem certain) or even whether the perpetrator was the Syrian government (that still is most likely), but finally to begin trying seriously to create some sort of diplomatic framework for Syria’s future (even if, as regrettable as that seems, Assad would have to be part of the picture); and as well to start putting together an overarching strategy for the region as a whole, including analysis, planning and policy for helping to stem the Sunni-Shia civil war in the heart of the region that was relaunched a decade ago when the US — with Britain that time, and a few others — invaded Iraq.
If “think again” is the result of what the parliament in London did on Thursday, maybe it will be possible finally to set US policy toward the Middle East on a solid, strategically-sound footing. And if that means the President has to change his mind regarding the likelihood of military attack, so be it; it would be consonant with his totally-correct statement last week that he is paid by the American people to promote US interests. And if he gets to policies that can do that, by however circuitous a route, that is a good thing.