Is this the end of the “special relationship”? Or the start of something more significant?
Last week, the British Parliament delivered a pointed rejection of American foreign policy, voting 285 to 272 against joining any military action in Syria. This came after U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron had publicly backed U.S. President Barack Obama on the need to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons in the bloody Syrian civil war.
Since the First World War, Britain and the United States, as the world’s pre-eminent English-speaking democracies, have worked closely together to support Western values and international security. The apparent split in this “special relationship” immediately earned angry responses from both sides of the Atlantic. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen called the House of Commons vote “a bleak turning point” for British-American relations. British newsmagazine The Economist lamented its government’s “failure to stand by its allies and stand up to tyranny.”
And yet the British vote doesn’t appear to have done any lasting damage to the cross-Atlantic alliance. If anything, the U.S. is now following Britain’s lead. This past weekend, Obama announced that he was putting his own military strike on hold pending approval from Congress. “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives,” he said in a speech from the Rose Garden. (Prime Minster Stephen Harper has already ruled out Canadian military action in Syria, without consulting Parliament.)
It is a remarkable turnaround for a President who previously declared himself convinced that Assad needs to be punished and has already positioned aircraft carriers, submarines and various other military assets within striking range of Syria. Obama didn’t feel the need to solicit congressional support prior to his 2011 Libyan bombing campaign. Why now?
Obama’s critics claim his new stance inappropriately politicizes a situation that ought to be decided on moral terms. It’s certainly true that in asking for congressional approval, Obama has insulated himself from blame for whatever happens next. And yet these recent appeals for political and public approval ahead of military action in both Britain and the United States should be seen as a welcome development. It may even herald a new era of foreign interventions around the world.
There’s no question the Assad regime is a dirty piece of work. And the use of chemical weapons, particularly against women and children, requires some sort of international reply. But military action is a grim, uncertain business that requires serious consideration of the reasons for getting involved, the objectives to be achieved and the likely repercussions to follow. Further complicating the situation are the murky facts of Syria. Upwards of 100,000 people have already died in the civil war without any international intervention. Why should a single attack that left perhaps 1,400 dead change things so dramatically? It’s entirely possible a surgical air strike against Assad’s regime could simply propel al-Qaeda into control of Syria ? a cure worse than the disease.
“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy,” Sir Winston Churchill once said. “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” Given the host of consequences that arose from earlier adventures in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent memory, careful contemplation prior to bombing Syria seems like a good idea. If that requires consulting Parliament or Congress, so be it. Deadly force should never be impetuous or arbitrary.
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