President Obama’s announcement on Saturday that he stands ready – before U.N. weapons inspectors report on their findings but contingent on Congressional consultation – to initiate military action against the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus two weeks ago, has received mixed reactions both in the US and further afield.
The US domestic politics are complex. House and Senate Representatives have broadly applauded the President for his decision to consult Congress before taking further action – something which both his Democratic and Republican predecessors in the White House have, more often than not, opted against when faced with similar choices over military action. Others have been more hesitant, raising questions about the potential limitations this may impose on future Presidents in their role as Commander-in-Chief, and have called for more immediate and decisive action by the Obama Administration.
Interestingly, the British Parliamentary vote last week has, it seems, played some role in the debate. Although the Parliamentary consultation ultimately knocked a key US partner out of the equation, the British example has been cited by some unlikely sources in Congress as the model the US should be following in this decision-making process (see Texas Republican Ted Cruz’s Twitter feed last week, which showed a photo of the Parliamentary debate set next to a photo of an empty Senate floor with the comment: “unacceptable”).
Political caucus lines, usually so stark in US domestic and social policy debate, are uncharacteristically blurred on the question of what action to take on Syria. Both Democrats and Republicans are split within their parties between supporting and opposing military action. A number of prominent Democrats strongly favour military intervention, both as a means of upholding international norms around chemical weapons use and as a demonstration of humanitarian responsibility. Other liberal Democrats (primarily the anti-war Left) are finding themselves in step with Tea Partiers (who are generally seen to be to the far right of the political spectrum – “Libertarians” in the traditional sense, seeking a dramatically reduced role of government in public affairs) in having pressed for Congressional consultation but also believing – albeit for different reasons – that military intervention is not the right course of action.
Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has called for briefings in the Senate this week, with a comprehensive vote on the President’s initiative due to take place during the week of 9th September when both the House and Senate return from recess. At the moment there is no clear indication which way Congress will vote – there is also speculation as to whether the President will even adhere to the outcome.
Messages continue to be mixed around the objectives of military intervention, drawing blurred lines between responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the humanitarian responsibility of the international community to prevent further civilian bloodshed (Foreign Affairs has a useful and accessible article highlighting the distinction between the two). This push and pull likely indicates a reflection on past policy mistakes made both in response to humanitarian crises (think Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia, where western governments were slow to respond) and in previous decisions to take military action (most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, where unclear objectives and initial talk of quick strike action resulted in prolonged military engagement with no clear exit strategy and an ever-more complex relationship with the Middle East region).
Despite the doomsayers, the impact on the UK-US “Special Relationship” of the UK Parliamentary decision last week not to support military intervention in Syria is questionable. Some have interpreted it as the UK poking a stick in the eye of the Obama Administration. But this was not a considered and deliberate state-to-state foreign policy message. Rather, it was a demonstration of the British public and their parliamentary representatives exercising their democratic powers and actively engaging in their country’s foreign policy decision-making. Some argue that the outcome of the vote was a direct reaction to the Blair government’s handling of decisions around the Iraq war, and a resulting mistrust which is now preventing the government from taking meaningful policy decisions in areas where we have a responsibility to act. Others interpret it as British policy-shapers taking lessons from past mistakes.
Either way, calling this the end of the Special Relationship as we know it is short sighted. If the relationship were so fragile that it would break over differences around a single decision, it would have crumbled long ago. There are wider interests at stake. Yes, there will undoubtedly be frustration within the White House at the Parliamentary vote. Obama made clear in his speech that he doesn’t “expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made”. But he also indicated some appreciation for the nuances, stressing that “privately we’ve heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action”. And indeed a press release by Downing Street on 30th August indicates that Cameron has made clear to Obama “that he strongly believes in the need for a tough and robust response” during a call between the two leaders.
This is not a question of responding or not responding to events in Syria: the use of chemical weapons is unquestionably shocking and of major concern for the future. Syria is one of five countries (alongside Egypt, North Korea, Angola and South Sudan) not to have signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention (each with their own reasons). But with 188 signatories, the ban on the development and use of chemical weapons is now seen as a global norm which we have a responsibility to uphold. The question is rather how to respond. It is critical that the taboo against the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is strengthened. And there needs to be a robust response from the international community to any proven use. But such a response also needs to avoid further inflaming the situation and justifying future acts of atrocity. Military action is one tool in the box – not the end game. And it does not need to be our starting point. Rather, we should be asking ourselves which paths are open to us which will provide an effective and lasting response, not only to the crisis but to the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons more broadly.
The Iranian reactions to the allegations of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons are interesting. As Syria’s closest traditional ally in the region, Iran has stood alongside Russia in opposing military intervention. But, as newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani highlighted during a Cabinet meeting last week, Iran is itself “a major victim of chemical weapons”, and is now “a pioneer of the campaign against such inhumane weapons”, strongly condemning their use. Rouhani’s Twitter feed provides a fascinating insight into the policy challenge his government is now facing; and the opportunities open to the West to engage Iran openly on how we might effectively squash any further use of chemical weapons in the region.
There is a role here for diplomatic initiatives to strengthen support across the region – including by engaging Iran – to get behind the norm against chemical weapons. It would be prudent to look beyond the immediate goal of reaction to and punishment for the latest atrocities and also keep sight of the longer term objectives: that is, preventing the future development and use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Building interlocking relationships in the region will not only be central to achieving that goal: they will be critical. Iran has potential to be a willing partner in this – but it will require looking beyond the short term agenda to take hold of those constructive opportunities. This could present an opportunity to engage Iran in a cooperative diplomacy agenda that they have, until now, stood largely alone in.
Of course, none of this is likely to put an immediate end to the bloodshed. But that is not the stated point of military intervention. The stated objective is to stop the use and prevent the future use of chemical weapons in Syria.
There will be a heavy impetus on the West to build these opportunities. And that will mean recognizing and strengthening relationships with regional influencers with an open and long-term view. If the goal is to develop not only a near-term solution to the crisis in Syria, but also to build longer-term support for initiatives such as a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the region, we will need to look not only at the immediate atrocity, but also show greater understanding of the bigger picture and our part in it.