Syria – The Times – Congress vote 9 Sep 2013

Syria The Times  – Congress vote.

The Syrian vote in the US Congress will produce outcomes far beyond a humiliated President and the visible decline of American power.


If Obama loses, this will be a watershed moment at least as important as 9/11.


The United States will, for the first time in nearly a hundred years, have chosen disengagement on a matter of international consequence. The decision of the British Parliament on xx August will be seen historically as a vote that led the way to a new mood of isolationism The era of active internationalism that has dominated international affairs since the end of the Second World war will be drawing to a close. We will have marked the precise watershed in our passage from a mono-polar world, which the West can dominate, to a multi-polar one in which it cannot – or will not choose – to act alone. Intervention in the domestic jurisdiction of another state with the intention of preserving the wider peace would, for all practical purposes have ended – save in places too small to matter to any of the emerging global powers.


And hurrah for that, many will say, given the mistakes we have made, the laws we have sometimes broken and the blood we have spilt in pursuit so called “liberal interventionism”.


Up to a point Lord Copper. Up to a point.


It is futile to rake again over all the arguments of the last few weeks. What happens next, is now far more important than how we got here. But one point is worth remaking – our repeated propensity to look at the next war through the prism of the last one. Our failure to intervene in a timely manner in Bosnia was haunted by the over-hang of Vietnam and Somalia. Our failure to see the complexities of Iraq and Afghanistan sprang from blindness engendered by the easy successes of Bosnia and Sierra Leone. And now, because of the pain and failures in Baghdad and Kabul, our failure to understand that the right answer to our present predicament is not, never again intervention – but never again intervention like that!


We are moving into a world more turbulent, unpredictable, conflict ridden and fractured than at any time in the last half century. If now we are to abandon the will and fail to find the new means to intervene successfully where it is legal, possible and sensible, then that turbulence will only get worse at a time when, to paraphrase Yeats great poem “The Second Coming”, the best seem to lack all conviction and the worst burn with passionate intensity.


This is not to return to re-argue the proposition for action against Assad, or to seek to apportion blame. The Syrian case is finely balanced and has been badly handled. It is merely to note that, as important as the outcome of the argument, are its consequences. Nations which, will, in matters of security, now retreat away from multilateral solutions towards unilateral ones; and populations who, in this most inter-connected of worlds, think that nations like Syria, should be regarded as Neville Chamberlain’s regarded 1939 Czechoslovakia; just far-away countries of whom we need know nothing. If, as seems almost unavoidable, we are now to see a widening Middle Eastern religious war, then the consequences for us in this country will be imminent, real and painful – and all the more so if we are to see the commonplace usage of chemical and biological weapons.


Perhaps most grievous outcome of a decision not to act in Syria will be on the way we legitimise international action in future.


Up to now there have been two ways of doing this.


The first and much preferred is through a UN Security Council Resolution. But the West (and some others too, such as for instance Turkey) have accepted that there is pre-existing international law which has been enforced before the United Nations was born – the Geneva Convention is one example (used in the case of Kosovo) and the 1923 law outlawing the use of Chemical Weapons (a pillar of the proposal to act in Syria) is another. In the past a political road-block in the form of a veto on the Security Council did not make it impossible to act using these other provisions of international law. Now a veto, even if cast for purely political reasons, will be the end of the matter.


There will be many who welcome this too, for it asserts the primacy over all other law, of a decision of a Security Council.


But would the world really be a safer place if we were all held hostage to world politics, rather than adhering to international laws which have controlled the actions of nations since long before the UN was created?


Those who say it would might reflect on the case of Kosovo. There the West acted without a UN Security Resolution. One end effect was to strengthen international law and enable it to be developed. The Responsibility to Protect sprang directly out of the Kosovo action, where military action prevented a tyrant from abusing his citizens in ways which the world at large found abhorrent. If the West had been bound by paralysis in the UN Security Council, that country would still be under the heel of Milosevic and all the Albanians who lived there would have been driven out of their homes.


Would then the world really have been a safer place?