If Obama loses the Congress vote this week, both he and the West will have little credibility left to persuade Assad to stop killing his own people
This week President Obama, fresh from a fruitless gathering of the G20, will be campaigning hard to win Congress over to the idea of military action in Syria. His efforts follow on the heals of the disastrous vote in the UK Parliament – in which the Prime Minister was defeated on the most banal of motions against Assad – and mirror President Hollande’s attempts to persuade French legislators of the merits of intervention. The West, it seems, has decided that we cannot launch even the most limited war without a great deal of legislative jaw jaw.
The contours of the likely shape of the US debate have already been set – not least in the debacle that was our own “conversation” on Syria. An unholy alliance of the “anti-imperialist” Left and the libertarian Right will oppose intervention. They will deploy a range of apparently reasonable arguments – “we won’t win”, “civilians will die”, ‘there are no goodies in this fight’ – to mask the truth, that they share a vehement and deeply ideological resentment of any use whatsoever of Western state power overseas. For the Right this is because entanglements abroad cost money, distract priorities and help to grow “big Government”. Many on the Left are driven by a kind of deformed fashion statement, a trend that grew out of Vietnam and has lingered long after it should have been banished alongside flares, corduroy suits and the male perm. America is acting? Soldiers are being deployed? Then, for many on the Left, the knee-jerk reaction remains the suspension of normal morality and the waving of a placard – no matter how shameless a fascist the target of force.
Together these hardcore oppositionists – alongside those simply too frightened to stand up and make a moral case against those of their peers and constituents who demand inaction – have the whip hand. Two hundred Members of the House of Representatives have already indicated that they plan to vote against the President.
It didn’t have to be this way. President Obama has explicitly linked his decision to seek Congressional approval to David Cameron’s own dark night of the soul over Syria. US Presidents and British Prime Ministers are historically, constitutionally, able to take military action (especially the kind of limited attacks being discussed) without the pre-approval of legislators. That both have chosen not to – that both have outsourced their final decision – is both an anomaly and a warning to us all.
Many have talked, in reference to our Syrian debacle, about the ghosts of Iraq. Blair – as Jesse Norman claims – hovered over the UK’s debate on Syrian intervention and in the end his toxic legacy pushed many to vote against David Cameron. True, in part. But the real crime committed by Blair was not a crime of war but a crime of precedent. In trying to protect himself from political reality and the norms of history – in order to ensure that he would not, in fact, live or die by his decision on Iraq – Blair sought political cover via a Parliamentary vote. He won. But, in the end, Britain’s ability to play an effective role on the global stage lost. Because it is now almost impossible to imagine a controversial war in Britain’s national interest being fought without first seeking the consent of MPs. As Richard Spencer has pointed out, the quality of last week’s debate does not fill one with confidence in Parliament’s ability to take on this new burden.
It is not that Parliamentarians are too stupid. Nor that they are failing to represent their constituents. It is the reverse. No right-minded voter chooses war. Spending money, spending blood – these are terrible costs. If asked whether we should avoid paying that price the only decent instinctive answer is, surely, ‘of course’. But while public opinion – as refracted through Parliament – is important, it cannot be decisive. The urgency, complexity and long-term repercussions of war (and of deciding to pursue peace at any cost) make it a decision – in the first instance – for Governments not for Parliaments. This is an insight that was understood within our unwritten constitution right up until the day that Blair ducked the nature of his office and asked MP’s to lend him protection from the consequences of his war.
And Obama, in a shameful display of tactical maneuvering trumping strategic planning, has followed suit. He too has voluntarily surrendered the privileges and responsibilities of his office – all so that any blame, further down the line, can be shared between the many rather than accepted by him.
If he loses the vote – as still seems the most likely outcome – Obama will have thrown away the opportunity to assist the people of Syria as they are gassed and their nation gutted. Like Britain, he will be compelled to sit and watch as 100,000 becomes 200,000 and as desperation and despair take hold. The West will have no real credibility as it beseeches Assad to stop killing. We will be talking quietly having already abandoned whatever big stick we might once have had. The result will be dead children, yes. It will also be emboldened tyrants and tin pot dictators the world over, watching with a gleam in their eye as Western governments one by one concede defeat in the global battle for decency. We will all be a little less safe thanks, directly, to our impotence in the face of Assad’s atrocities.
By volunteering away their vital, terrible executive responsibilities on war and peace Western governments are letting down the innocent and the victimised in Syria. But they are also letting down all of us – their own citizens – by helping to fashion a world in which there are no rules and no-one is ever coming to help. Frightened and frozen, our leaders have chosen not to lead. We will regret their cowardice in years to come.