Well, this is embarrassing – for the White House. For months now, President Barack Obama has insisted that his deep reluctance for the US military to become directly involved in the Syrian civil war would be radically revised (“a game changer”) if government forces used any of their stockpile of chemical weapons against the rebels.
Now – at least according to the British and French governments – this has actually happened, with the Sarin nerve gas being used in an attack on rebel bunkers near Aleppo. Perennially interventionist hawks, such as Obama’s first presidential election opponent Senator John McCain, have naturally raised the question: if not now, when?
The answer, of course, is: never. The reason Obama beat Hillary Clinton to the Democrat nomination back in 2008 was that he, unlike her, had opposed the invasion of Iraq, an intervention which had been based on the argument that Saddam Hussein had access to chemical and biological weapons. A deeply cautious politician in every respect except rhetoric, Obama is adamant that he will not be a President who sinks trillions more dollars (and an indeterminate number of lives) in Middle Eastern military escapades – or at least not unless America’s most vital strategic interests are challenged.
In fact, as Senator for Illinois, Obama had supported the invasion of Afghanistan. This campaign was supposed to remove the Taliban from power (and even the prospect of power) in that country – a project which seemed trivially achievable for the world’s only military super-power, backed by the armed forces of every other Western nation and with the full authority of the UN.
Here’s an update on that, after more than a decade of fighting: earlier this month President Hamid Karzai said that the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, would be free to run for the presidency of Afghanistan in its elections next year. This is the same Mullah Omar who gave Osama bin Laden the necessary shelter and protection while the former al-Qa’ida leader planned his assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Indeed, it is the same Mullah Omar who in January 2002 Karzai had said was “under siege and surrounded” and would be “delivered to the US” to stand trial. That month, Omar managed to escape the allegedly encircling troops in Helmand and fled across the border, alone, on a motorbike. Now, long back in his own country, the world’s most famous one-eyed mullah could well have the last laugh (assuming he does not regard humour as too decadent to indulge in).
Those of still longer memories will not need reminding that the Afghan Mujahideen had originally been financed and armed by none other than the US government, as a means of ensuring the military defeat of the Moscow-backed government in Kabul of Mohammed Najibullah. No wonder that Obama (a keen student of history) is so reluctant to arm the rebels against the Russian-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad, given that the cutting edge of the opposition fighters comprise jihadists for whom Western-style democracy is no more an objective than it is for the murderous first family of Syria. A proxy war with Russia in the Middle East (again) would be the result – and if that is what is wanted, those in favour should say so openly.
There are alternative forms of military intervention to flooding the area with additional weaponry: the one most favoured by Senator McCain is the implantation of a “no-fly zone” – to keep Syrian jets grounded and therefore unable to attack the rebel forces, wherever they might be. McCain is no mere armchair warrior – he was a USAF pilot during the Vietnam war, and, having been brought down, captured and tortured by the Viet Cong, is under no illusions about the risks involved in such an operation.
Nonetheless, the risks in this case are of the highest order: this would be utterly unlike the UN backed no-fly zone used against the late President Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Gaddafi’s forces had already been all but corralled in one small part of that vast country – and his air defence systems were antiquated, at best. By contrast, Assad’s anti-aircraft system is described by intelligence planners in Washington as “one of the most advanced and concentrated on the planet”. A few years ago, the Russians began upgrading Syria’s surface-to-air missile systems which are now highly mobile and fully digitalised. The regime also has the heavy-duty SA-5 missile, with an operational range of 175 miles – and thus is able to hit US planes taking off from Cyprus, the Nato base used in the Libyan campaign.
Obviously none of this amounts to a moral argument against so-called humanitarian intervention; but it does help to explain why the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, has warned repeatedly how the operation of a no-fly zone over Syria would have every prospect of escalating into what would amount to a full-scale war. This view was apparently backed up by Britain’s most senior military figure, General Sir David Richards, who was reported by The Sunday Times to have told the Prime Minister that “ Even to set up a humanitarian safe area would be a major military operation... In Syria, we would have to be prepared to go to war.” Are we? I say “we” because in a democracy the cost and loss of lives potentially involved in such an operation requires the support of voters and taxpayers: such support cannot just be presumed.
The theory of humanitarian intervention (as distinct from military actions justified purely in the national interest) was set out with characteristic clarity back in Britain’s imperial heyday by John Stuart Mill. In A Few Words On Non-Intervention, the Liberal philosopher observed: “When the contest is only with native rulers, and with such native strength as those rulers can enlist in their defence, the answer I should give to the question of the legitimacy of intervention is, as a general rule, No. The reason is that there can seldom be anything approaching to assurance that intervention, even if successful, would be for the good of the people themselves... The liberty which is bestowed on them by hands other than their own will have nothing real, nothing permanent.”
Mill might not have anticipated the destructive power of the weaponry which the Syrian regime of the Assad family could bring to bear against its own people; but his general argument is one that Barack Obama is wise to heed.