Syria: Between Sarajevo and Baghdad

Thucydides, the great-great grandfather of unforgiving International Relations, once said, “The strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept”.  British Foreign Secretary Hague’s announcement last week in Parliament that Britain will send armored vehicles and bullet-proof vests to support the Syrian National Coalition came just at the moment when the UN declared one million Syrians refugees.  The level of human suffering in that benighted country is now biblical in its proportions.  In a twist of fate the decision comes almost ten years to the day British troops joined US and other coalition forces in the March 2003 Iraq invasion which rent the international community asunder.  Just how far has humanitarian interventionism come in those ten years? 

Humanitarian interventionism goes back to the end of the Cold War.  It was a brief moment in history which reached its zenith in 2001 when two contrasting ‘evangelical champions’ came together to form an unlikely alliance between an American conservative and a British social democrat–George W. Bush and Tony Blair.  Bush was at war fighting Al Qaeda; Blair believed deeply in Just War.

The Americans wanted to eradicate ‘AQ’ which to many on the Washington right would be only achieved by ‘modernizing’ the Middle East after America’s image.  A mission that was in no small way linked to the security of Israel.  Blair was haunted by the tragedies of the 1990s in the Balkans and Rwanda in which millions perished for want of action. 

At America’s brief unipolar moment the judicious use of force made everything seem possible.  In 1995 the US had finally led NATO to end the Bosnian Serb assault on the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and in 1999 Blair successfully persuaded US President Bill Clinton to force the Serb military out of Kosovo.  Finally, in 2000 Blair ordered Britain’s armed forces to intervene in Sierra Leone to prevent a genocidal massacre in its capital Freetown.  The blueprint for humanitarian interventionism was established.

Come 9/11 American power, Bush’s war, and Blair’s creed came together as neo-conservatism met humanitarianism.  First came Afghanistan in November 2001 when the two creeds deployed side-by-side.  The Americans led the robust counter-terrorism whilst Europeans sought hearts and minds.  Then came Iraq.  The 2003 invasion not only split Europe down the middle and diverted effort from Afghanistan but forced Blair and Britain to make a terrible choice between war-fighting America  and peacekeeping Europe. 

In fact there were deep differences between Bush and Blair.  An exchange I had at the time with Richard Perle in the International Herald Tribune reflected the tension.  Perle suggested that Iraq was just the beginning of US efforts to transform the Middle East with Iran the one-day objective.  The UK would be willing to support the US over the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, I countered, but London would never support some wider American ‘crusade.’

With bucket-loads of hindsight what became Blair’s tragedy is now Syria’s.  To bridge the immense political gulf between Bush and Blair, London had to find some ‘legal’ justification to make the Iraq invasion ‘just’ – hence the Europe-splitting controversy over UN-mandate.  For Blair only a Saddam that posed a very real and present danger could possibly bridge the ideological divide between Bush, Blair, and skeptical European public opinion. 

In effect Blair placed the entire future legitimacy of Western interventions on the existence of Iraqi WMD.  The subsequent failure to find any WMD in effect destroyed not only Blair but the very cause of humanitarian interventionism that he had championed and which still has much to commend it.  Worse, the Iraq disaster critically undermined belief that Afghanistan could be stabilized amongst many of America’s closest allies and impressed upon the West’s adversaries a sudden vulnerability.  That vulnerability has now been compounded by economic disaster and a widespread and exaggerated belief that the West is in terminal decline. 

Yes, small-scale interventions have been tried since in Libya and now Mali, but none of them have anything like the Responsibility to Protect ambition that grew out of the the Balkan and Rwandan tragedies.  They are more strike, hope, and withdraw operations and as likely to lead to one set of monsters replacing another than offer any real hope to ravaged peoples.

Ten years on from Iraq the British decision must be seen it that light.  A genuine but half-hearted attempt to offer a little support to a brutalized people that is far too little, far, far too late.  Tragically,  in its half-heartedness such ‘intervention’ becomes non-intervention.  It also effectively marks the grave of Blair’s humanitarian interventionism. 

So, the strong will do what they always do and the weak will suffer what they always suffer whilst the declining will wring their collective hands and feign strength, as they have always done.

How far has interventionism come?  It has come as far as Syria but is now trapped on the rocky, grave-pitted road between Sarajevo and Baghdad.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Image: Homs%20Syria%20Reuters.jpg