Syria and the Falklands
10:30 A. M.
The two precedents invoked concerning American unilateral military action against Syria are Iraq and Kosovo. Iraq shows just how bad things can go when the United States intervenes in the Middle East without sufficient cause (or, worse, as the result of a faked cause) and without sufficient international support to fall back on when the going gets rough. Kosovo shows how an intervention can make sense and repair at least a local situation. It sent a signal, along with the Dayton negotiations, that genocide was no longer an option on the European continent. It wasnít so much that the Serbians had no right to put down a rebellion; it was that they did it in a particularly cruel way.
There is another precedent that, as far as I am aware, has not been cited. It is the Falklands Island War that the British waged to recover the islands off the coast of Argentina that had been a subject of contention for two hundred years. Maggie Thatcher sent a fleet of ships that many people thought was just a bluff to cover up negotiations towards a diplomatic solution. But Secretary of State Alexander Haig, serving as an interlocutor friendly to the British, found that the Argentineans were adamant, and so when the British arrived, they attended to business, which included sinking an Argentinean troop ship, and invading the Islands from its icy west coast. They took casualties, plowed on, and won the day, recapturing the Islands, while the Argentinean government fell, to be replaced by a non-authoritarian one and so setting Argentina, finally, onto the road to modern democracy and putting a final end to Peron Fascism.
All told, it was quite an accomplishment for Thatcher. She had restored British sovereignty to a place where nominal sovereignty could have been passed on to the Argentines while control of the Islands remained with Britain. There could have been a Gibraltar like treaty signing and no casualties. Maybe that was what Haig had been plugging for. She had also burnished Britainís military reputation, something useful in a nation undergoing its own version of Jimmy Carterís malaise.
It should be remembered that Maggie Thatcher was at the time in a difficult domestic pickle. The Democratic Socialists in the Labor Party had just broken from the Stalinists who controlled the party and formed, with the Liberal Party, the Social Democrat Party, and they had a number of stellar figures and were thought in a position to win the next election because Thatcherís Tories had not performed all that well during her first term. The invasion of the Falklands stole the election from under them; they have settled in to being a minority party while Labor was reawakened as a centrist party by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Maggie wouldnít have had two more terms during which she could, among other things, push around George Bush I, and build herself a reputation on the by pursuing Reaganomics: cutting back on education and health services.
There are many parallels to the present Syrian crisis. There would be only a short intervention pursued only through air power. The intervention will say that the use of chemical weapons will be punished wherever the use takes place, even in the Middle East by Arabs against Arabs, and even if the Arab Street is not happy with the enterprise. Why should they have veto power over American action to restore a consensus about the abolition of chemical weapons that has lasted for a hundred years? Yes, both Assam and his father used chemical weapons against civilians. That shows this ruling family is rogue and needs to be punished not for the sake of punishment but in the service of barring this kind of warfare. (The use of defoliants by the United States in Vietnam may indeed have also crossed the line, but that was only one of the unacceptable things the United States did in Vietnam. It killed civilians the old fashioned way, through assassination via Operation Phoenix.)
I am surprised that American Liberals do not readily see the point of this. They were always claiming that Bill Clinton was too tardy in getting involved in humanitarian operations. As Cameron said in the House of Commons yesterday, Syria is different from Iraq because here nothing depends on secret information or on unarticulated motives. Nothing has to be taken on trust. The videos are there for everyone to see and the principle of drawing a line on chemical weapons is a very clear principle. Liberals should consider what it would mean if no action were taken and the use of chemical weapons became acceptable in conflicts everywhere in the world, whether in Chechnya or Nigeria or in London and Tokyo subways. Where is the line between terrorist tactics and normal tactics of war?
Liberals and most other people are just so traumatized by Iraq that they donít want to engage in any operation where the humanitarian or principled reason for it might be seen as an excuse for some deeper motive. Obama is still cleaning out the stable that Bush left mucked up when he left office. Obama has to make the United States credible in its foreign policy. He did not act precipitously in Egypt or Libya or with regard to Iran, and we are well rewarded by staying out of war in those places, however much we have contributed resources and money backed advice and seem to be negotiating Iran to a deal with which both sides can live. But sometimes you have to use an opportunity to say that we are still a dangerous player. Henry Kissinger did that when he used the Magasay incident in Cambodia in 1975 as a pretext for showing that the United States could still operate in Southeast Asia despite the then recent debacle in Vietnam.
Obama didnít create the chemical warfare incidents in Syria, even though he can take advantage of it and even though right wingers claim that only his big mouth, which drew the red line, is the reason for engaging in action in Syria because chemical weapons are no big deal. Well, they are a big deal, and even Republican legislators, who have remained remarkably quiet, are aware of that. The reason to be afraid of a Congressional debate over Syria is not because votes canít be corralled in favor of the Presidentís action; it is because during the debate some Republican members will say hugely irresponsible and undignified things about Obama and those remarks will come back to haunt them in the Congressional elections if Obamaís move in Syria is at all successful. You cannot count on Congress to conduct itself with the dignity and sense of mutual respect (at least on the big issues) that characterized the debate yesterday in the House of Commons. All small d democrats should be proud of that debate even though I would have hoped it had come out differently.
If the move on Syria isnít successful, which means if it doesnít gain popular support, then Obama and the Democrats are in hot water. But Obama has rolled the dice before, as when he went after Bin Laden. He has the mettle to do so again. The vote in the House of Commons means that Obama is now free to go ahead and do what he wants, perhaps even as soon as today. Nations can individually decide to enforce international norms. Israel did that with Eichmann and the French did that in Mali. The check on unilateral actions, those not sanctioned by large international bodies but only by coalitions of the willing, is whether such action seems to the world morally appropriate, and no one will say otherwise, not even the Arab League, however reluctant it is to call for the military action implied by its declaration that the Syrian atrocities took place and were reprehensible. And so Obama and the French, ever eager for a fight that they know they can win, will reap the rewards of the intervention. That includes the faint possibility of being there to help pick up the pieces should the Assad regime fall, which is not at all impossible given what happens to non-democratic regimes when they are pressured. The French want Syria back in their sphere of influence, which would not be a bad idea, bad actor that Syria and Lebanon both have been since receiving their ďindependenceĒ from France.