In contrast to the tragic victims of the chemical weapons used in Syria last week, the fallout in London and Washington has been primarily political. In the wake of the attack, David Cameron and Barack Obama appear as compromised and vacillating respectively. Were the stakes and human costs not so high, one could be forgiven for thinking Rufus T Firefly had assumed control of both US and British foreign policy.
There are two specific points that we would like to make. First, while the notion of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) may have gained some traction in international relations since 2005, the course of action being suggested by Mr Obama has very little to do with acting on that doctrine. Second, a foreign policy guided by realist prudence is preferable, by far, to the muddled confusion currently emanating from Downing Street and the White House.
The essence of the R2P doctrine is simple: when a sovereign state fails to prevent atrocities, foreign governments may intervene to stop them. Debate amongst policy makers and academics about R2P centres on whether it is a much needed code of conduct or a doctrine that lends itself to convenient abuse by those who would use it to justify their intervention in another state’s domestic affairs. Consider that Russia invoked the doctrine as it attacked Georgia in 2008.
The proposed surgical strikes do not meet the requirements of R2P. It is doubtful that such limited engagement will protect Syrians from further attacks. Consider the actions that had to be taken back in 2011 to protect civilians in Benghazi and contrast them with the paltry gesture being discussed in the corridors of power at present. The scepticism that is being reported amongst members of the US Congress is therefore hardly surprising.
At best the impact of such a limited strike will be minimal. As the US commentator Fareed Zakaria put it at the weekend, the Assad regime would likely hunker down, take it, and move on. At worst an intervention now could embolden the regime. It would certainly drive a further wedge between the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council, and for what? If the motivating factor was R2P then a simple question arises. Why now? Tens of thousands have died in the Syrian conflict to date and the notion that the use of chemical weapons to do the killing, as opposed to conventional weaponry, is a game-changing element remains specious.
Far from a serious commitment to the R2P doctrine the discourse of the key players – including Mr Obama, Mr Cameron, Mr Hollande, and Mr Kerry – has emphasised punishment. Undoubtedly, with images of burned and scored victims filling screens, politicians feel the need to be seen to be doing something, anything, in response. But there is no Responsibility to Punish doctrine and to engage in military action on that basis is highly questionable both legally and, given that it would likely pile more deaths upon existing deaths, ethically.
Beyond a seeming Responsibility to Punish is detectable a Responsibility to Save Face.
Realism, one of the longest-standing approaches to the study of international affairs, presents an alternative to this knee-jerk, response-driven “policy”. The mistake of western foreign policy elites was the failure to demonstrate incontrovertibly who was responsible for the gas attack. Recent history in Iraq has demonstrated the requirement to establish the facts regarding the presence or use of such deadly material.
Acting precipitously in relation to the attack, without establishing beyond doubt the guilt of the Assad regime, has simply exacerbated existing tensions within the international community. It is all too easy for president Bashir al Assad to deny responsibility and to claim that those responsible were the “terrorists” that threaten his position, and thereby divide international opinion and scupper support for any possible sanction.
The rush to judgment without recourse to absolutely convincing evidence has occurred without asking the most fundamental question asked by any Realist – cui bono? Or, who actually benefited from the attack? Why would Mr Assad use these weapons, and why now?
It would be a remarkably stupid move for Mr Assad for several reasons: firstly, since Hezbollah’s intervention the civil war has, if anything, swung in his favour, so tactically there would be nothing to be gained from the use of gas. At the strategic level, given the US red line, their use would almost guarantee an intervention that would lead to a much more difficult, and probably mortal, endgame for Mr Assad and his allies.
The only argument that could be employed to demonstrate a motive for Mr Assad to use chemical weapons is that he wished to cow his opponents by terrorising them with weapons indiscriminate in nature and terrible in their effects. But these are weapons that cannot distinguish Assad loyalists from rebels and offer the prospect of unpredictable political results for a regime that depends on a complex series of alliances for its survival.
In their increasingly desperate situation, and with the promise of US intervention in the event of the use of chemical and biological weapons, the Syrian rebels – some of whom have engaged in cannibalism in the pursuit of their agenda – are at least as likely suspects in this attack as Mr Assad. In the absence of incontrovertible evidence, Britain, the US, and their allies have to wait until guilt has been established or there is reliable intelligence that Mr Assad’s regime (or the rebels) are about to launch an immediate attack using similar means. In moments of doubt, cautious political calculation is a requirement of international relations.
Foreign policy elites are employed to look beyond headlines to ask more searching questions, and not to act unless they are certain of what they a) want to achieve b) how they want to achieve it and c) how they can convince a critical mass of the other members of international society that they are correct and justified in their punitive actions.
Mr Cameron and Mr Obama, on this occasion, have failed all three tests for realistic and effective action in foreign policy. This became clear in the House of Commons last week, as Mr Cameron struggled to articulate a national interest and, more alarmingly, failed to identify either a definite purpose for intervention or a wider end game for any strike. That Mr Cameron should fail to grasp the basics of foreign policy is not a surprise. That Mr Obama – who cites the Realist Reinhold Niebuhr as his favourite thinker – should be similarly at a loss is perhaps more unexpected.
The US President has rhetorically entrapped himself by references to red lines and has allowed expectations to get ahead of his preferences. But firing a few missiles in a tokenistic gesture designed to restore US credibility, and/or symbolically punish the Syrian regime, is not an ethical foreign policy. Far from it, it is a muddled reaction to events to give the appearance of command, but which has had precisely the opposite effect. A dose of realist prudence is sorely needed.
Time to return to Niebuhr, Mr President.
• Daniel Kenealy is deputy director and lecturer in international relations at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government; Seán Molloy is reader in international relations at the University of Kent