Mr Obama made a speech about Syria. You don’t need me to tell you what he said because the speech is short and the words are clear and it takes only a few minutes to read. For example:
Of course that won’t stop all the explaining from people who are paid a lot of money to tell us what he meant and why the speech is either a masterstroke or incredibly dumb. People who can’t be bothered to read the man’s own words will read many more of commentary that is nothing more than chatter.
Maybe he just meant what he said; that he didn’t want to interfere in the region as it works through its own agonizing political development (let’s face it, there’s little to choose between Assad and Al Qaeda) but leaders who use chemical warfare have to be punished, or else that will become a normal response for any threatened regime. Obama also said you can’t put a timeline on that response, that it should aim to take away or reduce the ability of the criminals concerned to repeat their crime, and that he wasn’t going to wait for the UN to give its approval because so far it has been useless in this crisis. What’s to disagree with?
I’m sure the President knows where the bomb factories are and whether they are right now stuffed full of hostages with all the nasty stuff moved elsewhere. That situation can’t continue if the Assad clan want to make more poisons, so it would seem that if you are more interested in a positive outcome than making an empty gesture you should choose the right moment to do it (though obviously a 48 hour response in time for the evening news works better for the broadcasters).
Now we have the same dreary and discredited “experts” raking over the fortunes of David Cameron in the UK after he called and lost a vote on whether the UK should authorise a military response of its own. What a political miscalculation, we are told, to give way to his democratic instincts and allow parliament a vote.
Obama is right to say he will act without the UN, and Cameron was right to offer a vote, but wrong to recommend military action (so the Prime Minister gets a B+ in spite of all). In fact, elected leaders do tend to act with sincerity at such times, perhaps over mindful that history will judge them on these moments. Cameron succumbing to democracy will be remembered more favourably than Blair resorting to dirty tricks to stay best friends with George Bush.
But why was it right for UK to reject using force and right for USA to consider it? Well, doctors have a rule about not acting until they can be reasonably sure of not just making things worse; and politicians should do the same. The USA, with its military and intelligence assets, has a chance to destroy or at least damage sarin production or deployment. The UK doesn’t have that capability – all it could do is kill some people to express its disapproval. More useful to use its energy arguing for the UN to take some responsibility than to line up behind the USA in a cheerleading role.
The problem for the UK is that in these situations, our leaders always see the choices in terms of the contrast between Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. They want to be remembered as the man who said “We shall never surrender” rather than the fool who came back with Hitler’s signature on a scrap of paper, announcing “Peace in our time” as if every potential conflict is a re-run of WWII. That’s why there have been very few wars anywhere in the world since that time without UK participation.
The same split national identity that existed 1939-45 persists now. We simultaneously believe ourselves a Great Power (look how many Olympic medals we have) and plucky little Britons standing up for what’s right despite being surrounded by more powerful and hostile forces.
Both images are myths, but the second is closest to the truth. It finds its most powerful expression in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, conceived in wartime, where the role of the Hobbits (the English middle class and its erstwhile rustic servants like Sam Gamgee, who certainly know their place) is to endure; to stubbornly resist the evil that threatens to overwhelm their world, while more potent allies do the great deeds. As The Two Towers has it:
Maybe Treebeard’s right. We don’t belong
here, Merry. It’s too big for us. What
can we do in the end? We’ve got the
Shire. Maybe we should go home.
[Looking into the distance.] The fires
of Isengard will spread. And the woods
of Tuckborough and Buckland will burn.
And all that was once green and good
in this world will be gone.
There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.
This isn’t an argument for isolationism, it’s an argument for doing what you can usefully do.