The ruling classes of the Western powers are in turmoil over military intervention in Syria. The British and French governments have spent months lobbying US president Barack Obama to lead a military strike on Syria. But now prime minister David Cameron has lost the vote in the British parliament. His previous belligerence just compounds the humiliation. His authority is weakened on the international stage, at home and in his own party.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg summed up the debate for the coalition government. His party was already doomed as an electoral force, but becoming a pro-war party will seal its fate in the next election and potentially long after. Labour leader Ed Miliband’s last minute withdrawal of support for the intervention has given him a much needed boost in the polls. After a disastrous summer Labour figures were questioning his leadership.
Now recriminations are flying. The Tories say Miliband proved he isn’t prime minister material by opposing a government motion on war. But they are also fighting each other. One Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, declared he was glad Britain had lost its “imperial pretensions”. But others take a “little Englander” view and don’t believe the suffering of millions of Syrians is their concern.
Many other MPs had been forced to acknowledge that the anti-war movement’s predictions over Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be true. Once Cameron withdrew from the drive to war, Obama postponed imminent US airstrikes. He will now go to Congress on 9 September to try and win backing for attacks.
All the talk is of a single, contained strike. But Syria is backed by Russia and Iran. Its potential to retaliate is very different from Libya. And our rulers have learned the dangers of escalation from Vietnam (see below).
It is also harder to convince people about any “humanitarian” intervention after Afghanistan, which was also spun as a limited intervention in a “just” war. It is one of the most impoverished countries in the world and is now in a much worse state than before the West invaded.
Western politicians claim we must do something after the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But Obama and Cameron are not intervening on behalf of those suffering under a dictator. They were happy to work with Bashar al-Assad when he assisted with the West’s rendition of prisoners. They want to show they can shape the world order and use military might to impose their will. They are worried that the popular revolutions could challenge their power in the region.
After last week our rulers are less confident about going to war—they are weakened on every front. They say the country is broke so we have to suffer years of austerity but they always find money for war. While Western governments are in disarray that’s an opportunity for our side.
Escalation in Vietnam war
Even some in the military establishment have doubts about intervention because they know long wars often begin with plans for only limited action. US involvement in Vietnam began with a limited deployment of “military advisers” after the French colonialists were kicked out in 1954.
But this escalated into a full military conflict with over a million Vietnamese and 58,220 US military killed. The battered superpower withdrew its combat troops in 1973, and the intervention ended in humiliation as US officials were evacuated by helicopter from the embassy roof in 1975.