2P or Not to 2P: That Is the Question

To intervene, or not to intervene. That was not the question that British MPs answered in August. Defenders of dictators across the world have made non-intervention a point of alleged principle. It camouflages their record of callous disregard of the suffering of populations at the hands of thugs who invoke "anti-imperialist" rhetoric to cover their murders. But on the other hand, some proponents of intervention could clearly not give a flying fornication about the suffering of Syrian civilians.

However, the real question should be 2P or not to 2P. To protect or not. There is overwhelming moral and legal justification for international action to stop the murderous activities of the Syrian regime. UN members voted unanimously to accept the principle of "Responsibility to Protect" -- R2P -- even if far too many have since pretended they were only kidding. However, while is there plenty of scope for uneasy consciences as the world has stood by and watched the regime's depredations, we must beware of would-be brain surgeons carrying sledgehammers, whose motives and methods are equally dubious.

Even the better-intentioned often seem to be in the "something must be done" school of politics, sending a political message to domestic constituencies. Obama has put himself in that camp, committing himself to "punish" Assad, with no clear outcome to the action except defiance of the United Nations and the rule of the very international law which we invokes against Damascus, as well as risking the devastation that the Iraq war and its aftermath wreaked.

In doing so, Obama implicitly joins the Neocon ideologues who want "action" and punitive bombing because they want to send a "signal" to Iran and a message of support to Israel. Reading their rants, some of them hardly think an excuse is necessary to bomb Arabs or Muslims to send a message to their own demons. Indeed it is nastily reminiscent of Israeli intervention.

There have been comparisons with Kosovo -- but the key intervention there was not the bombing campaign, which was conducted from high altitude to allow Clinton to show that he was "doing something" while not risking the domestic fallout from shot-down USAF pilots. It was the threat of ground forces moving in caused Milosevic to run up the white flag immediately. The months of bombing were militarily useless and politically counterproductive.

It is sad that in this tragedy, the victims, the Syrian people, hardly appear. Many of the public who oppose action would probably oppose any action to rescue a bunch of foreigners in some faraway land of which they know little. Indeed, some of the more vociferous opponents of intervention have a gruesome track record of overt or implicit support for every murdering tyrant in recent history, and like ghosts of the Comintern support every position that Putin comes up with.

In this case, someone definitely used chemical weapons, but the rush to bypass the UN inspection suggests that the case is not as clear-cut as, for example ,Saddam's use of chemical weapons which the West had in the past condoned and covered up. There are indeed international conventions against chemical weapons, but morally, killing so many innocent people, whether with cluster munitions, as still issued to the U.S. military, phosphorus, as used in Gaza, or napalm, is equally reprehensible and such actions are surely covered by the Responsibility to Protect doctrine adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly.

As Blair and Bush so graphically demonstrated, the principle of humanitarian intervention is uniquely susceptible to partisan interpretation, which is why it has to be applied so cautiously. Not least is the lack of moral standing of the powers that are pushing for bombing. Sadly, the Syrian people are victims not only of Assad's ruthless reluctance to cede power but also of a long concatenation of disastrous diplomatic decisions by the U.S. and West. Russia's stance is, if not excusable, understandable in the context of constant American snubs to Moscow. But Moscow's support for Assad is every bit as indefensible as the U.S.'s unqualified support for Israel, which poisons every diplomatic initiative in the region. In particular, the U.S. now disdains the UN's Uniting For Peace procedure under which the Korean War was fought, for the simple reason that the Palestinians have used it to bypass the automatic American veto in support of Israel.

The Israel connection also stops Washington dealing rationally with Tehran which, for example, was happy to cooperate with the "Great Satan" rationally in Afghanistan. As victims of (Western-backed) chemical attacks even the Iranians might be open to reconsider. Above all, the Israeli connection should give pause to any U.S. involvement in military intervention. Technically, the U.S. might have the military resources, but its decades-long record shows that it is not ideologically or politically equipped to meddle directly in Arab or Muslim affairs.

It is not enough to shout "no to intervention." Certainly "no" to a flagrantly illegal and ineffective form of intervention by dubiously credentialed and motivated actors with a recidivist history of disastrously partisan activity in the region. But nor is it enough to bleat about diplomacy -- clearly only credible military threat with at least the potential for regime change, would bring Assad to any acceptable negotiations.

In this dire landscape, Cameron's defeat is a ray of hope, as well as an interesting example of the "for want of a nail, the battle was lost" syndrome. Because the reviled unions put the "wrong" Milliband in the leadership of the party, the one who was not prepared to throw the UN overboard when it did not suit Washington's ends, Cameron lost the vote. That defeat deprived Obama of the international amen chorus for unilateral action. That is almost certainly a good thing.

If and when the UN Inspectors return a report implicating the regime in chemical warfare, it offers a diplomatic weapon for use by any UN members genuinely concerned. Members of the Security Council, like Britain and France should bring the issue to the Council -- and tell both Moscow and Washington that, Israeli concerns notwithstanding, they will take the issue to the General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace procedure if Russia uses its veto.

Since Putin's stance is as much about face as love for Assad, the prospect of a resounding defeat in the court of world opinion might make him more amenable to joint action. As victims of (Western-backed) chemical attacks, even the Iranians might be open to reconsider. Treating rationally with Iran, Turkey and Russia, and dealing equally firmly with the Gulf supporters of Salafist terror, is necessary for a reasonable outcome. The British Parliament's Declaration of Independence, backed by other countries, could give Obama the political cover he needs to face off the Neocons and the Israel lobby for ill-considered intervention and yet build some support from traditionally isolationist Americans that some judiciously considered investment in a Syria solution might be necessary.