In Defence of Hawkish Behaviour

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In A Tale of Two Cities, the reader learns to loathe a character called Sydney Carton[i]. He is just about the most rude, greasily insidious character imaginable, and ipso facto, he plays the role of the novel’s villain. However, while being the target of a few hundred pages of contempt, old Sydney Carton performs the most heroic and benevolent act in the whole book, in the form of vicarious sacrifice. The point of this (other than to play with the reader’s intuitions) is that an immoral agent can perform a moral action.

Consider the following; the United States of America led a coalition into a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003; they routinely violate Pakistan’s sovereignty with drone strikes, often at gross expense to civilian life; they send prisoners to be tortured at Guantanamo Bay and support an expansionist regime in Israel. It is probably fair to say that the US of the last ten years is not looking saintly.

Were any of these good reasons to oppose limited air strikes in Syria? I struggled to see why they would be, yet many people thought differently. They would argue that it is hypocritical of the US to condemn use of sarin gas in Syria[ii] while supporting an Israel that uses white phosphorus[iii]. Yes, that is hypocrisy, but such criticism is missing the point. Ask yourself, does a parent in Aleppo care about the US’ hypocrisy, or do they just want to know that their children will not burn in a chemical attack?

Of course, this does not absolve the US government of responsibility (or criticism) for reprehensible aspects of their foreign policy. But, more crucially in this debate, it does not constitute a good argument against a US military intervention as a response to the use of UN banned chemical weapons.

What of efficacy? Many people argued that limited air strikes in Syria would achieve little. They often mistakenly described this as simply “bombing Syria”, as if the nation itself or worse – its citizens, were the target, despite repeated assertions that the aim was to degrade Assad’s military[iv].

This is nonsense. Limited air strikes would have been effective in diminishing Assad’s military power and daring. Diplomatic measures failed, repeatedly, to tease Assad into compromise[v] – Assad even denied that he had chemical weapons[vi]. He denied them, that is, until he was faced with the terrifying prospect of a US military response, in which case he immediately admitted that he did in fact have chemical weapons after all (surprise surprise) and agreed to dispose of them[vii].

Here we see the immense power that a military can have – the mere threat of air strikes was enough to force Assad to firstly, be honest about his weapons stash, and secondly, to comply with UN regulations regarding prohibited weapons. If the US had performed air strikes on Assad’s military assets, it is quite plausible that Assad might have taken serious measures to negotiate a peace treaty with the opposition in Syria. This is how dictators work – you can only negotiate with them when they know they are militarily inferior; an Assad threatened by the US’ air force is an Assad willing to listen, an Assad unshackled by military intervention is free to do as he pleases.

There is a further argument that I think warrants consideration. We have all seen Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea, many critics of Obama have claimed that his inability to take action in Syria endowed Putin with the belief that he could act with impunity. One House Republican, notably, said “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles”[viii]. I am not sure that I am ready to commit wholly to this view – there was little Obama could have done to prevent Putin’s game of Risk in Ukraine, but it does raise an interesting question: why would Putin be afraid of a harsh White House response when they failed to deliver one against Assad for war crimes?

To conclude, I implore the reader to remember that I am neither supporting military intervention in all cases, nor justifying aggressive American foreign policy in all cases. Both of these things need to be analysed individually, such is their complexity. I am, however, claiming that, had the US gone ahead with limited military strikes in Syria, there would have been more than a shade of Sydney Carton in the Obama White House.