War Weary Europe The US Loses an Ally
The British parliament on Thursday blocked Prime Minister David Cameron's move to join the US in an air strike on Syria. The decision weakens Europe's standing against despots like Bashar Assad, who now know that Britain is no longer a reliable partner for the United States.
For United States President Barack Obama, this is a disaster. He's been left in the lurch by Britain, Washington's most loyal ally. What happened on Thursday in London was a historical decision. When it came to military deployments, the US and Britain were extremely reliable partners over at least the past two decades. Be it the first or second Iraq war or in Afghanistan, the two countries always fought at each other's side. Even when France and Britain rushed ahead into an air war against Libya and Washington's position appeared to be wavering, Obama ultimately joined the mission.
They were a well-oiled brotherhood of arms, and they remained so for years -- until, suddenly, a majority in the House of Commons voted against participation in a military strike against Syria.
What happened in Westminster on Thursday was more than just a setback for British Prime Minister David Cameron. The decision casts a Klieg light on Europe's weakness. Around the world, despots like Bashar Assad now know that even the determined British are no longer prepared to undertake just any old action Washington is planning. And this much is certain: The decision by the House of Commons will have an impact on the entire diplomatic framework in which the West is able to navigate in the future. That framework has been weakened and along with it all those in Europe who are offering cautious support for the military action.
Berlin Won't Participate, Paris Wavers
So who will step up this time to partner with Washington? For Berlin, participation was never a question. Regardless whether it has been under conservative or liberal rule, no German government has pushed on the military front -- and when it has participated in missions, those actions have been accompanied by intense national debates, as evidenced in Kosovo and Afghanistan. This time around Berlin has issued verbal salvoes against Assad and has announced together with Washington "consequences" in the event the use of chemical weapons is proved. But the German government is not interested in direct military participation in a strike against Syria.
Now attention is shifting to Paris -- a new phenomenon for Washington. France has always been a stubborn, wavering partner. The decisions by French presidents to intervene tend to be based on the country's own interests, as evidenced by France's recent decision to send troops to battle the Islamists in Mali. Nevertheless, it appears that French President François Hollande isn't prepared to turn his back quite so quickly on Obama following the British parliament's vote. And that is indeed a courageous move on the part of the Socialist Party president given that it has the potential to unleash a harsh reaction from the French left. Indeed, with the exception of a few representatives of the French intellectual community, international military deployments in the country have never been popular.
Doubts about Military Action
Britain's sudden, unexpected backing out shows that the doubts about military operations, which have been dominant on the Continent for years, have now reached the British coalition of Conservatives and Liberals. A considerable number of coalition lawmakers joined the opposition in the Thursday evening vote.
There is a reason for that. Britain was heavily involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering far more casualties than other European countries involved. In recent years, skepticism of such military adventures has grown in the UK among all parties.
It is an irony of history that it is now Obama who is leading the charge for a military strike in Syria. His approach thus far has tended to reinforce doubts about the West's recent tendency toward intervention. It was, after all, Obama who withdrew US troops from Iraq and began the pull-out from Afghanistan, which is scheduled to be completed next year.
Now, Obama is facing his first real foreign policy (and military) test virtually alone -- even though there are decent arguments to be made for sending Assad a clear military warning should proof that he deployed poison gas be found.
The decision reached by the House of Commons on Thursday night also has a tragic aspect: It is a long-term consequence of the dishonesty used by the administration of George W. Bush -- and joined by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Many Britons still recall that one of the key arguments presented for going into Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the alleged existence of chemical weapons laboratories. But they were never found.
Since then, mistrust of such "proof" is rampant. And Obama must now pay the price.