In recent weeks we have been witnessing a phenomenon, which is certainly not new in modern history, but which is nevertheless extremely frustrating and disturbing every time it manifests itself.
I am speaking of the hesitancies of Western democracies when confronted with a situation, which time and again they have stated to be unacceptable, and which according to the principles that they themselves advocate, and the rules that they themselves laid down, requires determined and swift action.
The specific event I am alluding to is, of course, the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against its own citizens within the framework of the current civil war in Syria.
Both the United States and numerous European states have declared that if indeed this information is proven true, punitive action should be taken. However, even though it is said that the proof exists, most of the European states are waiting for the UN observers to bring even more conclusive evidence, which might or might not be delivered; Britain, which had agreed to take action together with the US, has chickened out after the House of Commons expressed its disapproval; while true to the time of writing, US President Barack Obama is having difficulty receiving congressional approval to take any sort of military action, and it is not clear what he will do if he fails to receive this approval. From a constitutional point of view the president can act without congressional approval. But will he? What is actually the problem? Part of the problem is that while the Western democracies claim to have principles regarding justice, human rights, the saving of lives, and the pursuit of peace, at least in the first instance it is usually the latter that is brought as an excuse not to take effective action in favor of the first three. Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” is the most well-known and scorned manifestation of this phenomenon. Since the entering into force of the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare in 1928, the use of chemical and biological weapons has been prohibited, while since the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997 the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons is forbidden as well.
Though Syria is not a signatory of the second treaty, it did sign the first one in 1968, and is consequently in breach of the international law that applies to it, which is an additional justification for action being taken against it, beyond purely moral grounds.
However, because of Russian and Chinese vetoes, the UN has not approved intervention, which means that if any action is taken, it will have to be outside the framework of the UN. It is here that the Western inclination to stutter and falter has appeared.
While in recent decades the US, the UK, France and several other Western democracies have intervened militarily in Asia, Africa and even in Europe (in the former Yugoslavia) despite the occasional absence of UN backing or even approval, such intervention has proven increasingly costly financially and in terms of casualties, and futile in terms of the long term outcome (e.g.
Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). This partially explains the background to the inclination of Parliament in Britain and Congress in the US to refuse to approve what their respective governments have been seeking to do – namely, punish the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons, even though it was explicitly stated by both Prime Minister David Cameron and Obama that there was no intention to invade Syria, or even overthrow the Assad regime.
Though all this might make sense from a narrow perspective, seen within the framework of Western credibility regarding its willingness to take action in face of crimes against humanity, what is happening is no less than catastrophic. Had the US and its allies taken action – even limited action – immediately after they had tangible evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians, the message would have been clear.
But since action failed to be taken immediately, even if it is eventually taken, the message will be garbled and unclear. No one will associate the action with the use of chemical weapons, and those to whom the message was directed, will be able to argue that the action had nothing to do with what Assad has done, but rather with Saudi or Israeli pressure, or the desire to help this or that element within the Syrian opposition to gain power.
From an Israeli perspective the situation is worse. Israel is expected to refrain from acting against Iran’s developing nuclear capability with the promise that the US will take action if and when Iran crosses a certain redline (though it is not exactly clear what this redline is, or what sort of action the US is willing or able to take).
But isn’t that exactly what Obama said regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria? And what is to assure Israel that even if Obama is serious regarding Iran, Congress will let him act? And if all this is true with regards to the US – which is Israel’s only proven ally, and which backs us up with vetoes in the UN Security Council, and around $3 billion of annual aid – what can be said about all the European states that while criticizing Israel’s policies and activities in the West Bank and vis-à-vis the Palestinians, nevertheless state that they are committed to Israel’s security and existence? Committed in what sense? The recent chain of events has certainly strengthened the belief in Israel, first expressed by first prime minister David Ben- Gurion, that in the last resort what matters is not what the gentiles say, but what the Jews do.
However, even though the reaction of the Western democracies to the situation in Syria is both worrying and even worthy of contempt, it does not follow that our conclusion should be that we can disregard all the international criticism of our own policies and actions, since in any case it is unlikely to be backed up by any concrete action, even if push comes to shove.
Though nothing we have ever done or are likely to do even slightly resembles what Assad is doing in terms of its sheer criminality and cynicism, for better or worse we are part of the democratic world (which Syria, with or without Assad, certainly is not), and if heaven forbid we shall lose the support, reluctant and critical as it may be, of the other members of this club, we shall be in real trouble. In that situation, who on earth could we align ourselves with? Russia? China? Iran? We simply do not have such options.
So, even though we have reason for concern on the one hand, and disparagement on the other, let us be careful not to draw any extreme conclusions from the current faltering of the democracies.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.