In rejecting participation in a US-led punitive strike against Syria, British lawmakers underscored a new reality that reflects strategic thinking on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the 2011 Libya campaign and the ongoing Afghanistan war.
For the first time in decades, Britain won’t join its closest ally in an international operation as Washington seeks a coalition and weighs unilateral action.
That’s uncomfortable for a n American president who eschewed the unilateralism of his predecessor and hoped for a broad coalition in any Syrian response.
Both President Barack Obama and British lawmakers fear getting sucked into another intractable Middle Eastern conflict with unpredictable consequences. And while Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is universally despised, radical Islamist elements of the opposition may be worse and less controllable.
The European-led action in Libya offers a lesson: It saved countless lives, but its unintended consequences left Libya facing disintegration.
To deter Assad, Obama last year warned the Syrian leader that using chemical weapons against his people would cross a “red line.”
It didn’t work.
Assad crossed that red line before, but it was the Aug. 21 attack, which killed some 1,400 people, including 400 children, that prompted demands for action from Obama’s own Cabinet.
US intelligence says it has conclusive proof of the regime’s complicity. But having gotten it wrong on Iraq’s WMD capacities, US intelligence’s credibility has been damaged at home and abroad.
Those who favor striking Syria say Obama waited too long to act and now must respond so his words have meaning in future crises, whether with Iran, China or elsewhere.
Those opposed counter that it’s unclear what limited strikes — with zero surprise — would accomplish. Meaningful action means significant strikes, which even Assad knows is opposed by war-weary US and UK voters who want less defense spending and don’t want their troops risked to solve other people’s unsolvable problems. It’s a vexing development for these two world powers.
The Syria mission has arrived, as so often, on short notice, underscoring the importance of readiness across the spectrum of potential operations, even as Washington faces deeper budget cuts.
US forces can handle operations against Syria, but that’s not to say sequestration cuts aren’t already undermining military readiness. This year it temporarily halted all non-essential training. Extended over the coming decade, sustained cuts will make complex operations harder as equipment and training atrophy and top talent quits in frustration.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is warning that the government will run out of money as soon as next month. A similar showdown in 2011 precipitated the whole sequestration fiasco in the first place.
Complicating matters, top Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham face re-election challenges from their right, and too many lawmakers still believe gutting defense is an easy and risk-free way to cut government spending.
Ironically, the crises in Syria and Egypt could actually unite US lawmakers across party lines, fostering a dialogue that, hopefully, will align forces to pass a “grand bargain” that would end sequestration, extend the nation’s borrowing limit and pave the way for overdue entitlement and tax reforms.
Without that, America’s defense budget will remain hostage to Washington’s political dysfunction.
Iraq’s long shadow looms large in Washington and around the world. With such high economic and political costs, its lessons must be remembered but not paralyze truly necessary action.
While Iraq didn’t have WMDs, Syria does, and the fact that it is in a civil war could put those weapons in still more dangerous hands.