The British parliamentary rejection of military intervention in Syria Thursday night was not a sign of isolationism or nonchalance over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, but rather it reflects a necessary use of caution and prudence in these chaotic times.
Coming a decade after the country tumbled headfirst into the disaster which became the Iraq war, the British public is clearly still feeling bruised, reticent to trust their politicians. After the facts and truths were so grossly manipulated back in 2003, and the motive for war was premised on the possibility of the presence of WMD, it is understandable that people are now wary of evidence placed before them. Especially when there are still so many unknowns surrounding last week’s attack east of Damascus, which rebels say killed hundreds.
Indeed, during the lengthy debate in Parliament, MPs referred specifically to the Iraq debacle, a war so ill thought out that it is still claiming hundreds of lives each month in sectarian violence. Once bitten, twice shy.
And this loss of trustworthiness, stemming from a neglect of the values of transparency and openness, is being felt across western Europe and in the U.S., with opinion polls very firmly highlighting public opposition to intervention. The public is sick of war, and full of skepticism over any long-term objectives. It all too often appears that foreign policy advisers are stumbling into decisions, forced into corners due to global allegiances or rivalries. Understandably, people become wary that the best motives are truly influencing these decisions.
But whereas Cameron appeared to have clumsily rushed through a motion, which at least he allowed the opposition to modify, perhaps the U.S. is going to be more careful. John Kerry spoke Friday evening with confidence over intelligence which pointed, without a shadow of a doubt, to the regime being responsible. It was the speech Cameron should have given before his parliamentary vote.
The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, a claim which the evidence thus far seems to support, is an outrageous act, and the culprits must be punished, as Kerry stated. Those responsible must realize they cannot carry out such acts ever again. But to carry out a punitive strike, to merely satisfy Western consciences, is not the way to do this. Such a crude use of military power, rushed into and poorly planned, with no thought to the repercussions, would do more harm than good. Possibly with this in mind, Kerry was right to assure the public that any intervention in Syria would bear no similarity to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With an issue as sensitive as this, in a part of the region so critical, the international community must be as scrupulous and as careful as it can be with the facts. It must consider all outcomes of its actions, and have answers on what happens tomorrow. And the war-weary public rightly expects as much.