Why US and Nato will let Syria get away with it (Business Day, South Africa)

AS SYRIAN tanks prepared to advance on Jisr al-Shugour late last week, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates launched an offensive of his own. In a speech in Brussels, he dismissed most of America’s European allies as a useless bunch of time wasters. I paraphrase — but not much.

Gates pointed out that while all North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) countries had voted to intervene in Libya, most had chosen not to participate in the actual fighting. Even those European countries that are taking part began to run short of munitions, just 11 weeks into the fighting — forcing an exasperated US to step into the breach. More broadly, a situation in which the US accounts for 75% of the military spending in Nato was “unacceptable” and unsustainable. If it was not rectified, Gates predicted, Nato would face a “dismal” future.

The conjunction of the Gates speech and the Syrian civil war is very telling. It explains why a 20-year experiment with the idea that western military force can put the world to rights is coming to a close.

Just a few weeks ago, that would have seemed a surprising conclusion. Supporters of “liberal interventionism” hailed the decision to bomb Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya as evidence of a longed-for new era, in which dictators can no longer feel free to massacre their own people.

But a Western failure to intervene as the Syrian army brutalises and kills its own citizens is likely to be a more accurate guide to the future than the Libyan campaign. There is, of course, a direct link between the W est’s reluctance to get involved in Syria and the frustrating and (so far) inconclusive nature of the Libyan intervention.

However, the Syrian conflict also needs to be seen in the context of a generation-long experiment with liberal interventionism. That era began in 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US as the world’s sole superpower and a swift victory in the first Gulf War restored confidence in the power and effectiveness of US military might. Since then, the debate about how and when to use military power has waxed and waned. Western governments chastised themselves over the failure to protect the Kurds and the Shiites in Iraq in 1991, over the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and over the many years of dithering as lives were lost in the Balkans. But a series of apparently successful interventions — Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone — gradually strengthened the belief that Western military power could be used to end conflicts and save civilians.

The bitter experiences of the Afghan and Iraqi wars, however, shifted the debate on military intervention once more. Both Barack Obama in the US and David Cameron in the UK promised to adopt a much more cautious attitude to foreign military adventures. Then along came the Arab Spring and Western leaders once again found themselves committing to military action, this time in Libya — Obama with evident reluctance, Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy with apparent enthusiasm.

The Libyan war illustrates how unfolding events can force a political leader’s hand. That could still happen in Syria. But it seems much more likely that, this time, the West will stand aside.

In part, this is because of deadlock at the United Nations, where Russia and China — angry about the Libyan war — are blocking efforts to pass a resolution that even condemns events in Syria, let alone prepares the ground for intervention. But the broader context is the West’s diminishing ability and willingness to intervene at all.

The Gates speech in effect marks the end of the US ambition to turn Nato into the global military arm of a unified Western world. The US has flirted with this idea since the “war on terror” began. But, as the Afghan war has worn on, the military effort has become more heavily dependent on the US.

The fact that Europeans led the way in calling for a campaign in Libya that they are incapable of conducting alone has merely re- enforced the US view that the European arm of Nato is, to varying degrees, feckless and unreliable. Disarray and recriminations within Nato hobble the single most effective potential tool for Western military intervention overseas.

Even more significant in the long run is the US anxiety that the budgetary constraints that are leading to defence cuts in Europe are beginning to be replicated in the US itself. Adm Michael Mullen, America’s top military officer, has called the budget deficit the single biggest threat to US national security. It is also the single biggest constraint on future bouts of “liberal interventionism”.

But money is not the only problem. Over the p ast 20 years, it has become apparent that swiftly agreed-upon military actions can lead to entanglements that last for many years. There is still a Nato mission in Kosovo and a European Union military mission in Bosnia, more than a decade after the fighting ended in both places.

As for Afghanistan — that conflict has now lasted almost twice as long as the Second World War. Western governments are also only beginning to come to terms with what may soon be required in Libya. Against this background, there are very few takers for yet another military venture — this time in Syria. © 2011 The Financial Times Limited

GIDEON RACHMAN: Why US and Nato will let Syria get away with it

AS SYRIAN tanks prepared to advance on Jisr al-Shugour late last week, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates launched an offensive of his own. In a speech in Brussels, he dismissed most of America’s European allies as a useless bunch of time wasters. I paraphrase — but not much.

 
Published: 2011/06/14 07:02:01 AM
AS SYRIAN tanks prepared to advance on Jisr al-Shugour late last week, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates launched an offensive of his own. In a speech in Brussels, he dismissed most of America’s European allies as a useless bunch of time wasters. I paraphrase — but not much. 

Gates pointed out that while all North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) countries had voted to intervene in Libya, most had chosen not to participate in the actual fighting. Even those European countries that are taking part began to run short of munitions, just 11 weeks into the fighting — forcing an exasperated US to step into the breach. More broadly, a situation in which the US accounts for 75% of the military spending in Nato was “unacceptable” and unsustainable. If it was not rectified, Gates predicted, Nato would face a “dismal” future. 

The conjunction of the Gates speech and the Syrian civil war is very telling. It explains why a 20-year experiment with the idea that western military force can put the world to rights is coming to a close. 

Just a few weeks ago, that would have seemed a surprising conclusion. Supporters of “liberal interventionism” hailed the decision to bomb Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya as evidence of a longed-for new era, in which dictators can no longer feel free to massacre their own people. 

But a Western failure to intervene as the Syrian army brutalises and kills its own citizens is likely to be a more accurate guide to the future than the Libyan campaign. There is, of course, a direct link between the W est’s reluctance to get involved in Syria and the frustrating and (so far) inconclusive nature of the Libyan intervention. 

However, the Syrian conflict also needs to be seen in the context of a generation-long experiment with liberal interventionism. That era began in 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US as the world’s sole superpower and a swift victory in the first Gulf War restored confidence in the power and effectiveness of US military might. Since then, the debate about how and when to use military power has waxed and waned. Western governments chastised themselves over the failure to protect the Kurds and the Shiites in Iraq in 1991, over the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and over the many years of dithering as lives were lost in the Balkans. But a series of apparently successful interventions — Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone — gradually strengthened the belief that Western military power could be used to end conflicts and save civilians. 

The bitter experiences of the Afghan and Iraqi wars, however, shifted the debate on military intervention once more. Both Barack Obama in the US and David Cameron in the UK promised to adopt a much more cautious attitude to foreign military adventures. Then along came the Arab Spring and Western leaders once again found themselves committing to military action, this time in Libya — Obama with evident reluctance, Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy with apparent enthusiasm. 

The Libyan war illustrates how unfolding events can force a political leader’s hand. That could still happen in Syria. But it seems much more likely that, this time, the West will stand aside. 

In part, this is because of deadlock at the United Nations, where Russia and China — angry about the Libyan war — are blocking efforts to pass a resolution that even condemns events in Syria, let alone prepares the ground for intervention. But the broader context is the West’s diminishing ability and willingness to intervene at all. 

The Gates speech in effect marks the end of the US ambition to turn Nato into the global military arm of a unified Western world. The US has flirted with this idea since the “war on terror” began. But, as the Afghan war has worn on, the military effort has become more heavily dependent on the US. 

The fact that Europeans led the way in calling for a campaign in Libya that they are incapable of conducting alone has merely re- enforced the US view that the European arm of Nato is, to varying degrees, feckless and unreliable. Disarray and recriminations within Nato hobble the single most effective potential tool for Western military intervention overseas. 

Even more significant in the long run is the US anxiety that the budgetary constraints that are leading to defence cuts in Europe are beginning to be replicated in the US itself. Adm Michael Mullen, America’s top military officer, has called the budget deficit the single biggest threat to US national security. It is also the single biggest constraint on future bouts of “liberal interventionism”. 

But money is not the only problem. Over the p ast 20 years, it has become apparent that swiftly agreed-upon military actions can lead to entanglements that last for many years. There is still a Nato mission in Kosovo and a European Union military mission in Bosnia, more than a decade after the fighting ended in both places. 

As for Afghanistan — that conflict has now lasted almost twice as long as the Second World War. Western governments are also only beginning to come to terms with what may soon be required in Libya. Against this background, there are very few takers for yet another military venture — this time in Syria.

 © 2011 The Financial Times Limited

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