If the US loses its sense of historic
purpose, then what is it? Just a place to go to get rich?
is only one winner in the ongoing shambles of the West’s policy on Syria, and
it is not Bashar al-Assad. Mr Assad and his regime are now locked into the
familiar slow suicide march of the modern dictatorship which ends eventually in
execution or exile. That will come later rather than sooner because of the
shameful political gamesmanship of the countries on which his victims should
have been able to rely, but – count on it – it’s just a matter of time. No, the
grand-slam, record-breaking, knock-out winner of the past week has been
Vladimir Putin, who graciously thanked the British Parliament on Friday for its
support in his quest for global domination. Surely every British and American
politician who declares that military intervention would be acceptable only
with the permission of the United Nations must know that he is handing Mr Putin
– with his blocking vote on the Security Council – the power to run the world?
Or at least, to determine the fate of some of the most oppressed parts of it.
the broken-backed nation that is post-communist Russia – so degraded in its
economic and military stature that many commentators are ready to write it out
of the world script altogether – has checkmated the “winners” of the Cold War.
For a defunct power, it is proving remarkably competent at protecting its
client states and maintaining its regional influence. Our side may be learning
a critical lesson: a dying superpower is more dangerous than it was at its
zenith because it has less to lose. Its leaders (particularly the present one)
will take wild risks to prove that they are still in the game. Russia must now
be regarded as a potentially unstable, irresponsible rogue state which will
fling itself against the might of the West for the sheer bombastic joy of it.
brings us to the current clear loser: the West, and all of those who believed
in its capacity to defend humane values and the rule of law. Even assuming
Barack Obama gets Congress to agree to his minimalist no-regime-change,
no-nation-building, in-and-out-in-a-couple-of-days intervention (maybe with a
teeny-tiny bit of help from France), what sort of impact will the leader of the
free world have made on the criminal Syrian regime? It is difficult to know
precisely what effect he intends his carefully circumscribed and meticulously
pre-announced actions to have. Short of providing the precise date and time of
his rocket launches, and a map of the exit routes from proposed targets, he
could scarcely have been more helpful to the Syrian government in keeping the
damage to a minimum. If the White House sees this elaborate warning arrangement
as a way of avoiding civilian casualties, then it is very naive: ruthless
dictatorships are more likely to plant civilians in the proposed target areas for
propaganda purposes, than to remove them to safety.
would Mr Obama’s foray into the military assault business – assuming it goes
ahead – be designed to accomplish? The President and his spokesmen take a
rather different tone from that of Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made
very eloquent statements indeed about the abomination of the Assad regime and
the moral imperative to prevent further atrocities. Mr Obama himself speaks as
if he were engaged in a public-relations war rather than a shooting one: the US
intervention (when it happens) will be all about “sending a signal” to the
Syrian government that its use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, blah, blah.
Sending a signal? As I write, the US is lining up its warships: they will be
sending missiles, not signals. If they are properly informed and aimed, the
missile systems will eliminate stores of chemical weapons and the Syrian
government’s capacity to use them: the White House is now describing its plan
as a “deter and degrade” mission. So this would be an act of war, not a
“signal” or a gambit in a moral debate.
does the president think he is doing when he talks misleading spin-doctor
gobbledegook? He has clearly been told by his own intelligence advisers that it
is absolutely necessary for America to step up and do what it has done before,
whether willingly or reluctantly: accept responsibility for being the world
power whose role is to defend the idea, as the founding documents say, that all
men are born with unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness”. As every American schoolchild is taught, those rights are to be
regarded as universal and not simply the birthright of one nation. What would
an America be like that did not expect to be called upon to support and defend
oppressed people? A haven – within its own borders – for the persecuted and the
dispossessed? A land of opportunity for economic migrants? Maybe.
citizens have always been educated to see themselves as more than this: not
just the fortunate residents of a lucky country but bearers of an eternal truth
– a model for the world of how men should live. The United States was the
embodiment of the Enlightenment concept of natural rights. Its citizens took
part in a conscious social contract in which they accepted the rule of law in
return for a guarantee of personal liberty. And that agreement implied a
commitment to the belief that this arrangement – this set of civil values – was
one to which all the peoples of the world were entitled. The reason that the US
always ends up repenting of its isolationist phases (which is what the Obama
administration is in the process of doing) is because an America that does not
see itself as a model for the world can not make sense of its own identity. In
his statement on Friday, Mr Kerry said, “We are the country that tries to
honour [the] universal values around which we organise our lives . . . This is
who we are.”
America loses that sense of its historic purpose, what is it? Just a place
where people go in the hope of getting rich? No president – particularly not
this one – wants to speak of the country in anything less than idealistic
terms. It is startling to European ears to hear the endless references in US
politics to the Founding Fathers and to the greatness of the American system.
Whether you find this admirable or embarrassing, it is fundamental to the way
the country and its leaders understand their global obligations. For the past
few years we have had a glimpse of what a world would be like without that
sense of obligation: in which Americans became just one more self-preserving,
inward-looking populace obsessed with entitlements and welfare programmes like
so many cynical war-weary Europeans.
was the Obama brand of isolationism: what Europe used to call the “peace
dividend” was to be spent on building a social democratic order at home. The
idealistic values would be purely for domestic consumption. But the vacuum that
was left by America’s retreat has been filled by cowardice and prevarication.
The United States is going to have to step up again.