The Economist asserted that “Meeting Mr Assad’s atrocities with appropriate force will help to rebuild American moral authority in the world” (Leading Article, 7 Sept: Fight this war, not the last one). It is worth asking within which constituency “American moral authority” might be rebuilt.
From one Western perspective, as put forward by The Economist and others, a strike on Syria is seen as necessary for America’s credibility as “the world’s policeman”. It would also help to assuage the moral indignation that people rightly feel about the use of chemical weapons: people could say that they had not condoned the use of chemical weapons – they had ‘done something’.
Another Western perspective, dismissively referred to in the article, is “an abiding scepticism about the use of intelligence and the purpose of intervention”. Voters can be excused for such scepticism, given the sorry record of previous costly and counter-productive interventions. If the purpose of bombing Syria were to improve international security, then it could be criticised on at least three counts: it is risky because the outcome is unpredictable, it increases resistance to the West, and it undermines the UN.
It is time for the West to consider how it is seen by the rest of the world. A “reaffirmation of Western values” implies regime change in Iran and Syria (and in many other countries, including China), so those countries see America as a threat to world peace. America is also openly trying to protect Israel’s interests, so it cannot be seen as “the world’s policeman” – who would have to be neutral – and it cannot legitimately punish infringements of human rights. That is the function of the UN.
“Moral authority” should not be purely self-interested. A sincere attempt to work towards strengthening international law would win much more support in the rest of the world and would gain considerable support in the West. A stable international arena, rather than one which is “inherently anarchic”, would suit everyone’s long-term interests.
President Putin is cleverly leaving open the door to reaching agreement in the UN Security Council. If he really believes that President Assad did not give authorisation to the use of chemical weapons, he would not oppose an immediate ceasefire whilst the facts are established. The criminals, whoever they are, could then be brought to book in the International Criminal Court and peace negotiations should commence.
The only certain outcomes of a bombing campaign in Syria are that a few people (not a majority) in the West would feel better for a while, and that hostility to America and its allies would increase.