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The Myth of a Tragic Mistake

Photo source janeyhenning | CC BY 2.0

Five years ago, one view of an international event triumphed in the West; through assiduous repetition, it has become a state religion. It holds that President Barack Obama made a tragic mistake on 31 August 2013 when he decided not to launch air strikes on the Syrian army after its deadly chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus; his equivocation guaranteed the continuation of a regime that had murdered its own citizens.

Former French president François Hollande, and many others, thought ‘the Syrian regime was not alone in believing it was free to do as it pleased. Vladimir Putin realised that he could annex Crimea and destabilise eastern Ukraine’ (1). This retrospective interpretation, backed by an obligatory reference to Winston Churchill (who saw that the Munich agreement would enable further Nazi aggression), pre-legitimises preventive wars and a policy of peace through strength, especially in regard to Russia.

Obama argues that, after US interventions in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Libya, he knew the cost of staking a country’s reputation on repeated armed interventions on foreign soil, usually encouraged by the US intelligence services’ alarmist and misleading analysis. Referring to Syria, his former defence secretary, Robert Gates had even asked Obama: ‘Shouldn’t we finish up the two wars we have before we look for another? (2)’

Some of the keenest advocates of intervention, including the New York Times and the European papers that toe its editorial line, regularly criticise presidential absolutism and insist on the need to respect checks and balances, not to mention follow the law. Western air strikes on Syria would not have constituted self-defence. And they did not have the backing of the UN, or of western public opinion, or Congress, or of America’s most obedient ally, the UK, whose House of Commons opposed them.

There are other comparisons than Churchill and Munich: in 1991 an international coalition backed by a UN resolution drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. No sooner was this objective achieved than US neocons began to criticise President George HW Bush for not going all the way and deposing Saddam Hussein. 

For over a decade, they maintained that almost all Middle East problems could be traced to this failure to follow through. In 2003 their wishes finally came true: Churchill was reincarnated, Iraq occupied; later, Saddam was hanged. Has the Middle East since then become paradise on earth?

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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