The reason a missile attack on Syria is proving so unpopular on both sides of the Atlantic has nothing to do with neoimperial hubris. The reason is that it is a bad idea. “Punishing” a dictator for killing his own people by simply killing more of his own people seems beyond cruel. It seems stupid. It leads nowhere.
Public opinion may be a poor guide to the minutiae of state policy. But that opinion has been saddled with two long wars, both failures. As a result, leaders in London and Washington (and possibly Paris) have been sufficiently nervous to pass decision to their national assemblies. In British the result was a rebuff. In Washington, President Obama has decided to refer Syria to Congress and France’s president, François Hollande, may do likewise.
In the attacks on Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the goal of western intervention was at least clear. It was to topple a regime. Since the UN forbids such overt aggression against member states, action must be dressed up as humanitarian or to enforce UN resolutions. But everyone knows what is the intended outcome.
In Syria, an attack would be in retaliation for a proven breach of international law on chemical weapons. No one has the will to topple the Assad regime. Action is described as merely punitive and a “deterrent”, directed purely at a past incident of a chemical massacre. This is gesture war. It will not punish the guilty, such as members of the Assad regime, who should be arraigned before a war crimes court. It will merely destroy buildings and kill people. It seems peculiarly pointless.
That is why the public on both sides of the Atlantic are sceptical. They cannot see the point of their leaders puffing up their chests, rattling their sabres and talking tough, when all these leaders intend to do is rearrange the furniture on the outskirts of Damascus – and boost Syrian morale if they have to back down. If the west really wants to “save Syria”, it should go in and save it. Otherwise shut up. It is not the west’s “values empire” that is in retreat. It is idiot deployment of aerial bombardment as a cure-all for the world’s ills. That at least is good news.