British Prime Minister Theresa May is having to justify her collaboration with the United States in bombing chemical weapons facilities in Syria.
These measures were reprisals for alleged attacks by the Syrian regime on its own people in the city of Douma.
Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, claims that a United Nations resolution is needed to authorise such an act, and that the UK Parliament should also have been asked to vote on the decision.
His caution is similar to his position regarding the nerve agent used, apparently by Russia, against a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in Salisbury. In both cases, Corbyn has demanded greater certainty about exactly who was responsible for the outrages. The problem is that, in conditions of war and rumours of war, certainty is hard to come by. Decisions have to be made under, what Clausewitz termed, the “fog of war”.
In addition, to look for decisiveness at the United Nations is unwise in any case, as Russia can simply block a resolution, with its veto.
Perfect information is never available. A Niebuhrian doctrine of political realism would admit this, and be prepared to take action, even under imperfect conditions.
When war-fighting, speed is often of the essence, and the element of surprise essential. Waiting for the niceties of parliamentary procedure would sacrifice both.
So, it is surprising to hear politicians, committed to human rights and democratic freedoms, in effect arguing that we do nothing about chemical attacks, which are anyway internationally outlawed.
Corbyn’s political credibility is also undermined, because although he claims not to be a pacifist, he has never sanctioned any military action. This reluctance weakens his position as a credible alternative national leader. Nevertheless, his vacillation does expose inherent weaknesses in the West’s set of options.
Although it is easy to claim we must do something about chemical attacks, the strikes do nothing to deter the continuing conventional bombings of civilians by their own government in Syria.
Nor is it definite that the attacks will actually deter President Assad from further using chemical weapons.
Previous sallies have proved ineffective, at least while he enjoys unconditional Russian support. So, it is hard to know what to do. It’s a no win situation.
The quandary reveals the weakness of the peace-makers and the ineffectuality of the war-mongers. We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
Part of the problem, is that naïve liberal anti-war lobbies seem to think that their aims, of democracy and freedom, can be attained by non-violent means. These might be through peaceful protest at the micro-level, or diplomatic agreements at the macro-level. The examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King are cited as precedents. But they did not face totalitarian regimes.
They could appeal to the better instincts of democratic systems, calling them to be true to the values they espoused.
Yet when we note, that they were eventually assassinated, we must face the fact that those who follow the way of peace frequently face crucifixion.