On Syria, U.K. Forgets the Lesson of Hitler and Chamberlain
Having just read Susan Dunn’s 1940, the U.K.’s decision to reject a strike in Syria is both surprising and disturbing.
Dunn’s book focuses on Western efforts to avoid war with Hitler at all costs, even as it became clear that the violence and chaos of Nazism could not be contained within Germany’s borders.
Many of Hitler’s enablers and appeasers had the best of intentions. Having just suffered through the horrors of World War I, they sought any solution to avoid war. Unfortunately, these solutions were temporary and unwise, and the effort to appease Hitler almost wiped out Western civilization. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Those seeking to avoid getting involved in Syria are similarly well-intentioned. And they are similarly wrong.
It’s easy to see why Americans and Brits think that what happens in Syria is of little concern to us. After all, we can’t get involved in every civil war, and what’s happening in Syria doesn’t directly threaten our security. Except that it does.
Putting aside all moral arguments (which alone should require us to act), our security is at stake in Syria.
Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama made it very clear that if Syria used chemical weapons on its own people, it would be a game changer. Nevertheless, when Assad used small amounts of WMD against his people earlier this year, the U.K. and the U.S. held their noses. They said the attacks weren’t severe enough to warrant a strong response.
This emboldened Assad, and was likely one reason that he was confident enough to launch the sarin gas attack that killed 1,000 people last month. There are many other considerations to be sure – but the fact that the U.S. failed to respond to the previous use of weapons probably played a role. Some Israeli sources say the attack may have been an operational error, and that Assad’s forces had only planned to use a small amount of sarin. Even so, if the West had reacted more forcefully to the first uses of WMD, there’s a chance Assad may not have used sarin gas at all in the latest attack.
Further, not responding to Assad’s prior use of WMD has emboldened our adversaries across the world. In international affairs, other countries judge us by our words and actions. Talk is, notoriously, cheap. When we threaten Iran with military action if they develop a nuclear weapon, our words are useless unless Iran believes we will act. The same can be said for cutting off aid to Egypt, ending cooperation with Putin, preventing China from seizing territory and manipulating currency, etc. The list goes on and on.
If other countries believe that we want to avoid war at all costs, they’ll be empowered to act in nefarious and dangerous ways. Thus, a decision to avoid getting involved in Syria could lead other countries to embark, and continue, down paths that threaten our security.
Once again, Hitler proves a compelling example. It took him six years to launch his quest for world domination. During those six years, he took small steps towards his goal, each time testing European powers to see what he could get away with. When the democracies failed to respond, he took another provocative step, then another.
We could have crushed Hitler in those early years. Because we didn’t, tens of millions were slaughtered.
Syria is obviously different. But the message being sent to the world’s despots is not. Unless the West feels directly threatened by military action, it will stand by as human rights atrocities, mass murder, and other events occur. And as we saw on 9/11 and many subsequent terror attacks since, what happens on foreign shores may eventually threaten us.
Syria is not as drastic a case as Nazi Germany, and no one is arguing for a full-out intervention. And yes, the risks of a targeted strike are still very high (the worst being a regional war that draws in Iran and Israel). But not acting would be worst of all.
Assad has used WMD to murder more than 1,000 of his own people. If we don’t act, we’ll be emboldening not only Assad, but Iran, Russia, China, and every vile regime on the face of the Earth. Who knows what provocative action will be next or where all this will lead (though an Iranian nuclear weapon is a very likely outcome). The signals that we send to other countries are just as, if not more, important than the signals we send to Syria.
“Peace for our time,” Chamberlain famously declared. Back then, many hailed him as a hero. Now he is universally mocked, scorned, and derided by the British. The very same British who just declared “peace for our time” in Syria.