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In the aftermath of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, President Barack Obama appears to be weighing the options for a U.S. response. For two years, the White House and Congress have signaled a deep ambivalence about intervening in the conflict, while leaders in Britain and France have favored a more aggressive diplomatic and military posture. We compare American and British debates about intervention in Syria.
- The Politics Hour Political Correspondent, BBC World Service
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU, sitting in today for Kojo.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYLater in the broadcast, merging family food traditions, a new farm to table take on Jewish cooking, but first debating military intervention in Syria, a view from London. For the last two years Washington has signaled a deep ambivalence about the bloodshed in Syria.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYThe White House and leaders in Congress have been quick to criticize the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad but there's been little momentum for military strikes or other direct interventions until reports began to emerge last week about a suspected chemical weapons attack there.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYThroughout the entire uprising in Syria, American allies in Europe have favored a more robust approach against the Syrian regime. Today British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would pursue a resolution at the United Nations.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYWe're going to be talking in the coming minutes with political correspondent from the BBC about the latest view from London. We're getting connected with him now. As we start this hour, we'd like to hear what you think about the possibility of an American military strike in Syria.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEY800-433-8850 is the number to call to join "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." You can also email us at email@example.com. You can also get in touch through our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow. Of course any action that the United Nations, the Security Council would involve Russia and Russia's been very skeptical about military involvement there and has essentially dismissed so far the British initiative mentioned today.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYMeanwhile, in the U.S., Americans have continued to be wary of intervening in Syria. Recent polls have said up to 70 percent of Americans oppose sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups there.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYOf course, with the U.S. government now saying it has confirmed that the Syrian government did use chemical weapons against its own people, that calculus may be changing. We can talk about all of that this hour and I understand now we are joined by Rob Watson political correspondent with the BBC World Service joining us from a studio in London. Rob, thanks so much for joining us.
MR. ROB WATSONWell, it's great to be with you.
MCCLESKEYAnd here in the U.S. there's a strong sense that the alleged use of chemical weapons last week has changed our calculus and priorities visa vie Syria. There's been a lot of action on both sides of the Atlantic on this over the last few days. What's the latest from the UK, Parliament and the prime minister?
WATSONWell, I think it's certainly true that it's also changed the calculation this side of the Atlantic at least from a point of view of the government which has been moving a pace in the last 48 hours or so towards some kind of military intervention in Syria.
WATSONI say moving towards because of course as you've probably gone over the whole issue of taking tabling a resolution at the UN there's the recall of parliament which will meet on Thursday.
WATSONBut when I said that the chemical weapons attack or suspected chemical weapons attack had certainly changed government thinking this side of the Atlantic, I don't think it's really changed hugely, though.
WATSONThe general political and what you might call public opinion picture because one has to remember that a rock in Afghanistan cast a long shadow over politics and public opinion in Britain and I think it would be fair to say the opinion poll suggests and talking to politicians suggest there's just an awful lot of skepticism and very little enthusiasm here.
MCCLESKEYWell, there's certainly been a war weariness here in the U.S. and hearing…
MCCLESKEYYes, the same there in Britain. We did touch on the fact that David Cameron, Prime Minister David Cameron, has said that he wants to pursue a United Nations Security Council resolution. Of course, that would involve in getting, Russia would be involved in any Security Council resolution or Security Council action. What's the sense that anything could or could not come out of the Security Council?
WATSONI think the sense is that nothing will come out of it and indeed just not so long the foreign secretary, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said, look, we're happy to talk it over for a few days at the UN, but even if there isn't an agreement at the UN, that still means there's an obligation, there's a responsibility on countries like Britain to confront the use of chemical weapons.
WATSONSo I think part of the reason why Britain has gone to the UN is to try and reach out to those critics here in Britain and elsewhere who would much prefer anything that's to be done in Syria to be done under the cloak of UN approval.
MCCLESKEYDo you have a sense of what the rest of Europe is thinking? We also heard a more robust approach advocated by France and Germany in recent days. Would the rest of Europe be on board if the U.S. and the UK got together on a military intervention?
WATSONWell, I think they may be at a government level and at a sort of NATO level but I can't imagine that there's going to be any country in Europe where there's much more enthusiasm than there is in Britain either amongst ordinary politicians or the public for military intervention in Syria.
WATSONI think one has to sort of step back and figure out why this has happened and it's certainly the case that lots of politicians and lots of people have looked at the pictures of the chemical weapons, suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria and thought this is dreadful.
WATSONAnd on the one hand, you have governments like the British government and the French government who say this is dreadful and it is important that we take some form of limited action in response.
WATSONBut an awful lot of other people have looked at this and just thought, well this is awful but we don't want to be involved in this part of the world. We're just worried that where's it all going to end. Western intervention in the Middle East only makes matters worse. So I think that would probably be where the divide is.
MCCLESKEYAnd of course, Middle Eastern countries as well have a very close eye watching anything that might happen. Do you have a sense of where they fall on whether or not there should be outside military action?
WATSONWell, I think they're somewhat divided. I mean, there's very little love for the regime of President Assad out in the Arab world that's for sure. He's got very few friends in the Arab League these days.
WATSONI think though that the governments there would, like the government here and the government in Paris and the administration in Washington, would much prefer if it were at all possible that it got UN backing. But I think that everyone needs to come to the realization that that's probably not going to happen.
MCCLESKEYSure, and there's some debate now about what the legal justification for military campaign would be if it's not possible to get UN or even NATO support. How important are those legal concerns in Britain now?
WATSONI think they're very important. I mean, nobody could've been in this country as a politician or a lawyer or a journalist or a voter and not remember the agonies that people have gone through looking over this question of legality about the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
WATSONWe have after all had an extensive inquiry into this, which still hasn't reported I might add. So the legal dimensions are hugely important. It's important for opposition politicians. It's also important for the government and it's something that's raised by people out on social networking sites where people monitor the news very closely.
WATSONI mean, of course, in the end, these things are political decisions, political risks, political calculations but there's no doubt that when parliament has this debate here on Thursday you can expect the government to marshal a lot of legal arguments.
MCCLESKEYThere are, of course, similarities and some differences with the invasion of Iraq back in 2003. Similarities we've heard a lot about weapons of mass destruction, of course, in the run up to Iraq. Here though with Syria we actually do have according to U.S. intelligence confirmed use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people by the regime. Do you think that confirmation has a chance to sway public opinion in the UK?
WATSONI don't very much and this is just my personal opinion if you like, but it is somewhat on conversations that I've had with politicians. I mean, for what it's worth, I think that there are a whole group of people whether they're politicians or just members of the public and I don't mean this as a criticism, you've taken the view that look something very bad has happened in Syria almost certainly involving chemical weapons but you know what I just don't think it's a good idea that the United States, that Britain, France or anybody intervenes.
WATSONAnd I think with those people no matter what evidence you bring, no matter how the government coaches its arguments saying this is going to be a very limited intervention I just don't think you're going to get anywhere.
MCCLESKEYOur phone number 800-433-8850, you can also contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That number again, 800-433-8850. We have on the line Ben from Mclean, Va. with a question about Syria and Russia. Ben, go ahead, you're on the air, thanks for your call.
BENWell, thank you for having me on. From what I understand, there are a couple points that, you know, about Russia's need for Syria and it's my understanding that Syria is Russia's only port in the Mediterranean, there are 235,000 Russian women married to Syrian men and that after Islam, the most popular religion in Syria is Russian Orthodox and, you know, they're very concerned about a purge if the al Qaida partnered rebels end up taking over. So, you know, why isn't the talk about what can we do to address these concerns so Russia gets on board?
MCCLESKEYWell, of course...
BENWhere's that conversation?
MCCLESKEY...and of course, Russia, a very important part of this whole equation. Relations between the U.S. and Russia were not good before the whole Edward Snowden affair and the NSA leaking and he received asylum there. What is the importance, Rob Watson, of Russia?
WATSONWell, I think it's obviously a question the United States and the UK and France and others who may be preparing to bank military intervention have to ask themselves. I mean, how important, how do they calibrate the importance of their relationship with Russia with the likely damage that's going to be done by taking a different line to the Russians to Moscow over Damascus?
WATSONAnd that's clearly been the kind of calculation, the kind of things that London, Washington and Paris have been turning over in their minds and that's not massively helpful but I guess that pretty much tells you where things are.
MCCLESKEYAnd of course, one of the things we've been hearing here in the U.S. in the run up to a potential military intervention is, what is the goal? What are we trying to accomplish and what can we accomplish? Are you having similar questions raised there in the UK?
WATSONAbsolutely, of course. And so far what the government has been trying to do, what David Cameron has been trying to do, and this is all about trying to reassure a very weary public and a very weary parliament is to say look this is limited, this isn't, you know, this is not about regime change. It's not even particularly Syria or the Middle East.
WATSONIt's about taking a stance on the use of chemical weapons or indeed any weapon of mass destruction and the government's arguments is look, this is definitely going to be limited but we actually think the risk of doing nothing would be worse than the risk of doing something.
WATSONBut of course, the questions that have been put there by former, a lot of it by former retired military guys is to say, well hang on a minute every time you use military action you're never quite sure where it's going to end. You may say that this is going to be limited but how can you be sure of it?
WATSONAnd also, well, if you're right and it is going to be limited well what good is that going to do? All President Assad needs to do is to just wait it out. So you be, you bet there's been all the kinds of questions raised that you would imagine and of course there were, you know, that we heard before over Iraq.
MCCLESKEYYou mentioned there's going to be a debate in parliament. Of course the U.S. Congress is on recess right now. They've been making some statements in the press but there's not a formal capability to debate or respond right now. What do we expect to see come out of parliament in this debate tomorrow you mentioned?
WATSONWell, I think it's going to be super interesting. I think it's going to be very difficult for the government because not so much on a -- it's not a party political thing, but essentially as I -- as you know, this shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan it really does cast long over UK politics and not on a party basis, but MP's are just very weary. They really have very little appetite.
WATSONNow, that's not to say that David Cameron won't be able to get support for a motion backing some kind of action. All I'm saying is, is that it won't be very -- it'll be a difficult struggle. And I think even if the vote is won, it won't be a sign that there's some absolute flag waving desire to go and do something in Damascus. It will be with a certain heavy heart and with a lot of sighing and thinking well this is just the perhaps the best of no-good options.
MCCLESKEYBut one of the things lurking in the debate just under the surface of course is cost. We do know the UK's been under a rather strong round of austerity. Is there a debate there about whether the UK can afford to get involved in Syria?
WATSONI mean, to some extend of course. I mean, you wouldn't be surprised in this day of lots of social media or in people communicating and getting involved on the internet. You've got lots of people saying, wait a minute, if we're -- we just heard that Britain needs to cut the number of soldiers it has and yet we're prepared to go and fire a lot of our expensive missiles in the direction of a conflict where it may not do any good. So, yes, it has been raised. But I think the biggest -- I mean, if I was to group all of the objections and say, what is -- you know, what is the main thrust, it's just the unpredictability of taking military action again in the Middle East.
MCCLESKEYLet's take one more call before we end the segment. Norma from Lana, Md. Norma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NORMAYes. I just think it's so ironic, we're talking about getting up in arms about them killing the people with chemical weapons, and then we're going to go in and kill them with guns. When are we going to stop killing and promoting killing? What is going on?
MCCLESKEYWell, Norma, thanks for the call. And certainly it sounds like both for the U.S. and the UK, many people have that exact feeling. It gets back to that war weariness that we discussed earlier, Rob Watson.
WATSONAbsolutely. And just, I think, another sense, not just the weariness about defeatism or whatever other adjective you'd call it, but just people who think well, you know, I'd be willing to give this a go if I thought it would do the trick. I mean, it's not just about war weariness. It's about thinking, well, are we sure that this would do any good.
WATSONNow, of course, there are people speaking on the government's side saying well, you know, we really think it could do something. It could deter the future use of chemical weapons in Syria and in other places. But it's not just a war weariness that that government here and elsewhere is up against. It's up against people who're just skeptical about doing more good than harm.
MCCLESKEYAnd of course we'll be following this in coming days and weeks. Rob Watson, political correspondent with the BBC World Service. I want to thank you so much for joining us with the view from London.
WATSONWell, thanks for having me with you.
MCCLESKEYWe're glad to have you along. I'm Matt McCleskey filling in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about marrying regional and religious food traditions within a marriage. And that's in the next part of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show just on the other side of this break. Stay with us.
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