The European Parliament, united for its plenary session in Strasbourg, France, had the pleasure of listening to its favorite political leader earlier this week: French president Emmanuel Macron.
In his speech, Macron laid out his vision for the future of the European Union. But the most memorable moment came in the debate that followed his address when he passionately defended his decision to intervene militarily in Syria. He made clear that the use of chemical weapons against civilians was a red line he did not want to see crossed, and that a coordinated response between many countries will be needed going forward. Macron also criticized the opposition to airstrikes in Syria, and warned that Europe has too often been regarded as inactive in humanitarian crises.
Unfortunately, Europe’s opposition to intervening in Syria doesn’t consist of the most respectable individuals. In fact, its majoritatively the far right in the European Parliament that opposes the move. The French chairman of the ENF group Nicolas Bay said after Macron’s speech: “Have you not retained anything, you and all the others, of Iraq or of Libya—these interventions that resulted in sowing war, chaos, and allowing jihadists to flourish?”
In fact, regime change in Syria would be a hard sell for President Macron, given the opposition that the intervention in Iraq generated in Europe. Were the French people to be asked to pay for another decade-long war, then it could endanger his standing in upcoming local elections and yank his reform platform from underneath his feet. This is probably why he has insisted that strikes will be retaliatory in the face of the gas attack on civilians. In a press conference, he stated: “This intervention is, under no circumstances, an attack against the Syrian regime or its allies, but a targeted response to the facts that chemical weapons were used.”
Whom exactly French fighter jets are retaliating against if they aren’t destroying any military infrastructure or weaponry owned by the Syrian or Russian governments is probably a mystery to Macron’s own generals. In reality, this is empty rhetoric, much like calling a war a “peace mission.” Explosions speak louder than semantic political truth-dodging, and the fact is that France, if only briefly, undertook actions of war against Syria.
And exactly how long are the strikes supposed to remain “targeted,” avoiding damage to Syrian and even Russian soldiers? In a French parliament debate, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe echoed Macron’s insistence that these strikes did not mean France was going to war with Syria. Yet such a declaration leaves open questions about the specifics: if French fighter jets are confronted by Russian aircraft, will we find ourselves at the brink of a major crisis? What if Assad is alleged to have used chemical weapons again? How exactly will this intervention end, given that we know little to nothing about the capacity of the Syrian regime when it comes to chemical weapons in the first place?
In the United States, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson was critical of the strikes and expressed his worries about the cross-party consensus on this issue:
In fact, the signals that President Trump sent during his presidential campaign indicated that he would not be hawkish in regards to the Middle East. Trump often asserted that the United States should not be “the policeman of the world.” What changed his mind? It may be that Macron is whispering in his ear. The French president claimed it was he who convinced Trump to stay in Syria. Macron had also referred to Russia as being “complicit” in the atrocities committed against the Syrian people, which may have played a role in this Trump tweet:
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
One thing is clear. If the red line is the use of chemical gas, and the evidence of its use by the Syrian regime is established, then why would the international community sit idly by as Assad carries on with his work? If he is a “Gas Killing Animal,” then there is no reason not to remove him, correct? The answer to that is, of course, yes: if the rhetoric matched the determination to act, then Bashar al-Assad would not be the leader of Syria anymore. The reality is not only more complicated: its political.
Even with all the political grandstanding in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Paris, war isn’t popular. Macron, Merkel, Trump, Juncker: the political personnel involved, or potentially involved, in this scenario never ran on platforms of military intervention. If Hillary Clinton were president of the United States, the choices might have been different. However, none of the current leaders can pretend that they are working with a consenting base when they advocate for military strikes. This includes Macron.
The speech that the French president gave in Strasbourg was war propaganda in the sense of the term. War propaganda needs to be built up over time in order to acquire the consent of those asked to pay for the war. Fortunately Macron is being countered by voices of reason on both left and right that urge caution in the face of hasty conclusions that could once again prove devastating for the Middle East. These voices need support, as the self-aggrandizement of those who “care about the children” is increasing.
Looking back at the regret that Europeans feel over interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, it’s time for the electorates of those like Macron to realize that when too many of their leaders hastily agree that there needs to be war, then something, fundamentally, isn’t right.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.