There are many wonderful things I appreciate about France. I’ve visited there a number of times and have always enjoyed the experience — except for driving a van around Paris, which was, um, “exciting,” to be polite.
Unfortunately, since the turn of the last century (maybe a bit earlier), French foreign policy has hardly been what I would call subtle and effective. Not to be too insulting, but it’s pretty much been on a par with our own; to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, “Mumble a lot and hit yourself in the head with a big stick.”
To be fair, not too many countries are doing any better. Over the last 100 years or so, the world has seen at least three major shifts in the character of international affairs. I’m not sure any government has really managed to keep up.
No government of means recognized the implications of industrial “total war” before the onset of The Great War. When the world shifted to the long confrontation of the Cold War era, France — a pre-war colonial power — demonstrated a particular inability to function in a post-colonial international environment. Their response to the insurgency in French Indochina was a clear failure, and their reaction to the rise of native nationalism and subsequent events in Algeria was so clumsy that France itself nearly descended into civil war.
Now, with the end of the Cold War, France once again — much like the US — is showing itself incapable of cogent political action in the atmosphere of the new paradigm of international relations. The recent French proposal for a “humanitarian corridor” in Syria is one of the dumbest ideas yet put forward with regard to that very tragic situation. Truthfully, there haven’t yet been any “smart” ideas offered (and I’m not saying I have one), primarily because no international bodies or organizations remain that have any utility in dealing with political strife and/or violence inside of a sovereign nation with a still-functioning government.
I use the term “utility” loosely, because it’s arguable whether organizations like the UN have ever had “utility” in the purest since. Many of the confrontations or conflicts subjected to forceful UN intervention over the years have not been resolved. Israel, Cyprus, Korea, Bosnia, Iraq; all these continue as confrontations-in-progress to this day. The situations are merely contained, not resolved.
The concept of a “humanitarian corridor” certainly lies within the legal remit of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, no argument there. In some circumstances, the concept can work. But is one of those circumstances a lengthy line of communications through the territory of an intact, sovereign state (possessed of a large military) to provide aid to groups that state considers to be in rebellion?
First things first. Which UN member nations would provide the military force necessary to establish and maintain a corridor through Syrian territory? It’s safe to assume that Syria likely would not agree to allow aid to what the government considers rebels without some form of coercion. What force would provide that coercion? Is the well-being of Syrian civilians so compelling a national interest for any external government that it would risk military casualties to sustain them?
Make no mistake: Over the last 25 years (or more) of international interventionism, the most clear trend is that no government has been willing to assume any risk for its military forces when deployed on behalf of the UN. Even if a UN intervention were to have any sort of strategic goal (which they have not), that single operational reality would prevent success: Nations are willing to “deploy” forces, but unwilling to “employ” forces. They’re all hat and no cattle, as we say here in the swamp.
Which brings up an equally important issue: The international community has no effective means for intervening in Syria because the international community can’t establish a common “desired outcome” — a strategic goal — that the intervention would bring about. Put bluntly, unless you have an “end,” you can’t establish a “means.” The United States may have an ideal desired outcome, the Turks another, and the French yet another. Clearly the Russians and Chinese have desired outcomes entirely at odds with their Security Council “partners.”
Providing aid to civilians, restraining the Syrian military, ending the bloodshed; none of these are outcomes. Rather, they are conditions; conditions that might later lead to an outcome, but merely conditions nevertheless. Neither is “regime change” a strategic goal. At best it’s an intermediate, undefined result that may, or may not, satisfy those governments which seek it and eventually lead to an outcome.
Of course, none of these considerations will prevent the international community from eventually doing something. History has demonstrated that as well. When faced with a media-occupying and immense human tragedy, governments eventually decide that some sort of action must be taken. As history has also shown, the response will lack strategic goals — and likely the necessary operational means — but governments will act at some point, regardless.
Sadly, the likely options will be 1) Dumb and 2) Dumber, because it’s always easier to agree that “something must done” than to agree on what that “something” ought best to be.