As a Jew, I have a hard time with the idea that boarding an overcrowded train to Germany has come to symbolize hope for survivors. “I am happy that Germany has become a country that many people outside of Germany now associate with hope,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. What a historical twist. And what an understatement.
With hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees entering the Old Continent, and with many more likely to follow, European governments are trying to figure out how to provide food, shelter and legal status for the newcomers. Increasingly they are also trying to figure out how to stop the influx. For four years, Europe has looked the other way as the civil war in Syria killed an estimated 300,000 people and made four million refugees. Now that some of those refugees are entering Europe, the source of the problem can no longer be ignored. But how should it be addressed?
To their credit, European governments tried to stay out of the Syrian quagmire precisely because of its intractability. Winston Churchill said after the 1941 German invasion of Russia that “if Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Picking a lesser evil is a no-brainer, and a necessity, when you fight for your life. As long as European interests were not at stake, European governments could hardly be blamed for avoiding to take sides between Assad and IS. The flow of migrants, and the heartbreaking image of a toddler found dead on a beach, leave no room for dithering.
Hence the growing, yet still timid, calls from European leaders to go fight IS in Syria. French President François Hollande has announced that his country is considering airstrikes against the organization. Britain has conducted its first armed drone strike in Syria. French parliamentarian (and presidential hopeful) Bruno Le Maire is calling for a French-led ground military operation against IS. The influx of Syrian refugees is undoubtedly concentrating European minds. Yet even the most gung-ho Europeans have two problems: a. they are in denial about the fact that bombing IS means helping Assad; b. cuts in military spending have seriously affected Europe’s ability to fight and destroy the organization.
Hollande declared that France will both bombard IS and demand Assad’s departure. This is wishful thinking. According to recent media reports, Russia has recently increased its military support for Assad. Since the signature of the Vienna accord on Iran’s military program in July, there are also reports of increased cooperation between Moscow and Tehran to preserve what is left of Assad’s regime. If Western powers want Iran’s cooperation on the Vienna agreement, toppling Assad is simply off the table. And airstrikes against IS benefit Assad, whether those airstrikes are conducted by the United States, by Britain or by France.
Europe’s second problem is that it is barely meeting NATO’s target for military spending. In her memoirs “Downing Street Years”, Margaret Thatcher laments that Britain, having previously exaggerated its power, now exaggerates its impotence. This impotence, however, is hardly exaggerated: it is both real and self-inflicted. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Europeans adopted the “end of history” psyche, assuming they could safely turn into one big Switzerland and cut military spending. Two-and-a-half decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Europe is facing an aggressive Russia and an Islamic threat with reduced military means.
Military spending is 3.5% of GDP in the US, 4.5% in Russia, 2.2 % both in France and Britain, and 1.2% in Germany. In 2014, Russia’s military spending increased by 8.3%, but France’s and Britain’s decreased. In December 2014, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that his country would not meet NATO’s target of dedicating 2% of GDP to military spending. The Economist reported in April 2015 that Britain might cut its military spending by 10% over the next five years. France is mired in economic stagnation. Germany is wealthy but aging and pacifist.
In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly said about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, “He might be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” What Roosevelt meant by this is that Somoza was indeed a ruthless dictator, but that he also happened to be anti-communist. If Europe wants to end the influx of Syrian refugees, it might have no other choice than to adopt the “our son of a bitch” policy vis-à-vis Assad.