1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns announces his retirement at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008. (ddp images/AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Image: dapd

Syrian strike

Interview: Michael Knigge
September 6, 2013

A former top State Department official tells DW why he thinks President Obama was wrong to ask Congress for approval for a strike on Syria and why he expects Germany to politically support Paris and Washington.


Nicholas Burns served as US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008, the State Department's third-ranking official. During his career he was also US Ambassador to Greece from 1997 to 2001 and NATO from 2001 to 2005. He is currently Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at Harvard University.

DW: As the Syria crisis and debate about military action against the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons continues, have you seen a common EU stance or do you share the impression that it seems the EU has not even tried to reach a joint position?

Nicholas Burns: My sense is that the Europeans are mostly united in one respect and that's the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Europe was central to the major chemical weapons convention after WWI and again after WWII and during the Cold War. And my sense is that the great majority of European countries oppose what Assad has done in subjecting the civilian population to a chemical weapons attack and one of the European countries, France, has indicated that it is willing to take part in military action with the United States. So I think that's fairly strong support from Europe.

But are you aware of a common EU position whether military action is good or bad?

No we have not seen that. And that reflects a pattern of the last 15 or 20 years that it is not usual for the NATO countries, Europe, America and Canada, to be absolutely united on the use of force. We did not see that in Iraq, we did not see that in the very beginning in Afghanistan. But we have seen that France and Britain are normally willing to take the lead. In this case it was disappointing to see that the British parliament could not agree that Britain would participate in really enforcing international law, which is what this action by the United States and France would be: simply to insure that international law is being followed on the critical issue of chemical weapons.

While it's not unheard of that the EU can't reach a common stance on foreign policy issues, especially if they relate to the use of military action, what do you make of Britain's abrupt change of heart in supporting military action?

It's disappointing, but I think it does reflect the reality that publics in many of our countries, including in the United States by the way, are very tired of war after more than a decade of war following 9/11. We've seen that in the debate in the US Senate this week with many people referring to the fact that we can no longer afford either politically or financially to be involved in these kinds of wars in the Middle East. But in this case of course, President Obama is not proposing a war, he is proposing a series of limited air strikes that will enforce international law and that will hopefully prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again against his own people.

French President Francois Hollande meanwhile is still strongly supportive of a strike, even though the move is not popular in France either. What is his motivation?

France - a lot of people forget this, including Americans - is our oldest friend. France fought with us against Britain during the war for our revolution and independence in the late 18th century. And the French have taken in recent years a very tough position on the issue of nuclear weapons' ambitions of the Iranian government. They have taken a very tough position on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. So France is really acting in my view to protect the non-proliferation system and to fight against the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons. I think it's a very responsible and welcome position.

Most unusual was of course President Barack Obama's own stance on military action on Syria and his decision to seek Congress' approval before a strike, just shortly after John Kerry had set the stage for impending military action. Were you surprised by Obama's move?

It was a very surprising decision and I think a very risky decision, because our president under our constitution has the authority to use military force in a limited way without asking for prior authorization from Congress. And presidents from President Reagan to President Clinton to President George W. Bush have exercised that right as they should. It is risky because this is now subject to a political process in Washington and a vote in Congress.

It's also risky because the credibility of the United States is at stake: President Obama said more than a year ago that we would act if Assad used chemical weapons. But he has now done so at least twice that we know of. And so it's very important that we send a message to a dictator like Assad that he cannot use chemical weapons against innocent civilians as he has done. And we need to intimidate and deter him from doing so in the future. So it's a risky decision by President Obama, but still I support President Obama in hoping to win this vote in Congress and to bringing military force to bear against Syria.

As you said there is a strong debate over military action and a lot of it centers around whether it makes sense to strike without a larger plan for Syria and whether the argument that the red line needs to be enforced justifies military action. Why do you support the use of force?

Because I think it is important that we use force against the Syrian military to degrade their artillery and air force assets so that they can't use chemical weapons or that they are intimidated from using it against civilians in the future. That is a very important humanitarian obligation that we have. And we can save lives, particularly civilian lives, in the future in Syria if we can intimidate Assad from using force in the future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has now threatened consequences should military force be used against Syria. What do you make of that?

I think that the statements by President Putin have been cynical and that is customary for him and for the Russian government. They have looked the other way. They are arming the Syrian government. They won't look at the fact that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and their position is decidedly unhelpful and contrary to international law.

Germany has tried to walk a fine line on Syria. Berlin issued strong statements against the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, but made it clear that Germany would not take part in military action. What's your view of Berlin's stance so far on Syria?

Germany is such an important country, it's a global leader and the European leader, that Germany's political support for France and the United States would be very welcome. And I think it's warranted. Germany should support what France and the United States are going to do. It'll be Germany's decision as to whether or not it participates and I think Chancellor Merkel has indicated it will not participate in military action. So at the very least German support for the United States and France is what an ally should do.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A head shot of Dmitry Medvedev

Ukraine updates: Medvedev says Putin arrest would be 'war'

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage