Germany’s lower house of Parliament voted today to participate in the military campaign against ISIS in Syria, 445-146. Germany will send a frigate to protect the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle stationed in the Mediterranean, 6 Tornado reconnaissance jets, a refueling aircraft, and 1,200 personnel to operate it all.
In taking this step, the German Bundestag joined the French and British Parliaments in voting for military action agains ISIS. On November 25, the French Parliament resolved to continue and intensify the country’s campaign against ISIS. The French military had already been conducting air operations in Iraq for a year and in Syria since September, under orders from President Hollande, who cited a U.N. Resolution and a local request as his basis for action.
And on December 2, the British House of Commons voted 397 to 223 in favor of launching air strikes against ISIS in Syria. (Richard Aldous analyzed the impact of that vote for TAI here.) The vote stands in stark contrast to a 2013 Parliamentary vote against getting involved in Syria, a contrast which illustrates the important developments of these last two weeks. The three major powers of Europe have now all democratically acknowledged the need for military involvement in in the Middle East.
This is, as anyone familiar with the history of the last decade or so knows, a big deal. In some senses, it marks a turning point. The decision is popular in Germany (58 percent support), France (81 percent), and Britain (48 percent, but only 31 percent disapprove). And that’s not undermined, but rather underlined, by the statements of German elites who concede they’re taking the action primarily because they feel obliged to help France. Military involvements to help allies and honor commitments are a crucial part of alliances and of a grown-up foreign policy.
But, there are a few big buts. Military capacity is one: None of the European states in question really have the stuff to prosecute this war on their own. Germany will not directly participate in any bombing missions. After the British vote, four Tornado fighters took off from an airbase in Cyprus to bomb six targets in the al-Omar oil field in eastern Syria, and eight more aircraft flew out to help. U.S. Senator John McCain called the British contribution “token aircraft.” As we’ve noted, and as the Europeans surely know, their militaries have atrophied quite a bit. There have been various attempts—especially in Germany—to correct that, but there’s a long way to go.
Which raises another question, this one political: Given that atrophy, how committed are France, Germany, and Britain to defeating ISIS and, in the long run, to reengaging with the world around them? Is the effort, as a whole, also only “token?”
Likely, the answer to that question won’t be a straight yes or no so much as a series of conflicting impulses born out by political debates. But the opening is there. And that means, going forward, U.S. leadership will be key. If Europe is now more open to reengaging with the world, the U.S., as the biggest player in the Western alliance, must lead the way, whether now or in the next Administration. As Europe pivots to the world, America must pivot to Europe.