Look at David Cameron’s eyes in this BBC video extract from the conclusion of Thursday (29th) night’s debate in the House of Commons. They are full of cold fury when he says: “I get that and the Government will act accordingly.”
Poor Dave had had a hard day, having been seriously mucked about by Ed Milliband . First Ed apparently indicated on Tuesday (27th) evening that he would support the principle of a missile attack on key Syrian military installations providing there could be no attack until a second vote approved it, following the weapons inspectors’ report due this weekend. Dave conceded that; but then Ed played a blinder Thursday morning: Labour would not support an attack until there was ‘compelling evidence’ that Bashar al-Assad’s government was indeed behind the appalling use of chemical weapons at Ghouta on Wednesday 21st.
Since the weapons inspectors’ job was to ascertain unequivocally that a gas attack had taken place and what chemical agents had been used, rather than directly apportion blame, it was far from certain they would provide the ‘compelling evidence’ Ed demanded. Meanwhile, Associated Press was reporting that anonymous US intelligence agents were briefing that the evidence they had for Assad’s regime being responsible for Ghouta was nothing like as solid as John Kerry, Joe Biden and Barrack Obama were claiming, thus undermining their argument for a strike (Kimberley Dozier & Matt Puzzo).
With a number of Tory and Lib Dem MPs having indicated they would not vote for the Government’s motion, things were looking decidedly sticky for Dave by the time the Commons debate began. What happened at the end of the debate was completely unpredictable and is being talked about on internet forums as a stunning example of representative democracy. It certainly made compulsive viewing. Rarely can a parliamentary vote have been quite so exciting. First Ed’s ‘compelling evidence’ amendment was defeated – BOO!!! – then Dave’s attack-in-principle motion was thrown out – HIP, HIP, HOORAY!!!!
Ed’s question on Dave potentially using the royal prerogative – see the video – was critical. Technically, constitutionally, Dave could have argued that, such was the severity of the situation, he could ignore the will of the Commons and still attack Syria. For all that so often over the past 3 years Dave has acted like an ORANGE-driven Yuppie sleazeball, on this occasion, his BLUE vMEME seemed to come off best in his selfplex. For all his barely-contained rage, he did the right thing and gave Ed and the world his assurance.
In spite of the astonishment at an instance of real democracy in the Commons and the cheering that Britain is not going into another war situation – at least, not just yet – the crisis is far from over. Moreover, the vote has thrown our Government into uncharted political waters.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle yesterday morning ruled out German support for or participation in an attack on Syria – at least as things currently stand. However, François Hollande has stated unequivocally that France is ready to join with the Americans.
For Hollande’s RED, struggling to better his image after being judged “the most unpopular [head of state] in modern French history” in recent polls (Peter Allen), cosying up to the Americans (but in a fiercely independent Gallic sort of way!) as their new best friend (now the Brits have let them down), must seem a very opportune move. A ‘good little war’ usually improves a leader’s standing – remember what the Falklands War did for Margaret Thatcher’s standing! According to the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt, there is little outright enthusiasm for a military strike in France but 44-55% of the population do believe Assad’s regime needs to be punished for Ghouta.
The Americans undoubtedly will be glad of Hollande’s dogmatic support. While the fall-out in Washington from the Commons vote is still being assessed, initial reaction is that the US is still likely to attack Syria. The Guardian reported Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council, as indicating the Americans would consider acting unilaterally. “The US will continue to consult with the UK government – one of our closest allies and friends. As we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States. He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.” (Peter Lewis & Spencer Ackerman, 2013a)
However, with a significant number of the American public generally hostile to further American military adventures, the British decision may have the effect of galvanising the opposition to become more vociferous.
Both men are ambitious politicians. For Kerry, in particular, having an image as the Secretary of State who manned up Barrack Obama to face an evil and ruthless dictator who slaughtered his own people with chemical weapons must have really appealed to his RED vMEME. (BBC American correspondent Mark Mardell’s assessment of Kerry’s speech last night provides a good indication of who is driving who towards war: “John Kerry did far more than set out a moral case for military action. What he did was make it impossible for President Barack Obama to back away from it. He said if the US didn’t act, history would judge them harshly.”) Forget the lacklustre presidential campaign of 2004 or the ignominy of 6 months of haranguing the Israelis and the Palestinians and still only being able to get them to agree to have ‘talks about talks’. If he does fancy another crack at the presidency when Obama goes, the ‘tough guy’ image should serve him well….
Unless, of course, the missile strikes result in large numbers of casualites. Unless, of course, the missiles have little effect and Assad carries on as before. Unless, of course, the missiles have too much effect: the Syrian military is flattened and demoralised, the rebels win and the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists set up a putative radical Islamic caliphate in Damascus after wiping out the moderate Free Syrian Army. Unless, of course, the missiles trigger a new cold war with Russia that will waste energy, money and resources and trigger proxy hot wars fought between manipulated small countries across the developing world. Unless, of course, Syria and Hezbollah respond by showering Israel with rockets and the Israelis strike back, triggering a new Middle Eastern war. And, if some of those rockets contain chemical agents and the Israelis respond with nukes….
…then we’re all in the shit!
Key allies like Britain and Germany say: Don’t do it! According to yesterday’s Washington Post, a number of current and ex-senior Pentagon officials are saying the same – among them Marine Lt Col Gordon Miller, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who warns of “potentially devastating consequences, including a fresh round of chemical weapons attacks and a military response by Israel.” (Ernesto Londoño)
Moreover, the Post wonders whether Congress should get to vote on carrying out a strike as the British Parliament did.
If Kerry’s BLUE and ORANGE can get traction in his selfplex, then Kerry might just reflect that there are huge risks in a missile strike and there’s more chance of damage to his career than furthering it. Better if he and America’s allies could find a way to engage the Russians to work on a solution.
It’s in the Russians’ interest to work with the Americans as well. Vladimir Putin might want to bolster old ally Syria in a Soviet-era-style show of standing together against the old enemy. But Russia is rapidly becoming a rich country and though the real wealth is largely confined to a small elite, more and more Russians are taking on middle class values and wanting a piece of the ‘good life’. In our Internet-connected world, the Kremlin can only control so much of Russian cultural thinking. How many of the rich Russian elite and the growing middle class would really want to risk everything for a backwards-looking and ruthless dictator in the Middle East? And since Russia is a neo-democracy these days, Putin can only ignore ‘the people’ so much. (Though his RED doubtless would like Soviet-era domination and control!)
Plus, the Russians and the Americans fear al-Qaeda in equal measure. Working together in Syria presents the opportunity to deal the jihadists some serious blows.
(For more on my thoughts on the US and Russia working together in Syria, see Chemical Weapons: escaping Obama’s Trap.)
Syria isn’t going away and one or both sides will use chemical weapons again soon. Perhaps sooner if there is no missile strike – no punishment. Even if there is no missile strike and there is no further use of chemical weapons, the slaughter will continue for some time to come – with all the challenges and the dangers that presents.
In an absurd, bizarre and incredibly-tragic way, it was fitting that, as Britain’s MPs debated intellectually in the safe splendour of the Commons chamber, footage emerged on the BBC of the aftermath of a Syrian airforce incendiary bomb dropped on a school playground (Ian Pannell & Darren Conway). No chemical weapons involved in this attack. Just the horror of slaughter…by means probably as horrible as chemical weapons.
So were does this leave Cameron now and what does he do?
He certainly came out fighting in interviews yesterday, clinging to the need to have ‘a robust response’ to the use of chemical weapons – but many commentators (such as Matt Chorley & Mark Duell in the traditionally Tory Daily Mail) regard him as having been ‘humiliated’. The BBC’s Nick Robinson writes: “The prime minister has lost control of his own foreign and defence policy and as a result he will cut a diminished figure on the international stage…It is – perhaps – here at home, though, that David Cameron will feel the most political pain. The rupture with his own party which he did so much to try to repair is back on public display.”
It looks as though Cameron’s RED/BLUE zealotry, fuelled by a genuine GREEN abhorrence at the footage of young children dead and dying at Ghouta and a righteous BLUE determination to support the spread of Democracy, led him into the delusion that he was unassailably correct in his view that a missile strike was the only real response. He was thus blinded to all the other arguments about what to do and the weakness of the evidence obtained. It led him into a groupthink with Kerry, Biden and Obama that locked and crystallised limited thinking.
How much Cameron really ‘doesn’t get it’ and is locked into groupthink is epitomised by 10 Downing Street publicising yesterday that Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague had spoken to Obama and Kerry respectively and encouraged them in their intention to make a ‘tough’ response. The British Parliament has said No. It seems there is a considerable groundswell among Britons in general against making a strike at this point in time. Many senators and representatives are demanding greater clarity from Obama before offering support. Unless a clean surgical strike with no consequences can be guaranteed, there seems little appetite for it amongst Americans in general. Yet Obama, Kerry, Biden, Cameron and Hague persist in their groupthink fantasy.
Underpinning this continuing insistence that he is right – and, by implication, Parliament and the country at large are wrong – is Cameron’s RED’s drive to avoid shame. (What kind of leader is he if he admits he reacted too quickly to Ghouta and Parliament did the sensible thing by saying No?) Shame is also a tool Kerry is using to drive Obama – the history will judge us harshly stuff.)
Milliband, thinking in ORANGE, deserves full credit for out-manoeuvring Cameron and putting a least a British brake on the rush to launch missiles. Plus, in interviews yesterday, he spent far less airtime crowing over Cameron’s defeat and much more on what now needs to be done to help resolve the Syrian crisis. He’s not coming up with any real ideas yet…but at least he’s at least beginning to look and sound more like a potential leader.
Robinson writes: “A defeat in Parliament on matters of peace and war is without modern precedent.” Lord John Reid of Cardowan, defence secretary under Tony Blair 2005- 2006, agrees with him, according to Nick Renaud-Komiya: “It’s unprecedented for a prime minister and deputy prime minister and a government with a majority to lose a vote on a three line whip, on a foreign affairs issue, which involves military action. It’s certainly not within my living memory and it is therefore a massive blow to the Prime Minster himself, and the Foreign Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister.”
Some are talking of Parliament having recovered some of the power Margaret Thatcher gradually took away from it as she developed a more presidential approach to the role of prime minister and which Tony Blair, with his so-called ‘kitchen cabinet’ of decision-makers, exacerbated.
It’s really far too early to say what Thursday night will mean for leading politicians and for the relationship between the executive and the legislature in this country – or for politicians and the country at large. What we can see quite clearly is that Cameron, Nick Clegg and others who backed Cameron’s call to arms, are clearly on the back foot and increasingly look either deluded or desperate.
They have been damaged; the question is: to what degree.
Equally, the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK has been damaged. White House officials might try to gloss over Parliament’s decision but the sour faces and narrowed eyes tell a different story. Again, the question is to what degree the ‘special relationship’ has been damaged and to what degree is it repairable.
The coming days and weeks are going to be very interesting…and probably very tragic as a lot of people are likely to lose their lives.
But maybe, just maybe, Obama can use the British No vote and all the confusion as to just how reliable the current intelligence is, to get around Kerry and suggest, firstly, that they talk to Congress and, secondly, they talk to Putin.
When so many lives are at stake, it’s got to be worth a try!