Did I miss something while I was away?
The most important thing about yesterday’s vote in Britain is to understand that it was as much about British domestic politics as it was about Syria. It does not mean that Britain has suddenly joined the EU’s permanently semi-pacifist core. And it was also the consequence of a virtuoso display of political incompetence of a type that has come to mark the Cameron government. The first thing that went wrong for the prime minister was that he either failed to appreciate (or decided to ignore) just how much Iraq has changed the politics of war in UK. The Brits are still a pretty martial lot, but the perception that they were ‘tricked’ into war in Iraq on the basis of dodgy intelligence means that the standard of believability attached to any intelligence being used to justify a new war has to be very high indeed. It is by no means clear that that standard has been reached here. Rather than seeming to rush into military action against Syria, it would have been wise to take the time to prepare a much better case–so to speak– for the prosecution. No less importantly, Brits read the accounts of a strong strain of Islamic fundamentalism in the rebel ranks (and they see what’s happening to Syria’s Christians), and they wonder quite why it is in Britain’s interest to—directly or indirectly—support those rebels. Again, there is a case to be made that it is, but that case was not made. Or not made well enough, at least.
Sensing the rising groundswell of opinion against any action (not least from UKIP, that looming threat to any Tory majority in 2015), Cameron went to parliament and ended up proposing a fairly weak motion saying that the Syrian chemical attack “may, if necessary require military action”, but making clear that nothing would be done without a further parliamentary consultation. The Labour opposition submitted an amendment calling for “compelling evidence” that Assad had been responsible for the chemical attack. If Cameron had accepted it, it would have won the day. With not uncharacteristic arrogance, however, he arranged for it to be rejected, just one of his many missteps in this saga, thereby presenting an open space between his shoulders for the Labour leader, the fratricidal Ed Milliband, to plunge a dagger if the moment came. That moment was to come. Cameron had believed that had no reason to fear. He had, he reckoned, enough votes from his coalition to win the vote. Sloppy fieldwork has been a feature of the Cameron years, but even by his standards this was an epic both of ineptitude and over-confidence. The Tory Whips’ Office is clearly not what it was.
Some MPs on whose support Cameron ought to have been able to could count simply failed to show up, through disorganization, incompetence or who knows what. But what finally sunk Cameron was the opposition of a hard core of Conservatives far from fond of a Prime Minister visibly uncomfortable with his own party. He’s antagonized these rebels in quite a few ways over the years, but one key elenent in their discontent is an entirely justified suspicion that Cameron has wandered too far down the supranationalist path, whether it is in his environmentalist extremism, his failure to seriously confront EU overreach, his extravagant and often wasteful overseas aid program, the Libyan adventure and so on. The idea that they should now trust him to act in the national interest in the hugely complicated Syrian morass was, quite understandably a step too far. Doubtless a number of them will also have picked up on President Obama’s lack of support for Britain over the Falklands and, for that matter, the president’s repeated attempts to convince Britain to remain in the EU, a stance that reflects no understanding whatsoever of British or American strategic interests. Under the circumstances why go to war to save Obama’s face over those red lines?
The final (for now) blunder was in Cameron’s petulant response to the defeat, seemingly ruling out British involvement in Syria for the foreseeable future. What he should have made clear was that he accepted the will of parliament, that Britain would stand clear for now, but that he reserved the right to raise the issue again with parliament if, in his view, changing facts merited it. Of course he can always still do that, but his immediate post-vote remarks have made it considerably more difficult to do so.