Friday, 30 August 2013

Syria: the case just wasn't a very good one

Well, when we said 'watch this space', we didn't realise that 'this space' would be filled with the most important Parliamentary revolt over foreign policy since Suez - or even since the Norway debate in 1940, which helped to bring down Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government. The Coalition has been defeated over the most basic and visceral issues of all - peace and war. And now it appears that it is Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, who makes Britain's foreign policy. Well, well, well.

Nothing like Chamberlain's dramatic fall will happen this time, of course. This was a theoretical motion about joining an action that may never happen (David Cameron - above - has reason to thank Mr Miliband that this was not the substantive and decisive motion, which might have been a different matter). Sure, the Prime Minister has been deeply wounded and, to quote one of Prime Minister Macmillan's enemies over the Profumo scandal, it will never be 'glad, confident morning again'. But he can bounce back with a few breezy announcements. He can say that he listened, and that he will continue to listen. Above all, as the economy continues to pull itself off the floor, he can just wait and watch his poll ratings slowly improve. He'll live to fight another day.

But consider the sheer scale of his defeat. Ed Miliband's speech was, frankly, poor. Maybe about thirty Labour MPs stayed away, or failed to get back from holiday in time. Plenty of Conservative MPs who would have voted against an actual 'war motion', authorising the use of force, held their noses and voted with the Government. What do we think the scale of the Prime Minister's humiliation would have been on Saturday or Tuesday, had he got through last night. What would he have lost by? Forty? Fifty?

The historic ramifications of last night's vote are, on one level, absolutely enormous. This continues to be the most rebellious and disputatious House of Commons of modern times. MPs are more and more independent, more and more stroppy, and more and more outspoken. As the powers of the centre want, patronage dries up (especially when two parties are struggling for their spoils), and devolution and localism make themselves felt, ask yourself this: who should MPs really listen to? Their constituents, who elect them? Or the Government Whips, who call them all sorts of things - both behind their backs, and to their faces? I know who I'd think was paying my wages. And what Members of the House have done is to assert Parliamentary control over the Royal Prerogative - that perennial running sore of eighteenth century politics. It's becoming harder and harder to imagine any government taking Britain into large-scale military action without a Parliamentary vote.

But the vote was also more specific, and it needn't mean that Britain is withdrawing into its shell forever. The debate was about the merits of this case, and no other. On what basis, you might well ask, without a formal UN Resolution?

The UK’s Coalition parties said that the doctrine of a ‘responsibility to protect’, which has been evolving from the concept of humanitarian intervention since about the turn of the century, would have given them this legal and moral cover – or indeed imperative. You can have a look through the relevant legal andphilosophical documents here if you want – and they do indeed dictate that ‘the international community should respond to emerging crises involving the potential for large-scale loss of life and other widespread crimes against humanity’. They talk about ‘timely and decisive response to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity’. And that’s absolutely right. But the Government’s rhetoric never really focused on standing between aggressors and defenceless citizens at all. It was all about deterring – and punishing – the Syrian regime. It was a poor message, and that's in part why it went down so badly.

Would sending a few cruise missiles down the chimneys of President Assad’s command and control networks really protect those civilians? There must be grave room for doubt on this count. These types of pinpricks never really deterred Saddam Hussein, and the cruise missiles that President Bill Clinton aimed at Al-Qaeda ‘training camps’ and ‘munitions stores’ in Afghanistan and Sudan during 1998 didn’t exactly cripple or deter that organisation either. President Obama’s idea of intervention seems to be a quick strike, and then a retreat, and the whole thing runs the risk of falling in between two stools: big enough to enrage Iraq and Russia, but nowhere enough to stop the same thing happening again. Well might Assad smile at the foolishness of his enemies, just as President Nasser during the 1956 Suez Crisis once found the French and the British far, far too slow to challenge him with the alacrity and sense of necessity that might have carried world opinion with them.

It’s a pity in a way, for the Syrian regime does need someone with a big stick to stand up to its bullying ways. Last night's horrible footage of the use of incendiary weapons against a school is just one more confirmation of that outstanding fact - as if we needed any. But we’ve never been convinced that this particular operation was ever a good idea. For without a sound legal basis, strong public backing – such as existed to different extents over the Falklands, the first Gulf War and Sierra Leone – at least a measure of Parliamentary unity and above all legitimacy, this one had ‘mistake’ written all over it. That's what the House of Commons thought as well.