Cameron got tough lesson on risks of too much democracy
Published 03/09/2013 | 17:00
There is no dishonour for British Prime Minister David Cameron in the defeat of his government's motion on Syria in the House of Commons last week.
It was the first such defeat of a British Government on a major national security issue in modern times. The great tradition in politics is for unity and bipartisanship in times of adversity and national security threat. So, it was a shock when the prime minister failed to carry the argument in favour of military intervention.
As a former government whip, my political heart missed a beat as I watched the proceedings live on TV and heard the Speaker declare the motion defeated by 13 votes.
It had been an impassioned debate. MPs had been recalled early from their holidays; they were well rested and focused on a single item agenda. Two weeks had passed since the grainy images of choking children and lines of tiny bound corpses had scandalised the world, prompting calls for action to vindicate civilised international norms in war.
In the interim, caution had replaced outrage; conditionality supplanted certainty and principled resolve. The stand-off with Syria's allies at the Security Council, China and Russia, had paralysed any real progress or even debate in that quarter. The EU was looking at its shoes. President Barack Obama was cautious with rhetoric while firm in his resolve to respond militarily. Whatever action was to be "limited and narrow" and not motived towards regime change. This was about "accountability" for the illegal and unconscionable use of chemical and biological weapons, which inter alia he argued constituted a threat to America's national security interests.
Secretary of State John Kerry was hawkish; convinced of the veracity of US intelligence. However, there were discordant voices in the US, with pleas for reflection and enhanced diplomacy before hasty resort to retaliatory strikes.
One Republican senator summed up general qualms when he said "We don't know who the good guys are."
Diplomats at the United Nations were equally divided and hesitant. Weapons inspectors were belatedly on site. They should be allowed to do their work and report back to the Security Council in due course.
Public opinion was negative in both the UK and the US, with polls showing a majority opposed to yet another dangerous adventure in this volatile region. In the public mind, the Middle East has become a lost cause or beyond repair. The Syrian conflict, in particular, appears impossibly complex with no clear pathway that can be explained to a sceptical public to justify military escalation.
Fear of becoming embroiled in a "quagmire" was cited by those polled. But as Tony Blair argued in the wake of the Commons defeat: "Intervention can be uncertain, expensive and bloody. But history has taught us that inaction can merely postpone the reckoning."
Meanwhile, Israelis queued and scrambled for gas masks in anticipation of a chemical attack by Syria, antagonised by any US strike. American destroyers and a submarine bearing cruise missiles silently lurked like sharks in the Mediterranean, waiting for the word.
WHAT happened in the House of Commons was a tough lesson in parliamentary democracy. Mr Cameron had little option but to accept Parliament's veto with good grace, like the gentleman he is. The prime minister can be assured that, despite this apparent slight to his authority, his standing is undiminished. His was a principled and courageous position.
The UK remains a major player in world affairs and the fourth largest military power. This motion was lost because of war fatigue among the public and media distrust of intelligence, both legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan. But to borrow a cockney phrase, the United Kingdom has not "lost its bottle" as a nation. However, a long tradition of bipartisanship on issues of war and peace has been set aside by the somewhat opportunistic behaviour of Labour leader Ed Miliband, the kudos for which might be short lived.
Successive British governments have enjoyed the parliamentary comfort provided by the tradition of bipartisanship on security issues. It has served them well through the worst of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland.
Irish governments, too, relied on cross-party support for the peace process. Like it or not, that process required two sovereign governments and constitutional parties to negotiate with armed subversive terrorist organisations. It was high risk; often requiring the suspension of critical faculties. Yet, not once in 15 years, despite many atrocities and false dawns, was there a Dail vote on the peace process.
So something very significant happened in the House of Commons last week. Even some Tory naysayers were taken aback at the defeat. It wasn't cricket. Allies, France and the US were respectful, if gobsmacked.
But in a surprise move, Obama has himself opted for a dodgy dance with democracy by seeking authorisation of Congress.
He may find that too much democracy can be risky unless one is confident of the outcome.