Sunday 18 August 2019

PM wants Syria action to restore UK's global cachet

David Cameron believes that the time is now right to commit British forces
David Cameron believes that the time is now right to commit British forces

Peter Foster

More than two years after losing a vote for military intervention in Syria after the Assad regime crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons, David Cameron argues today that the time is now right to commit British forces.

But to understand why the British prime minister is so insistent this time around, it is necessary to understand that this is not just about responding to the Paris attacks. More than that, this gambit is really about repairing the serious damage that the August 2013 "No" vote did to Britain's standing abroad, which was widely under-appreciated and under-reported in the UK.

While many in Britain celebrated the 2013 vote as an example of British strength and independence - no longer being America's poodle, they said - rightly or wrongly, that was not how it was viewed elsewhere. In Washington, where successive American presidents, from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush, had always been able to rely on Britain when it came to support in military matters, the Syria vote was a direct hit to that previously ironclad assumption. The vote cost Britain. It exposed the weakness of British public support for traditional military intervention, as the ghosts of Tony Blair's handling of the Iraq War returned to haunt Mr Cameron.

Barack Obama soon discovered that his own public was equally reluctant, but the reality is that the British wobble came first and - unjust as this might be - London took the blame for precipitating by far the worst leadership stumble of Mr Obama's presidency. That is something not easily forgotten.

The day after the UK Commons rejected action, a furious John Kerry promised that the US would not be deterred. In a speech torn straight from the old-school foreign policy playbook, Mr Kerry lauded France as America's "oldest ally" and pointedly ignored Britain. The snub was deliberate. "This kind of attack is a challenge to the world," he thundered. "We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale." The unspoken implication, perhaps, was that Britain - once so clear on these things - could accept that world.

To a lesser degree, but on the same theme, officials in Washington voice similar concerns about George Osborne's approach to China.

The administration was in no doubt that Mr Cameron himself wanted to support the US, but the British prime minister had once again displayed his own incompetence. As stories emerged of British government ministers lying on the beach while Cameron was being humiliated in Westminster, the White House could barely conceal its frustration at British ineptitude. While subsequent events would see Mr Obama facing the same difficulties with Congress, the whiff of concern about Mr Cameron's judgment lingered - and still does, as US officials questioned the wisdom of both the Scottish, and now the EU, referendums.

Finally , the Syria vote was also the moment that the UK lost all credibility when it came to exerting pressure on the Obama administration. Britain's earlier demands, both in public and private, for Washington to do more to contain the chaos in Syria as it developed in 2012 suddenly looked empty and hubristic.

British diplomats are often asked if the UK is pressuring the Americans to do more over "x" or "y" issue - which may itself have long been a fantasy of the British media - but after the bungled Syria vote, there is no longer even a pretence that this is possible.

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