Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Cameron, UK hurt by Syria vote fiasco

By Hugo Dixon
August 30, 2013

Rarely has a UK prime minister done so much damage to himself in a single week as David Cameron has with his mishandling of a vote authorising military action against Syria. Cameron may cling onto power after his stunning parliamentary defeat on Thursday night, but he will cut a diminished figure on the domestic and international stage. In the process, he has also damaged Britain’s influence.

Cameron’s litany of errors began with his decision to recall parliament from its summer holidays in order to give the green light to British participation in a military strike designed to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its people last week. The decision to get parliament’s approval was right, even if not constitutionally necessary. The mistake was to rush things before all the evidence of Assad’s culpability had been gathered and published. In France, which is also contemplating military action, the parliamentary debate is scheduled for next week.

To be fair, Cameron tried to achieve political consensus. He initially persuaded Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to back military action. He also got Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to sign up. Both of these are also partly to blame for the fiasco. They should have attached many more conditions to their support.

Miliband quickly saw the error of his ways, especially after Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ secretary general, pleaded for his inspectors to be given more time to complete their on-the-scene investigation of the chemical attack. The Labour leader insisted not only on more time, but also that there should be compelling evidence of Assad’s culpability and that the government should aim to secure approval by the U.N. Security Council before launching any strike.

Large numbers of backbench Conservative MPs were also queasy about getting involved in the Syrian civil war, as was a majority of the British public. The shadow of the Iraq war, which parliament authorised on the basis of dodgy intelligence, loomed large.

If Cameron had been sensible, he would have responded to Miliband’s U-turn by letting MPs debate Syria but delaying a vote on military action until the evidence had all been processed and published. But he probably thought this would look weak, given that he had just called them back prematurely from their holidays. The prime minister was also probably anxious to keep to a deal he had seemingly done with Barack Obama to join America in military strikes as soon as this weekend.

Cameron, therefore, chose another tactic: he decided to give MPs two votes. The first one was to authorise the use of military action in principle but subject to certain conditions, including waiting for the U.N. inspectors to finish their job and trying to get U.N. Security Council approval. After this, the government was to return to parliament to have a second vote – for a full green light.

The ploy might have worked, if Cameron had made a bigger effort to get Miliband back onside. But instead, Miliband published a lengthy amendment to Cameron’s motion.

The two proposals were similar in many ways. Both, for example, accepted that it might be right to take military action even if the U.N. Security Council didn’t approve it. But Miliband’s version had a couple of important extra conditions. First, he wanted the evidence of Assad’s guilt to be “compelling.” Second, he wanted any action to have “precise and achievable objectives.”

Labour’s version was an improvement on the government’s motion. Cameron should have negotiated an agreed compromise statement which would have received massive support in parliament. Instead, he made another error. His office started briefing against Miliband, accusing him of “giving succour” to Assad. This foolish action drove the two sides further apart.

Cameron actually performed quite well in parliament – certainly better than either Miliband or Clegg. But the damage was done. Although Labour’s amendment was easily defeated, the government couldn’t carry its motion either after a group of its own MPs joined the opposition.

The prime minister’s mistakes didn’t stop there. Parliament hadn’t actually voted against military action; it just hadn’t authorised it. But Cameron immediately said that Britain now wouldn’t take part in any strikes against Syria. He should have said he would consult with Miliband and reflect carefully on what to do.

His knee-jerk reaction means that even if the U.N. inspectors do produce compelling evidence, the UK will not be part of the alliance to punish Syria. Even if Assad launches a new attack, it will stand on the sidelines. If anything, it is Cameron’s mishandling of the situation which will give “succour” to Assad.

Cameron’s authority at home and abroad has now tanked. Not only has he been unable to get the country to support him; he hasn’t been able to carry his party either. The UK’s so-called special relationship with America has taken a knock too. Britain shouldn’t be in the position of always jumping to do what the United States wants. It should be measured, fair and alive to its own national interests. But what has happened in the last few days is that Britain – or, at least, Cameron – has shown itself to be flaky. How badly that damages its relationship with its most important ally remains to be seen. But it won’t be easily forgotten.

Comments
11 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

While the President may be disappointed, I do not see how that would negatively impact our relationship with the Brits such “that it will not be forgotten”.

The Brits are an independent country, and I am sure they would come to our aid should we be attacked, and we would respond in kind. Beyond that, expecting them to support the attack of a third country (that has attacked neither the UK or the U.S.) without question based on some “moral obligation from the past century” is irrational.

But, there is nothing rational about politics.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

Perspectives…, UK citizens exercised their will in parliament in brief but stunning show of democracy. If anything, it leaves a jolly good impression…, cheers are in order.

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive
 

Could it be that the Brits are concerned that should plans to attack go awry (after all, this is war) and things get really messy, this President does not have the fortitude to back them up for the long haul? After all, what this President says and what he does are often very different.

“Costs will go down”
“Keep your insurance if you like it”
“Response to a video”
“Assad is a reformist”

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

As a Brit who followed the developments of the last 36 hours and the subsequent fall out as reported in UK media very closely, I find this article raises some points not aired in the UK. The most interesting of these is the assertion that Cameron was wrong to immediately rule out involvement in any military action and that he should have kept the door open by saying he would consult further with Miliband. The author is quite correct – the vote did not authorise action but neither did it prohibit it. This does not seem to have been picked up by the pundits on this side of the Atlantic.
Cameron’s government has a track record of knee jerks, u-turns and naive decisions. This episode has been perhaps the most spectacular in terms of embarrassment for Cameron and, by association, the UK. I truly hope that the ‘special relationship’ between the US & UK is based on foundations that are deeper than the shallow actions of a prime minister who is just ‘passing through’.

Posted by MacChap | Report as abusive
 

Although I have respect for only a very few politicians per se, a striking thing for me that has come out of this dire situation is that one man should have been made prime minister in my mind and that is a certain David Davis. The reason why I say this is that he is not just a highly intelligent person but possesses that elusive and importantly lacking commodity in politics today of pure old common-sense. Most politicians based upon historical facts have not this vital asset and the reason why they get things so horribly wrong time and time again. Mr. Davis’s stance on Syria is just a single pointer to his credentials as Prime Minister Stock and where he thinks like the normal man or women in the streets – that typical individual described in common law who rides the Clapham Omnibus. Therefore he has his feet firmly on the ground, not just because of his convictions towards Syria, but down to the majority of things that I have read and heard from Mr. Davis over the last decade. Indeed his background and upbringing from a council house and his parent’s relative living standards of a working-class family environment (even living in a ‘slum’ in Wandsworth, London before securing a council house) have in my mind prepared him to be possibly one of the greatest Prime Ministers that this country could ever have if he was allowed to be so. Unfortunately in this respect the elitist mindset of the conservatives where one can see this clearly with the current voted-in incumbents, will in the end in my humble opinion be the road to oblivion for the Conservative Party. For Cameron even if he is re-elected come 2015, will only last for no more than two years as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. Therefore if common-sense prevails and if the British people wish to see a prime minister that is truly for the people they need not look any further than David Davis. Indeed in this respect also if the Conservative Party have any acumen at all and thoughts for their Party’s successful future that is inextricably intertwined with their own long-term good, they should look no further either to appoint a working-class boy who knows what life is all about and will deliver the goods. An achievement that has been missing for two decades now and where it is time that this changed for the British people and their families.

Dr David Hill

Chief Executive

World Innovation Foundation

Posted by bettysenior | Report as abusive
 

It’s odd how so few in the media have reported the vote in the UK Parliament correctly. The main issue was that they did not want to make a decision until after the UN makes its report (even if it proves meaningless with respect to who’s responsible). That’s not a vote of no-confidence, it’s simply and expectedly a desire to wait until the results are in. They don’t want to be caught in the middle of another Bush-style political maneuver to mislead.

Who knows where the Brits will be in two weeks, especially after Congress makes its stand?

It’s going to be interesting hearing Members of Congress babble variations on, “I personally don’t think it’s right, but we can’t have our President being mocked by foreigners because he didn’t carry out his implied threats. That’s for Members of Congress to state!”

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

This is probably the best piece on this political shambles for the UK (and thats not intended to diminish the real horrors for people in Syria and surrounding countries by any means) I have read. People keep going on about the vote on Thursday night being a great day for democracy in the UK. I don’t see it. All I can see is that the UK parliament and government and the PM have, albeit unwittingly and through sheer mismanagement and arrogance, let everybody (except the people we supposedly deplore, Putin, Assad and not least the likes of UKIP at home) down. For the sake of misplaced pride and a few words of caution in a motion we are now well and truelly up the creek in the world (the paddle went with Cameron’s “I get it”) and will see cans of worms opening up all over the place here at home.
And yes David Davis is indeed a far better man for the job at No. 10. Alas our politics and diplomacy has to be run like a 24-hour soap opera full of self-obsessed little Hitlers.

Posted by w-t-w | Report as abusive
 

If both sides are anti-West it would seem dumb to do anything that looks like taking sides.

Giving the rebels a limited quantity poison gas for vengeance may show the world poison gas will met with the same. Also it will keep our hands clean.

Hopefully it will teach both sides killing is not nice. But do not count on it. The religious wars in Europe lasted a long time. True believers do not look at world as it is and not as it told to be, also people using them are making a profit.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive
 

Unless one need the strength of allies, to keep losses low a good leader will talk peace and surrender while mobilizing a attack in overwhelming force and suddenness. He will not inform the enemy of his plans.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive
 

Except for nuclear bombs, all other bombs are “chemical”, all with horrendous results such as over 100,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of injuries to men, women and children in Syria. Why are nerve gas weapons worse?

This whole argument is beyond silly. Who cares about the President saving face with his repeated gaffes involving his “red lines”? Are we back to labeling our Commanders-in-Chief wimps because they’re not hawks, with knee-jerk commitment of our soldiers to lost causes?

It could be considered an act of heroism for the PotUS to initiate an action opposed by 90% of Americans and millions of others around the globe, including the “rebels” who would supposedly benefit, but actually expect Assad to get worse in his commitment to eradite his own citizens. They’re all terrorists! Right.

We have now progressed way beyond unwise and foolish, to one of the definitions of insanity: keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Then, many realize that there is a small group of very rich people who stand to gain significantly from every conflict around the globe and they bribe Members of Congress to see their will is done. It’s all about $ $ $ $

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

I would not be at all surprised to see this “limited strike” on Assad turn quickly (perhaps simultaneously)into an all out bombardment of Iran’s nuclear program. Justified revulsion over the use of poison gas alone doesn’t overcome the likelihood of a retaliatory strike causing more harm than good in Syria’s civil war. What this strike will enable is a claim that Iran fired missiles at Israel in support of Assad. That’s all it will take, and in the heat of the moment there will be no need to substantiate Iran’s actions.

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive
 

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