On Syria, England defects

By John Lloyd
August 30, 2013

Thursday’s British House of Commons vote against Britain aiding in a Syrian intervention led me to center on one question: what will happen to the U.S.-UK relationship? Is that alliance now gravely weakened? Can it survive in a meaningful form?

Specifically, will Britain ever again be able to partner with the United States in any future military interventions? Without Britain, the United States will certainly carry on. It has a new best friend in France — french fries top of the menu now! — and maybe Turkey will be willing, too. In the UK, Prime Minister Cameron says Britain will remain committed to mobilising opposition to the Assad regime, delivering humanitarian aid, and deploring the use of chemical weapons.

George Osborne, the chancellor, said that the U.S.-UK relationship was a “very old one, very deep and operates on many layers.” President Obama, in an astonishingly passionate speech he gave to the UK Parliament in May 2011, agreed, calling it “one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known.”

After the vote, both sides did a bit of squirming, saying that democracies sometimes bite leaders’ bottoms. And, to be sure, the UK and the U.S. have taken quite different views since World War Two — on the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Suez, on Vietnam, on the U.S. invasion of Grenada — with “bruises on both sides” (as a U.S. memo on the Grenada row between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan put it), but no lasting damage. 

Yet a former British ambassador to the U.S. — speaking anonymously — told me he thought that this was a profound moment, rather than just an awkward episode. He is likely to be right: the business end of the special relationship — the willingness of the UK to partner the U.S. in military actions — is likely being held hostage to British public opinion. That public is in no mood to accept warnings of future but unproven risks, judgments based on intelligence and strong leadership into entanglement in foreign wars. Indeed, “intelligence” is now seen, among many, as equal to “stupidity.”

During the Commons debate Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary when the UK was with the U.S. in the invasion of that country in 2003, said  that the shadow of Iraq “has made the public much more questioning.” There is good reason to question. The former U.N. under secretary and advisor to the Foreign Office in the Blair governments, Michael (Lord) Williams, who spent many hard years in the Middle East, told me that he fears that a government that replaced Assad’s would be worse, and that Syria’s many minorities — Christians, Druze, Kurds, Alawites — would be in great danger.

MPs are now much more beholden to their electorates, who, polls show, are hostile to action. The widespread — and erroneous — belief that the Tony Blair government lied to get the UK into the Iraq war lies like a London fog over any debate on new actions. Britain may be out of action for the foreseeable future. The former director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department in the first George W. Bush administration was blunt about it: the UK, he wrote, is now joining the “demilitarization of Europe” and “is in danger of separating itself from both the EU and the U.S.” The former Ambassador to Washington noted that the vote puts Britain in the same position as Germany: firmly in the Western camp, unable to do match words with deeds.

The United States has its guilty reflexes over Iraq, too: and this president, an opponent of the action in 2003 when a senator, has ever been among the most firmly skeptical about foreign wars. David Cameron shared much of his skepticism on this, with both stressing the difficulty and the uncertainty of a strike — though, ironically, Cameron had seemed the more eager for engagement. But unlike the UK, the U.S. must, at certain times, act: it’s still the world’s policeman. Britain has no such compulsion: and now, it has no such ability. 

The U.S. must act, too, because Obama was right about the red line. Though chemical weapons — for all the agonizing death they cause, as we’ve seen in the terrible images from Damascus — are less destructive than biological or nuclear weapons, still they are with them in the WMD basket and have been the subject of treaties banning their use since 1925 Geneva Protocol, strengthened by the Chemical Weapons’ Convention signed in 1993. These treaties have been flouted, but not often — by the Italians in Abyssinia in 1935, the Japanese in China between 1938 and 1941 and by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against the Iranians in the 1980s and the and Kurds in 1991. If, now, the use of chemical weapons goes unpunished, the conclusion will quickly be drawn that others can use them because the West will huff and puff but blow no houses down. 

There is the possibility of a rethink. Ed Miliband, the Labor leader, probably didn’t mean — when he led his MPs to vote against the government motion asking for assent in principle to intervention, to take any prospect of military action off the table. Many and powerful have been the voices pleading for the vote not to be final. But the risk — stark and shocking in its suddenness — is that Britain has now detached itself from the willing — those willing to fight, at least at times, against tyranny and against indiscriminate slaughter.

The Government has, for the first time in a century, lost a vote on going to war. President Francois Hollande of France now prepares, with President Obama, to shoulder the burden of intervention: the two states whose 18th century revolutions shattered European autocracy now prepare to shatter the Syrian dictator. Britannia has not ruled for many a decade — now it doesn’t even follow.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

15 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Is it any wonder that Britainn questions the decision making of the US after what took place with Snowden and the revelations of US “spying” ?

.

You of course realize that it has been reported that Obama changed his website days after the Snowden initial revelations.

I understand the Obama administration removed all discussion of whistleblowers from his website.

This is reported to be the language that WAS on the OBAMA website
— pre-Snowden.

.

” Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.

Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government.

Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process. ”
.

. It appears pretty obvious he campaigned for and led all to believe whistleblowers were GOOD and would be protected.
.

And then when what some described as a whistle blower – Snowden – acted. He apparently changed his mind.

. I am not condoning Snowden’s acts.

I do not know enough about them to make a decision either way.

But I AM NOT CONDONING OBAMA acts either, removing the language from the website seems a bit hypocritical.

. I ALSO would like to know what Obama did to ” Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws ” – strengthen whistle blower laws.

.
. When you ask ” Specifically, will Britain ever again be able to partner with the United States in any future military interventions? ”

. I think it is reasonable to suspect, that some in Britain need time to sort this out. This does not surprise me.

. It appears an in experienced US Administration
is now learning it is not so easy. It was easy for them to throw stones at Bush from the sidelines, but now the inexperience seems to be showing through.

.

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive

.
When you ask ” Specifically, will Britain ever again be able to partner with the United States in any future military interventions? ”

I believe we all believe the Obama administration – from Obama to Kerry to Clinton, have lost the trust and faith of the British people.

. Why would they follow such disasters as Benghazi,
with a possible additional disaster in Syria ?

. We do know that Bush had the overwhelming confidence, authorization and consent of Congress and Senate when he acted.

In addition Bush had the full confidence authorization and consent of Britain.

. Obama has neither. I think all agree the inexperience is showing through.

. SO Yes, Britain will again partner with US. But trust and respect lost, must be regained over time.

They need time and proof there is a wise captain of the ship. They just do not see that right now.

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive

.

” The U.S. must act, too, because Obama was right about the red line. ”

” If, now, the use of chemical weapons goes unpunished, the conclusion will quickly be drawn that others can use them because the West will huff and puff but blow no houses down. ”

= I agree with you.

= But if the Obama administration has alienated
Putin and Britain and China. Then how can the US act.

= If a majority of the world has no faith or respect
for the US leadership. It will be very difficult for
the US leadership to get a coalition.

————– The proof is in fact Britain.

Possibly the US most favored ally and friend since WW I.

= The message is clear.

. It is a terrible tragedy and a horrible loss
and a most disgusting act of using these chemical weapons.

It is a shame others do not trust the US administration
and will not act to assist.

But the question remains, whose fault is it ?

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive

Quick correction or clarification.

. I should have written :

Whether you believe Bush was correct in acting or not

and many will argue he was wrong, and many will argue
he was correct.

Whether you believe Bush was correct or not

. We do know that Bush had the overwhelming confidence, authorization and consent of Congress and Senate when he acted.

In addition Bush had the full confidence authorization and consent of Britain.

. Obama has neither. I think all agree the inexperience is showing through.

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive

Last comment, before I am accused of being racist.
Which is the usual comment or criticism.

. My brother is black. My other brother married
a black immigrant. I have 6 black nieces and nephews.
I am very proud of them and they mean the world to me.

. There are few that desire this President to
succeed more than I.

I simply desire this President to be a great representative
of what can be accomplished if you are honest, decent,
and hold your head high, keep your word and work hard.

. I want the US President to be a shining light
and example to my family and to the world; skin color
is meaningless. Because I absolutely believe that true.

. Thus far I am quite disappointed.

= My belief, had this President honored his
campaign promises, he would have been regarded as
one of the best ever.

. Very unfortunate we are where we are.

. Perhaps I am a bit critical because I hoped for so much.

. But I think my questions and points are fair.

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive

Dear John Lloyd,

It’s not at all out of the question that the gas attack was a hideous attempt by the rebels to get hold of weapons, in April they were suspected of small scale gas attacks designed to get the US to ship them arms, and killing lots of thier own people means nothing to these blood drinking rebel groups.

It’s surly this possibility that help back the Parliment – they said the evidence is inconclusive. Were the government to lauch widespread attacks the evidence would not be inconclusive and Cameron could win another vote.

In club it’s easy to get carried away, overanalysing, fretting about red lines that are really more grey, and drinking ideological Kool-Aid. One isolated attack means nothing, they are dying like flies in Syria already, droves more will die before this civil war ends, don’t get hooked up on one inclusive event, wait and see what happens. That’s the advice of the British Parliment, and its advice you gung ho Americans would be well advised to listen to. When it comes to gepolitics it’s surely the great old powers of Britian and Germany that know best, the US is really a child by comparison.

Posted by theoligarch.com | Report as abusive

First of all it isn’t England it’s Britain! Secondly for the land of the free to note; it’s democracy at work. Thirdly most ordinary people don’t give a jot about a “special relationship”. Lastly why is it always in inverted commas?

Posted by katethegreat | Report as abusive

Alexa – any chance you can come to a concise point without giving us your family history?

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

When many of us in the US have questions regarding our government’s actions, no one can blame the UK for questioning and then deciding not to back us.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

England defects ??? are you suggesting that Scotland has already left the union I thought the referendum was on the 18th of September 2014, as well as Wales and N. Ireland following suit remember many men and women served and died from these 3 countries fighting Westminster’s wars, you are doing them a dis-service with your headline

Posted by Killiebrad | 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 does not overcome the likelihood of a retaliatory strike causing more harm than good in Syria’s civil war. It would probably strengthen Al Qaeda too.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

You describe the belief that the Tony Blair government lied to get the UK into Iraq as erroneous.

How so? Mr Blair said the evidence that Iraq possessed WMDs was clear and compelling. Check Hansard for his speech.

Mr Blair also said that ‘even today’ Saddam and his sons could stay on if they just gave up their WMD.

But there were no WMD. And there was no evidence either. When asked by the several inquiries afterwards the UK authorities could find no real evidence. Therefore, when Mr Blair said the evidence was thorough, compelling, chilling, he lied. He may have believed Iraq had WMD, but rather than question this erroneous belief when challenged, he chose to fabricate evidence. That is he lied.

It was more important for Mr Blair to look ‘credible’ with the public and the Americans than it was to speak the truth.

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

To John Lloyd –
Your title is incorrect, the UK voted against a miliary strike on Syria. England is only one part of the UK. You seem to intermingle England, Britain & the UK as if they are the same thing. As a journalist you should know better.

To any interested in global reality –
ENGLAND is the southern part of the GREAT BRITAIN. The UNITED KINGDOM includes England, Scotland & Northern Ireland.

However, I’m doubting anyone commenting here really cares about reality.

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

The US and Britain has little gain by who wind in Syria both sides hate the West and Iran not Syria is the nuclear treat.

If we attack any one in the Middle East it should be the clergy that run Iran and the professional employed in their nuclear program.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The UK is a declining power, and we in the US need to look at the UK and learn. Becuase that will be us in a few decades: irrelavent!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive