Syria and the politicization of British foreign policy

August 30, 2013

Syria’s population — at the heart of so many proxy battles for influence — last night found itself drawn into a different kind of conflict — this time over the future of British politics. After the British Parliament’s vote against action in Syria, the former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Ashdown, tweeted that Britain is a “hugely diminished country” this morning: “In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed.” But is he right to see this vote as a retreat into isolationism? I think it is rather a step into a more modern diplomacy, one where politics do not end at the water’s edge.

Once the dust settled on the vote, David Cameron’s closest ally, Chancellor George Osborne, said there will be a lot of “soul-searching” about Britain’s role in the world. There is talk about the shadow of Iraq, pacifism and anti-Americanism as a result of an unholy alliance between conservative little-Englanders and pacifists of the left. But though these tendencies were both represented in the lobbies of the House of Commons, they still represent a minority of the political spectrum. It is worth remembering that the Labour leader Ed Miliband did not argue against military action in principle, and even made a point of saying he could support intervention without a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The main reason that the Syrian campaign was voted down yesterday is not that Britain wants to retreat from the world — but that the case David Cameron put forward was incoherent, and the political management of the government was faulty. As my colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations Anthony Dworkin, Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey argued in a thoughtful paper last night, the rush to intervene punitively leaves many unanswered questions about the purpose and consequences of military action. In making the case for British action, Cameron tried to separate the case of chemical weapons from the wider situation: “this is not even about the Syria conflict” he said, “it’s about the use of chemical weapons.”

But the action he was proposing was explicitly not about securing and controlling the chemical weapons (an operation that would require no-fly zones, missile strikes and thousands of special operations forces) and the strikes were being planned before the evidence from the United Nations inspectors was even presented. If Britain and the U.S. were serious about moving towards a political solution on Syria, rather than pushing for precipitate military strikes, they would be working to expand the mandate of the U.N. inspectors to promote options for chemical-weapon oversight in Syria as well as the broader diplomatic effort. Given the positions that Russia, China and Iran have taken against chemical weapons they would find it much harder to oppose such measures.

With the unprecedented parliamentary rejection of a major foreign policy initiative, Britain has indeed crossed a watershed in foreign policy making, but the question is not about whether the UK engages with the world. It is about how its foreign policy is made. The former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, shocked the world when he declaimed to Rumsfeld in 2003: “”My generation learned you must make a case, and excuse me, I am not convinced….That is my problem, I cannot go to the public and say, ‘these are the reasons’, because I don’t believe in them.” But his political rather than diplomatic style which was so surprising in 2003 is on the way to becoming the new normal in 2013, as last night’s debate shows.

The speeches on the green benches were mature, thoughtful and evidence of a serious country that does not lurch unthinkingly into war. But they were also nakedly political rather than driven by statements of “raison d’etat” or bipartisan consensus. Like all modern democracies London is moving from a situation where foreign policy is outside the realm of party competition and contracted to diplomats to one where it is at the heart of modern politics. As global markets and austerity take more and more economic decisions out of the hand of politicians, foreign policy will naturally fill the space — and that is not a bad thing. But it does mean that foreign policy will have to be done differently — with cases being made more politically rather than relying on deference and unthinking Atlanticism.

David Cameron needs to work out if we wants to be heir to Tony Blair or heir to John Major in foreign policy. In recent months, we have seen that he has adopted some of the worst elements of both leaders — lurching into poorly conceived interventions and running from his own party on Europe. Until he seems to believe in something enough to challenge his own party, he is likely to be a prisoner of the Tory Party’s isolationist “Tea Party” tendency.

Ed Miliband, on the other hand, needs to show that his actions form part of a coherent world view — rather than simply being an opportunity to take Cameron down a peg or two. He needs to show that his goal was not pacifism or isolationism but rather a different way of doing foreign policy. In doing this he could do well to reach out to skeptics in the United States who have been calling for the administration to wait for the inspectors’ reports.

The vote against participation in military action against Syria is unprecedented in Parliamentary terms and is being compared to the humiliation of Suez. But the truth is that by avoiding an ill-judged intervention it could be the exact opposite of Suez, allowing Britain to play a constructive role in the Middle East and enhance its voice as a sovereign player. The fact that Britain cannot be taken for granted should increase its leverage over partners on future occasions. The vote will raise the bar for military action, but whether it amplifies or mutes Britain’s voice in the world will depend on political leadership.

PHOTO: Demonstrators hold placards outside the Houses of Parliament in London August 29, 2013. Britain’s parliament has been recalled to vote on how to respond to Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett


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Anyone smeared with the word “isolationist” should wear it with pride. All it means is not sending your men to die in matters that are none of your business, bankrupting your government and killing innocent people in foreign countries as a side effect. It has nothing to do with refusing to have diplomatic or economic connections with the world. But the word “isolationist” is laden with those kinds of falsehoods to exaggerate “isolationists” into some kind of North Korean “self sufficiency” group. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Posted by ShiroiKarasu | Report as abusive

Get your facts straight. As reported by several news sources, the Parliament voted to not decide on intervention until after the results from the UN investigation are reported. Of course, the report is not intended to identify WHO delivered this sarin nerve gas, but there is already ample evidence to answer the question.
So, a couple of weeks from now when the UN makes its report and Congress may have decided what it wants to do, the Brits have another opportunity to make their wishes known. Of course, by then, who cares?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Actually, there is an assumption here that Assad is the one who for some unknown reason decided to launch chemical weapons when the UN inspectors arrived in Syria. This assumption defies all logic, given the “red line” drawn by Obama. In fact, with 99.9%-plus probability it is the “red line” which has motivated and caused the chemical weapons use by the insurgents. Anyone who believes in logic can see this. Recall that UN Carla del Ponte, former Swiss Attorney General, now UN sponsored special investigator in Syria, has already said in May/2013 that “it is at the moment opponents of the regime who are using sarin gas”.

The major question which arises is to what extent is Obama and company complicit in the chemical weapons attack? The possible implications are horrendous, and need to be investigated.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Where is the Syrian General who was in charge of chemical weaponry and as defected to the so called Rebels? No one seems to talk about him and his where abouts? the Assad family is no angel but are the Rebels saving Angels? No I do not think so, when one can see that the muslem’s world is so devided that no groups could even organise a “piss up” in a brewery. And we have to live with that in the West. If it is so good in their countries of origins why do they come and live in our countries. Our western governments are just not capable of saying the truth always saying half truth to gain votes, etc, etc…. And children born in numerous numbers to the families of the countries in turmoil at present will be killed in large number it is just so terrible to be only able to watch. What can we do? I would like truthful answer but will we get it? fid58

Posted by fidesienne58 | Report as abusive

Let’s review a little history – Britain and France created this mess following WW1 and creating borders based upon someones pen hand rather than conforming to tribal and cultural realities that existed in the land. In fact, the entire turmoil that exists today in the ME from Palestine,to Jordan, to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, & beyond is the result of this thoughtless imperialistic process of about a century ago.

Obama is as foolish as Kennedy and then Johnson to take on and attempt to take over (for profit, I’m sure) of the divide and conquer mentalities that put the Catholics in charge in Vietnam and in our current situation, the Alawites in power in Syria. The French mostly caused this one, they should fix it.

Posted by KobeJim | Report as abusive

Looking at the political issue one can only feel that Cameron has lost control of his party . To have thirty Tory MP’ vote against is careless to say the least !

Posted by Burn1938 | Report as abusive

The authors states that in future Britain will not be taken for granted. Quite true – she will be heavily discounted, so much so that her weight in world affairs will be de minimis. The free world will adapt to her absence, given time; will the British political class?

Posted by highlandlad | Report as abusive

We all know who needs to be investigated for wild conspiracy theories.

How about investigating why so many people are suddenly incensed after more than 110,000 Syrians – men, women and children – have been killed by chemical bombs, yet a couple of different types of chemican bombs are introduced to kill 1,000 more and its an issue.

Got it! These bombs are not manufactured by American companies (most of them)! It’s time to waste some American resources and pay the owners their profits. Isn’t conflict grand? $ $ $ $

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive