The forceful debate during a special session of the British Parliament concerning possible Britain military intervention in Syria was both impressive and troubling. For UK politics-watchers it was fascinating to see the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband, tactically out-maneuver the Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, especially given the fact that the leadership of "Red Ed" has at times received rather unfavorable assessments in the British media, from both left-wing and right-wing tabloids.
(Photos, L to R: David Cameron and Ed Milliband.)
The image of Cameron and Milliband--respectively the Leaders of Her Majesty's (HM) Government (currently, the Conservatives in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) and HM Loyal Opposition (the Labour Party)--eyeing each other across their respective dispatch boxes on the floor of the House of Commons provided for Americans a striking visual reminder that the Prime Minister is first among equals, not a head of state like the American President. Imagine if our President concurrently held a Congressional seat and could be replaced by his party's leadership with a different Member of Congress; imagine if he regularly stood at the head of his fellow party members in the House of Representative in order to lead debate within that chamber instead of having press conferences in the White House.
The breadth, depth, and serious-mindedness of the debate on Syria were, I dare say, a far cry from what Americans expect from our legislators. While Parliament held a special session to debate Syria, in America a few select members of Congress--at home in their districts on break--received a briefing over the phone from the White House.
"The prime minister knew that the well had been poisoned by Iraq, but I don’t think he realized how much that was the case,” a Conservative legislator said, asking for anonymity. “They trust Cameron but not necessarily the advice he is being given.
The vote took Britain into new constitutional territory, the lawmaker added, with Parliament effectively vetoing military action. Political recriminations are likely. But there was little disguising the humiliation for Mr. Cameron...."
It is understandable that Britain is cautious about entering into military action alongside the US after the debacle that was the run-up to the second invasion of Iraq: highly suspect evidence of WMD's passed off as reliable in order to justify a war of aggression, not a war of response, cynically conflated by many pro-war advocates with the need to respond to 9/11, and based on a military plan disastrously lacking in strategies for occupation or exit. It was a very raw deal President Bush sold to Americans and Prime Minister Blair sold to Britons, and it helped collapse Blair's premiership and elect Barack Obama.
But relative to Syria has Britain shown itself as weak?
Mr. Miliband argued that, absent a [UN] resolution [calling for intervention in Syria], the evidence should at least be put before the Security Council before any military action. The days of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who cited “humanitarian intervention” as a casus belli, seem long gone in a country that now widely disparages him and his record.
There is also a deep wariness [in the UK] of using military force without the explicit backing of international law, expressed most clearly in a Security Council resolution, as was the case when Britain participated fully in the NATO campaign to unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya.
It seems to me that Milliband's "wait and see" perspective correct but that the Parliamentary vote went beyond that and was too definitive of a no, a pre-emptive no, as it were, that whatever the evidence ends up being, Britain's Parliament has in effect over-reacted because of its experience with Iraq (and Afghanistan) and is saying, "no way, no matter what"--thereby quite possibly turning its back on a problem it can help solve, turning its back on the positive lessons of their successful interventions in Libya or of NATO's successful intervention in Kosovo, turning its back on the negative lessons of inaction, such as the Rwandan genocide.
Britain is right to be wary. While I think that the vote went the wrong way (Cameron's motion was defeated by only 13 votes) and that Britain has shown itself to be far too isolationist and insular at the moment--a very little Britain--I also wish the US was exercising such caution and scrutiny here at home. There is still an opportunity for that. President Obama and Congress should wait until the UN weapons inspectors in Syria report their findings. We must not do what we did in the run-up to the war in Iraq and hold the work of weapon inspectors as a trivial consideration and a nuisance.
But, if the findings are conclusive that Syria's regime used chemical weapons, it will be shameful for Britain to be seen from Washington D.C., Moscow, Beijing, Brussels, Tehran, Paris, Damascus, and elsewhere to be sitting idly by while the US, France, and perhaps others stand up against the grotesque use of WMD on civilian targets. A failure to similarly stand up years ago against Saddam Hussein when he used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians is not an excuse to fail to thwart a different odious villain now, to provide a disincentive for him to act so horrifically again, to provide a disincentive to other tyrants who might be temped to use chemical weapons in the future.
On the other hand, military action can have unexpected consequences--Iran and Russia have both warned against a US-led military response--and among those resisting the Syrian regime and who might benefit from a US-led strike are murderously militant parties pledged to the destruction of the US and Israel. What if chemical weapons fell into their hands? Also, to execute a punitive strike is to provide a precedent, too. Will the US feel obligated in the future to respond militarily whoever uses chemical weapons? What if Russia's Putin uses them in Chechnya?
What is more, the Syrian regime's actions were within its own borders. Is it immoral for nations like Britain to dismiss out of the hand the possibility of intervention or is it moralistic high-handedness for nations like the US and France to set themselves up as global arbiters of justice and punishment, especially (or only?) when they think their national interests are involved?
I don't especially like the answers that the British Parliament had this week to similar questions, but at least they asked them.