Britain Bows Out
Yesterday, British Members of Parliament voted against military action against Syria. All in all, David Cameron and the Conservative Party were defeated by 285 to 272, a majority of 13 votes.
Predictably the BBC has said that 'people at home and abroad will ask: who is in charge?' Really? I don't think so. It's crystal clear that the British 'people' were against the war. And why would they ask 'who is in charge?' if the PM did -- eventually -- listen to Parliament even though he most certainly didn't listen to the people as a whole? Does the BBC think that only by ignoring the people and Parliament would Cameron have shown us that he was in charge? Is this an arrogance contest or something?
Yes, the British Labour Party opposition will make much of this -- and it has. But that's strange because they were against any intervention and presumably they respect the fact that Cameron actually listened to Parliament (if not the British voters). So it's no surprise that Labour foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, has quickly jumped on what he sees to be a new prey. He claimed that Prime Minister Cameron and Nicholas Clegg had lost credibility. Have they lost credibility because they listened to Parliament or because their case was 'fatally flawed'?
The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, has also said that Cameron has now become 'a diminished figure'. Why? It it because he has listened to Parliament? I can't help thinking that Robinson might not have said this if the foreign intervention had not be to his tastes. In other words, those who want action in Syria now believe Cameron has been 'diminished' as a leader; and those that don't want action, don't think that.
Even the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, has said that America may now question the value and reliability of Britain as an ally. That's strange because the U.S. hasn't committed itself to action either and there's a chance it may not do so. Or is he saying that America, or Obama, will question the British PM's foolishness of listening to -- or obeying -- Parliament?
It is now clear that Cameron, and especially William Hague (the Foreign Secretary), were itching for war with Syria. Hague almost admitted as much. Only yesterday he said that it's 'very important not to take so long to respond that people confuse what the eventual response is about'.
That says it all! He wanted to intervene before the UN reports and therefore regardless of the facts. In other words, he wanted to intervene. Full stop. He even said that a later response would be pointless because, by then, people would have forgotten about the alleged crime.
In addition (although it's not such a pressing matter now), can anyone tell me what all these British Government references to its intervention in Syria being 'legal' actually mean? They can't mean UN legality because Cameron and Hague had already said they'd bypass that. So what did this action being 'legal' -- then, if not now -- amount to? Did it simply mean that a government can make anything it does legal just by, well, making it legal? What I mean is that ultimately -- as well as historically -- governments themselves decide what's legal in cases of war -- and perhaps that's a good thing too. Therefore whatever it does will be 'legal'. Or does Hague and Co. mean something more profound and esoteric by the word 'legal'?
The fact still stands that we -- the British -- can't get involved in all the countries in which such outrages are committed because these kind of things -- if not always as bad -- occur all the time and all over the place. For example, there are terrible things happening to Christians in Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, etc. and the British Government isn't getting directly involved -- or involved at all -- in any of these places. Terrible things have also been inflicted on the Kurds by the Turkish state in the last twenty years: around 20,000 Kurdish civilians were killed, and 4,000 villages destroyed, between 1994 and 2008. However, the Kurds clearly aren't completely guiltless either; and this parallels the situation in Syria perfectly. Perhaps it's simply the nature of the attack which has prompted the government. That is, the use of chemical weapons and the fact that the West has been fed pictures of the many children who have been victims of these attacks. Nonetheless, is that enough to warrant an intervention when such interventions often -- or nearly always -- make things worse? In addition, enraged sensibilities and moral grandstanding are not always good starting points for fruitful and just political actions.
The problem is that the William Hagues and David Camerons of this world are itching to show themselves to be the true statesmen they think they are and thus go down in history. And, as usual, the best way of guaranteeing that is to get involved in a war; in the contemporary climate, likely a war initiated by outraged sensibilities. But, again, when will such interventions stop? And why should Syria warrant intervention when so many other conflicts do not? The argument could be, of course, that you can't intervene everywhere so you may as well intervene somewhere, especially where children are being gassed to death. But there is another option: intervene nowhere. Or, less inflexibly, only intervene in conflicts which have a direct connection or relevance to the country -- Britain! -- that's doing the intervening.
The reality is that we don't know the full facts yet. Still, it does seem that the evidence points in the direct of President Assad's culpability. Nonetheless, that may simply be because I, like everyone else, have been fed a diet of almost exclusively pro-opposition and anti-Assad propaganda. Despite that, what William Hague said yesterday does seem legitimate, at least at a prima facie level. To be exact, Hague said:
"To argue that the Syrian opposition carried out this attack is to suggest that they attacked their own supporters in an area they already controlled using weapons systems they do not possess."
Actually, I'm not completely confident about William Hague's conclusions. Firstly, Sunni Islamists have frequently sacrificed their own to achieve their political ends. Think here of Hamas sending women and children into Israel to blow themselves to pieces or using them as human shields. In addition, how does Hague know, at this early point in time, that the Syrian Islamists and militants don't have such weapons? I have read, many times, that they have.
President Assad is of course no angel. The opposition isn't saintly either. Indeed there is no real opposition with a platonic 'O' in the first place. There is a loose collection of different interest groups and political parties.
As is usually -- or always -- the case in these military situations, Cameron was contemplating an intervention without consulting the people who voted him in. Sure, not every government act or decision can be given a popular vote in a modern representative democracy. However, we were talking about war here -- both a civil and a possibly an international war. We were talking about a possible situation in which British soldiers will be sent a couple of thousand miles to die on foreign soil. Or, at the very least, British military personnel involved somehow and somewhen.
In the case of Syrian intervention, what would a 'clear case' -- or a just case -- actually look like anyway? Perhaps the only way to solve this problem once and for all would be to destroy the Assad regime. But what would follow from that? It could very easily end in a continuing civil war between Shia/ Alawite and Sunni Muslims; between Sunni and Sunni Muslims; between Sunni Muslims and Christians; between Sunni Muslims and Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah; and, ultimately, between Syria's Sunni Muslims and Iran's Shia Muslims. And there's also the added bonus that Assad had threatened Israel with reprisals -- how Israel is the legitimate target of reprisals in this instance I don't know -- if the West intervened, in any way, in Syria's affairs.