The British Fallout Over Syria

By Paul Austin Murphy

I’m not quite sure why Lord Ashdown (a once well-known British political leader) still thinks that the British people want to know his position on all military matters. Surely it’s not simply because of his celebrated military background. If that were the case, then we’d be all too keen to listen to Robert Mugabe or Rambo on what to do about Syria. In any case, Paddy is ‘depressed and ashamed’ that British troops won’t be sent to die in a Syrian civil war. He doesn’t like the idea that many British people think that what’s happening in Syria is ‘none of our business.’ That’s because it isn’t, Paddy. Though I suppose it all depends what our ‘business’ is in the first place. It would be our business if we had a lot to lose — economically and/or politically — if we didn’t intervene. And even if morality is also our business, it doesn’t follow that a military intervention will improve the moral reality of Syria or that it’s the only moral option available to us. If Ashdown’s concern is the loss of innocent lives, then what if military intervention leads to more civilian causalities, not less, as it did in Iraq? In that’s a likely outcome, then Ashdown’s call for action sounds like moral posturing — or Ashdownian manliness — in that he appears to have overlooked the possible – or likely! — consequences of military intervention.

syria83013_small The British Fallout Over Syria

The other amazing thing is how Ashdown managed to somehow bring Nigel Farage (the UKIP leader) into all this. He said that ‘I suspect Nigel Farage (UKIP leader) is cheering’ about the lack of a military intervention. What? He also warned against our ‘teetering on the edge of isolationism’. And that’s automatically a bad thing because…?
That’s the thing about the interventionist-versus-isolationism debate. It’s not a case of either/or. We can intervene sometimes and sometimes not intervene. In addition, just because there is a possibility of intervention, that doesn’t mean the many reasons for intervention are the same. There may be mutually contradictory reasons for intervening … still, let’s intervene anyway, eh? That is, some people may have reasons to intervene in a foreign conflict which other people don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean that the latter are not against intervention in any instance. Ashdown hints at an either/or situation in which you either never intervene (isolationism) or you always intervene. But of course the last option is both extreme and impossible.

Interestingly enough, the education secretary, Michael Gove, was apparently very angry with the Conservative rebels for not supporting an intervention which could quite possibly lead to Islamist ‘rebels’ taking over Syria and thus making the place so much better for Christians, Shia Muslims, and ‘unbelievers’. Michael Gove should know better. Before he climbed the greasy pole of politics and realized that he had to keep his mouth shut on Islam and Islamism, he wrote a book called Celsius 7/7 (written only seven years ago). This is a book primarily about Islam Islamism and terrorism. That means that a former fierce critic of Islamist terrorists and Islamism is now effectively — or indirectly — a hawk for the Sunni ‘radicals’ and ‘militants’ (i.e., Islamists) of Syria.

The Special Relationship & Prime-ministerial Strength

After the Commons votes against intervention in Syria, we heard all the usual clichés and generalizations about our ‘special relationship with America’ being threatened or strengthened as well as about the Prime Minister’s authority and role of Britain on the world’s stage. Quite simply, these clichés and generalizations are resurrected whenever there’s a foreign conflict in which we may become involved and similarly when we do or do not ally ourselves with the United States. But questions about the PM’s authority and the special relationship will be asked no matter what decisions Cameron or any other British PM make. They are the predictable questions of lazy or superficial journalists to all interventions or non-interventions in foreign affairs.

Points about the Special Relationship are superficial primarily because they occur no matter who the leaders of the U.S. and UK are and no matter what the nature of the interventions under discussion entail politically or otherwise. In fact the political content of the decisions and the nature of the respective governments hardly seem to matter. What matters is the Special Relationship in the abstract — but it doesn’t exist in the abstract.
The same is true about our PM being strong. For example, he could be deemed strong by rejecting the U.S.’s position or he could be deemed strong for accepting it. He could be deemed strong for going to war or for not going to war. In any case, there not that much strength and courage needed to lead a war two thousand miles behind the front line.

So in order to retain his strength, or show his strength (however fake or theatrical it is), David Cameron has made certain statements which don’t really mean much. He has said that we still need a ‘robust response’ to Syria? Yes? What does that mean? Well it could refer to getting the UN to put ‘maximum pressure’ on the Syrian government. But, again, what does — or would –that mean? Syria is part of the UN. So is Russia and China. Russia supports Syria and has a veto in the UN. Regardless, what sort of ‘maximum pressure’ would it be even if Russia allowed it?

Still you can hardly criticize Cameron when, as he puts it himself, he decided to ‘act differently’ from previous leaders by allowing Parliament to vote on the matter. Nevertheless, that’s to forget the inconvenient fact that he originally wanted to intervene without such a vote, and — according to recent reports — he changed his mind only after conversations with Ed Miliband. That means that at first he didn’t want to ‘act differently’.

Consequently both Cameron and Miliband changed their positions on intervention in Syria. That’s not such a bad thing if such changes were motivated by political arguments and the facts on the ground. On the other hand, they may have simply been examples of both leaders maneuvering for political advantage. Perhaps that’s fair enough too. This means that Cameron moved from wanting an immediate military response to succumbing to the argument that he must secure a positive vote in the Commons first. And, according to Cameron, Miliband moved around a bit too and because of that he should ‘defend the way he behaved’. It’s not clear what Cameron’s accusations against Miliband amount to. Does he mean that Miliband was initially in favour of military action and then changed his mind? So too did Cameron. And what was the deal with Cameron that Miliband reneged on?

Ed Miliband and the New Politics

We are living in an era when the two leaders of both the Labour Party and the ruling Conservative Party are supremely shallow men. No; I don’t mean I’m against their politics. I was against Arthur Scargill’s politics but I never thought of him as shallow. I was against some of Margaret Thatcher’s politics but I never thought her shallow either. The same is true of a big bunch of former and present politicians: Tony Benn, Norman Tebbit, George Walden, Michael Foot, Keith Joseph, John Redwood, Kenneth Clark, Michael Gove (until he climbed further up the greasy pole of Conservative Party politics), Alan Clark, Denis Skinner, Ann Cryer and even Nigel Farage. Again, this is not to say I agree or disagree with, or like or dislike, any of these people. But they appeared to have had, or to have, convictions and principles (which are sometimes jettisoned — even in Thatcher’s case). None of them were simple PR puppets. Then again, none of them were completely immune to PR puppetry either.

Cameron and Miliband are in many ways identical. Their ages; the way they dress; their politics; and even their excessive use of very-sincere hand movements (which come across as very insincere and manufactured). They are performers and so they perform far too much. Thus, ultimately, political content is secondary and power and popularity are primary.

Partly because of all that, it’s likely that Ed Miliband played the Syria affair to maximize his own advantage. At first it you could have seen his stand against Cameron’s position of military intervention as principled. That is until you realise that Miliband, not Cameron, wavered over the issue. More exactly, the Labour Party, or just Miliband, changed its position on Syria. To explain. Cameron changed his original position only after he had discussed the issue with Ed Miliband. As everyone knows, at first Cameron wanted military action but after discussions with Miliband he then decided that military actions in Syria required a Commons vote and possibly UN approval too. Nonetheless, Miliband himself is said to have believed in military action at first. That is until he realized that he could pit himself against Cameron and thus score a political advantage. At least Lord Howard, and others, has accused Labour of ‘changing its position’ several times.

Despite that, Miliband was right to say that Cameron was ‘cavalier and reckless’ to even contemplate intervention without a Commons vote. I would add that intervention may well be reckless and cavalier even with a Commons vote.