I was as surprised as everybody else that our Parliament has soundly rebuffed the call for airstrikes against Syria in the light of the (so far only probable) use of chemical weapons by Assad. But I’m also glad.What was strange in the few days it was being discussed was the lack of in-depth examination of the issue by the press here. It was almost as if war had already been declared, and everyone assumed that, like Iraq, Afghanistan and a succession of other British military conflicts, it was just a matter of formality to get the thing going. As in 2003, Mr Cameron’s “No decision has been made” was assumed to mean only “the missiles have not yet been fired.”
It’s only after the parliamentary debate that people seem to be seriously addressing the lack of any real strategic aims, withdrawal strategy or, indeed, legal or moral justification. “Something must be done” seems the strongest argument in favour, which was always a bad reason for ineffective interventions when I was a doctor, just as it is for unscientific badger culls to fight bovine TB. If you’re going to take, or lose, many lives you’d better have a plan, rather than just the impulse to do something awesome.
But it turns out that the lessons of the Iraq debacle (which I opposed at the time) and the prolonged Afghan war (which I saw as inevitable at the start, but opposed when it became a historically ill-informed attempt to create a new state in our own image) have sunk deeper into the national and political psyche than the government realises. And maybe the recent revelations of GCHQ as a willing puppet of the NSA’s Orwellian activities have had an influence too.
We are really not sure under what mandate Great Britain, with sweeping recent cuts to its armed forces, should have a responsibility to police world affairs. The sober answer seems to be that we only police conflicts that affect US national interests.
Libya was an exception – but it’s arguable whether that campaign has not also been a strategic failure: certainly it has not helped the minorities like Christians any more than the Iraqi or Afghan campaigns have.
Supporters of military intervention speak of the “will of the international community” being frustrated by parliament’s rejection of air strikes – but if there really was such a will, our absence on this occasion shouldn’t make much difference to the whole world’s united efforts … oh, I forgot, it looks like the international community’s will is also being frustrated by its own organ, the United Nations, which is why we want to ignore it.
A spokesman in the US said that this move is likely to have serious effects on the “special relationship” between Britain and the US. If that means genuine consultation between friends rather than always dancing to Washington’s tune it will be a good thing. If parliament had had the information, and the will, to say “No” to the invasion of Iraq under Tony Blair’s duplicitous leadership, the wolrd might have been a better place now, and the US more respected. Only autocrats and dictators need yes-men.