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A bad day all round, except for the result

August 31st, 2013

David Herdson wonders if the biggest loser was Obama

It’s unlikely that many of those involved in Thursday’s debate and vote will look back on their participation with pride.  Quite why parliament was recalled early when it was due to return next Monday anyway remains unclear, particularly given that the UN inspectors’ report should be published at the weekend or shortly after.  The assumption has to be that irreversible steps were planned before next week, probably at the initiative of the US president, whose red line has so clearly been crossed.

The defeat of the government’s motion is a serious blow to David Cameron and William Hague.  They have lost their policy, they’ve lost face domestically and internationally and their word will be treated with more of a proviso by other governments in future.  That said, other governments have their own parliaments to consider and will be more sympathetic to Cameron’s predicament than some commentators peddling tired analyses based on out-of-date assumptions.

On the other hand, they gain some credit by putting the case to parliament before the end-game had been reached, by being relatively open with the evidence and advice, and by listening to the outcome of the vote (which, as it happens, reflects public opinion).

Nick Clegg’s position is no better: with the media coverage being dominated by the Cameron-Miliband spat, he’s been airbrushed from the picture.  Those who noticed will have seen he too was in favour of the defeated government motion, contrary to the views of his party’s voters – but most simply won’t have seen him at all.

As for Miliband, while nominally the winner of vote, his actions look disreputable and his policy unfathomable.  Is he in favour of action or not?  Did he change his mind after giving assurances about what he’d accept?  If so, why, and by whom?  His comments immediately after the vote, concentrating not on the implications for Syria or Britain’s forces, but on the PM’s political position make him look petty and partisan.

    Perhaps the biggest loser is not even in this country but is the US president.  It was he who set the terms of engagement and now those terms have been met, he’s lost a key ally.  Congress will have taken note of the UK parliament’s role in the process and may well demand a say, leaving him swinging.

While Obama could proceed anyway, so could Cameron have done in theory; similar dynamics apply, not the least of which is that Obama needs the votes of those senators and congressmen to pass his legislation.  He will have to take their views into account.

There is without question danger in not doing anything.  There’s a bigger danger still in stating that something will be done, then still doing nothing.  However, it’s often the case that the dangers of doing not enough are worse than those of doing nothing.  Would a limited strike knock out Assad’s chemical capability?  Would it remove his regime?  Would it turn the tide of the civil war and if so, to whose benefit?

Or would Assad ride it out and claim the victory of survival?  Would he learn that there was indeed a price to pay for using chemical weapons but that it’s one he can afford?  What happens when he decides to act on that learning?  When intervention is unlikely to make things better – and limited air- and missile-strikes wouldn’t – it’s highly probable that they’ll make things worse.

For all that no-one really emerges with credit from Thursday’s debate, and the defeat of both motions may have been as much down to chance and petulance as design and intent, the right result was reached nonetheless.

David Herdson