Democracy at Work: Britain on Syria

A former British ambassador outlines the ins and outs of Parliament's decision not to authorise military force against Bashar Al-Assad. Even Ayn Rand gets a look in...

The Prime Minister fought an honourable fight, but lost
Charles Crawford
On 30 August 2013 14:21

What to make of Thursday night’s House of Commons vote against military intervention in Syria?  On the one hand we have the horrible sight of top Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee exulting in the fact that as she sees it the United Kingdom has at long last been cut down to size.

I am old enough to remember a time when Labour and even Guardian writers opposed fascists and chemical weapons. Against her we see a truly devastating demolition of the Calamitous Miliband by Dan Hodge, who has left the Labour Party in his disgust:

Up until yesterday I had thought [Labour Party leader] Ed Miliband was a weak leader. I doubted, and still doubt, he has what it takes to make it to Downing Street. But I also thought that despite his numerous flaws, Miliband was basically an honorable man who was struggling to align his natural liberal instincts with the new conservatism that is the by-product of the age of austerity. His conduct over the past week shows that’s simply not the case.

Then we have respected pundit Toby Young seemingly agreeing with Toynbee (“Britain has become a nation of crisp-eating surrender monkeys”) but also making a solid point about what this vote signifies:

The message sent out by the mother of parliaments last night to tyrants across the world was: "Do whatever you like. Gas your own citizens. Murder innocent children. Commit genocide. We won't lift a finger to stop you."

The good news amidst this domestic political mayhem is that we have voted in favour of working through the United Nations. Wait … that means outsourcing foreign policy decisions to Mr Putin.

On the whole I conclude that apart from the pitiful display by Labour that would embarrass the nation were the nation now capable of being embarrassed by anything, the result is not too bad. Why? Three reasons.

First and foremost, we risked ending up helping President Obama wriggle off an embarrassing immediate hook (the Syria regime boldly stepping across his own half-hearted ‘red line’) but without really achieving anything useful. Obama appears to be contemplating a ‘shot across Assad’s bows’, a quick symbolic bang to tick the ‘toughness’ box while clinging to his undeserved Nobel Peace Prize. A Reaganite shot straight down his chimney would be the moral thing to do – and catch Assad’s attention.

If that is not planned and there is no wider scheme for helping Syria end its war in a sane way, let the Syrians kill themselves. Yes, it’s horrible when we see them dying like flies on YouTube. But we have happily tolerated insane but far less visible North Korean butchery for decades on the solid basis that, all things considered, there’s not much to be done to stop it.

It’s a sound Ayn Randian principle that we should not care about dead Syrians more than Syrians themselves care. The world has got used to the Brits spending their treasure on solving other people’s stupid problems. Let’s sit back for a while and allow them to see what happens when we don’t.

Second (and at the risk of apparently ending up aligned with ‘anti-war’ Trotskyites), it makes little sense pot-shooting at Assad in the absence of a wider strategy for dealing with the Middle East.

Obama has made a strategic blunder in betting on the Muslim Brotherhood as the face of ‘moderate Islam’. That was unwise as the MB are not ‘moderate’ in any sense that matters to us. He now appears to have no strategy at all. In the absence of any clear guiding principles, droll ad hoc gestures such as blowing up the Syrian secret police HQ waste time, resources and political capital that would be better spent in helping Egypt manage a serious reform agenda.

Finally, the UK vote perhaps brings closer the day when we take a ruthless look at what works and why in foreign policy. The fundamental mistake by the Cameron Conservatives in this area has been to suck up to the Leftist development lobby and ring-fence’ international development spending.

Reversing that stupid decision and bringing development agency DFID back within the FCO (Foreign Office) to make ‘development’ spending much more political will transform our international impact for the better. We can do far more to get make a positive difference in the world in partnership with Washington and the wider Western family if we use our own considerable weight determinedly.

My main misgiving? That the vote reflects and reinforces a dumbed-down isolationism based on dangerous ignorance in Parliament and across the wider public of the way things work.

The babbling trivialisation of 24-hour news and chat radio create a climate in which almost nothing is believed any more by huge numbers of people. This allows those who hate the strength of Western democracy to sneer at the value of sharp-end intelligence work and deny its credibility.

As former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore has pointed out in the Snowden context in one of the great columns of modern times:

The obvious beneficiaries of all of this are not civil liberties. They are those who wish to embarrass the West – the Chinese, who can now push back against US attempts to expose their cyberattacks on American government and industry, Vladimir Putin, German Leftists, South American populists and the sort of rent-a-mobs who are so confused that they burn the French flag in La Paz. Whatever the precise intention, the actual effect of the WikiLeakers and Snowdens is always to make life harder for the West.

Conclusion? Tony Blair's Foreign Secretary Robin Cook resigned from the Labour Government over Iraq not because he opposed the war in principle, but because he thought the public were not behind it. On Thursday, Parliament did a good job hammering out the issues, and finally voted in a way that undoubtedly reflects UK public unease about another violent and possible ill-considered foray into the Middle East’s self-created imbroglios.

That is why we have democracy. We aren’t the weaker for it.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: He tweets @charlescrawford

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