Future historians studying Britain’s decline and retreat from global responsibility and relevance may view Miliband as a pivotal figure.
We live in small-minded, mean-spirited times. More than two years into the Syrian civil war, with 100,000 dead and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah openly supporting Assad’s murderous campaign, Britain’s parliament has narrowly voted to reject Cameron’s watered-down parliamentary motion for intervention.
This motion would not have authorized military action; merely noted that a ‘strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons.’
Cameron would still have needed a second parliamentary vote before he could have authorised the use of force.
Parliament’s rejection of even this feeble step sends a clear message to Assad that he can go on killing without fear of British reaction.
The strength of isolationist, Little Englander feeling in Britain has been demonstrated. Cameron was defeated by the same uncontrollable ‘swivel-eyed loons’ of the Tory backbenches and grassroots who tried to sabotage gay marriage and want to drag Britain out the EU. It was perhaps too much to expect a parliament that is so savagely assaulting the livelihoods of poorer and more vulnerable Britons to care much about foreigners, particularly Muslim foreigners.
Following the Woolwich murder, many opponents of intervention in Syria seemed to think the Free Syrian Army was equivalent to Lee Rigby’s jihadist killers. Now, however, anti-interventionists are focusing less on essentialising Muslims and more on the supposed precedent of Iraq. Iraq is the new Vietnam – the tired exemplar of a wrong-headed war wheeled out every time by the anti-interventionists. They ignore the relatively successful campaigns of the past three decades – Kuwait, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Libya – focusing instead on the one where we were apparently tricked into going to war with bogus claims about ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’.
The phoney parallel between Syria and Iraq was strengthened by Obama’s and Cameron’s unfortunate focus on Assad’s chemical-weapons use as the ‘red line’ whose crossing would trigger intervention, recalling Iraq’s alleged WMD.
Yet it is unclear why Assad’s chemical-weapons massacre was different from his prior massacres with conventional arms. After all, Rwanda’s Hutu extremists murdered many more people much more quickly using machetes. Cameron has paid for the weak US president’s choice of a ‘red line’ that he thought he could safely draw to avoid intervening without appearing a total surrender-monkey. If Obama has to fight without Britain, it will be his own fault.
Intervention is opposed by the usual suspects from the fringes. The BNP’s Nick Griffin is apparently visiting Syria; a BNP spokesman says ‘Once again Nick Griffin is putting his life on the line to stop the Cameron regime from committing war crimes in the name of the British people.’
According to George Galloway, ‘If there has been a use of chemical weapons it was al-Qaeda that used the chemical weapons – who gave al-Qaeda the chemical weapons? Here’s my theory, Israel gave them the chemical weapons.’
In the Daily Express, Ukip’s Nigel Farage begins with a reference to Iraq and WMD before stating ‘Ukip has been consistent in its opposition to military intervention in foreign wars over the last decade and this latest debate on Syria is no different.’
And Labour’s Diane Abbott says: ‘I voted against the Iraq War. At the moment, I can’t see anything that would make me vote for intervention in Syria.’
Yet the distinction between the fringes and the mainstream is blurring. In the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne writes of a ‘haunting’ parallel with Iraq, before claiming that ‘the Stop the War Coalition… has consistently shown far more mature judgment on these great issues of war and peace than Downing Street, the White House or the CIA.’ This praise from one of the more intelligent Conservative columnists for the bone-headed dinosaurs of the anti-democratic left is a sign of the times.
Yet Syria is not Iraq. Bush wanted not merely to attack but to occupy Iraq and overthrow its regime, despite bitter opposition from many of the US’s allies. The contrast with Obama’s foot-dragging over Syria could not be greater. A US occupation of Syria is not in the cards; merely limited strikes against selected targets. International support for action is not exactly overwhelming, but there is nothing like the opposition that Bush faced. Muslims themselves are divided over the question.
Should it occur, US intervention in Syria is, at most, likely to follow the pattern of Kosovo and Libya. In neither conflict was a single Western soldier killed in combat, and both ended more successfully than the sceptics predicted.
As the architect of Cameron’s parliamentary defeat, Miliband must know that Syria is not Iraq. He has again shown himself to be a narrowly calculating career politician rather than a statesman concerned with the national interest. He has distanced Labour from the legacy of Iraq by sabotaging a completely different intervention, thereby simultaneously appeasing his own left-wing and appealing to the conservative Little Englander constituency.
But it will make him responsible for the resulting damage to the special relationship with the US and to Britain’s global credibility, as well as for Assad’s ongoing extermination of Syria’s people, should Washington now follow Britain and pull back. Tory eurosceptics may want Britain to become an inward-looking geopolitical irrelevance like Norway or Switzerland, but we are still a permanent UN Security Council member and nuclear power, signed up to R2P.
Future historians studying Britain’s decline and retreat from global responsibility and relevance may view Miliband as a pivotal figure.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.