On Thursday night, the House of Commons effectively rejected the use of British military force in a punitive but measured strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The week before, his murderous regime used chemical weapons indiscriminately in the suburbs of Damascus, killing over one thousand people, in one of the worst excesses of a protracted civil war. The British government – along with those of France and the United States – had planned to punish his crime using salvos of cruise missiles delivered from warships, submarines and combat aircraft. This planned attempt to lay down a marker that the Western powers will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, and to deter against their future use, has been derailed by the Members of Parliament. The United States’ president, Barack Obama, has now pulled-back from striking and has offered to give the United States’ Congress its own vote.
Since the British vote, many peculiar ideas have started to emerge, fanned on by Britain’s small but raucous chorus of anti-interventionist reactionaries: the isolationists, the pacifists and the internationalists (many of whom would prefer to overlook Bashar al-Assad’s crimes than take action to stop him). Excited in their victory, they have given various reasons why the United Kingdom is no longer inclined towards overseas military intervention. Firstly, they assert that the chickens have finally come home to roost, namely that the fallout from the Iraq War has cast its long dark shadow over the parliamentarians’ decision. This is of course arrant nonsense: after all, the United Kingdom has remained on combat operations in Afghanistan for the past twelve years and undertook explicit ‘regime change’ in Libya less than two years ago. If Iraq has asserted itself now, why did it not influence decisions back then?
Secondly, other anti-interventionists argue – almost hysterically – that the parliamentarians’ vote is connected to a deeper malaise surrounding Britain’s global role; that the missionary fervour, which has frequently animated the British national psyche, has finally collapsed into a heap of ignominy. They welcome a reduction in the United Kingdom’s status towards a ‘normal’ central European country, which minds its own business and keeps itself to itself. Sadly for them, this is also humbug: like the French and Americans, the British remain very much a missionary democracy, with a powerful sense of national destiny, which encourages London towards intervention in other countries’ affairs. From the eradication of the slave trade to the destruction of Nazism, and from the termination of the Soviet regime to the liquidation of Colonel Gaddafi, the British have long sought – either unilaterally or multilaterally – to make the world a better place. To support their mission, the British provide the funds to maintain the second most powerful navy and airforce in the world, as well as a technologically sophisticated army – all with global reach. They also make available to London the means to generate almost untrammelled diplomatic influence, and substantial resources for the provision of foreign aid.
Thirdly, the anti-interventionists – along with more credible individuals – have questioned whether the parliamentarians’ vote will damage the British-American ‘special relationship’, particularly since London was highly active in spurring Washington towards intervention in Syria in the first place. Some have even suggested that the wider Atlantic Alliance may be affected: Americans will see yet again confirmation that Europeans are unwilling to use armed force, much as the former United States Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, warned in his valedictory speech. In the short term, this may be correct: the Americans have noticed that their strongest and most capable ally has backed out. Yet, as Washington pivots and entrenches in the Far East, the United States will continue to need the United Kingdom – perhaps even more than it did during the Cold War – so the Atlantic Alliance is unlikely to decline in the way that some allege.
So what has driven Britain’s failure to intervene in Syria? In short: domestic politics, which, contrary to the delusions of the anti-interventionists, will likely be short-lived. Currently, aside from tactical miscalculation and misjudgment on the prime minister’s part, the existence of a coalition government – the first in decades – makes it harder for an already weakened prime minister to assert the authority of the executive. This is no surprise: coalition governments have often been ineffective in the Westminster system. Indeed, this is the first time that a prime minister has failed to win a war vote since the nineteenth (or even the eighteenth) century. Allied to a period of economic difficulty, such political conditions enable the braying chorus of anti-interventionists – the Liberal Democrat internationalists, the Conservative isolationists (‘Little Englanders’) and the Labour pacifists – to squawk more loudly than they otherwise might. Equally, the leader of the Labour Party, lacking the charisma of Tony Blair, saw an opportunity for party politicking, i.e., a cheap attempt to buy the non-interventionist vote, so encouraged his party to vote down the government.
Of course, none of this means much for Syria’s peoples, whose plight grows by the day. Emboldened, the Damascus regime may use more chemical weapons; it has already started using firebombs against schoolchildren. Nor is it encouraging for the prospect of international order. A despot has laid down a decisive marker: chemical weapons can be used with impunity against civilians in the twenty-first century and the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy – which helps to undergird international law and the world system – may turn a blind eye.
However, even the blackest of clouds has a silver lining. The British decision has revealed the claims of many of the anti-interventionists for what they are: lies. The United Kingdom does not, and never has, simply danced to an American tune. Further, the United States is not a unilateral titan that can do whatever it wants: it is constrained – by the British. Albeit in different contexts, the two countries are heavily co-dependent on one another to provide the sanction and legitimacy the other needs to act. Therefore, the anti-interventionists may have won a bittersweet victory: reconfirmed by new facts, knee-jerk anti-Americanism is likely to lose some of its bite. Finally, and most importantly, while the United Kingdom may have relinquished its international responsibilities in the shorter-term, neither the country’s military power nor its unique missionary fervour has been lost. The British may not be coming today; but, under more ‘normal’ domestic political circumstances, it is almost certain that they will come tomorrow – and they may have a point to make.