On the other hand, word from Downing Street has it that Ed Milliband is a
Such childish tantrums are, perhaps, what we must expect from the callow young people who rule over us, most of whom have long since grown accustomed to getting their own way. So accustomed, in fact, that on recalling parliament a couple of days early the prime minister took it for granted that the governing Coalition - and possibly Labour too - would give him the licence he sought to pursue the course of war.
When Tony Blair got to his feet in parliament for a similar purpose ten years ago, he at least felt it necessary to offer a compelling case. His speech, however deceiving in content, was nonetheless a tour-de-force of rhetorical virtuosity. Cameron’s, by contrast was numbingly pedestrian, loud and clear-voiced to be sure but strong on bombast and sonorous outrage, flimsy of content and devoid of any genuine direction by moral compass. Milliband’s response, though less fluent (he has a distressing tendency to repeat words and even whole phrases as if he is not sure whether anyone is listening) at least offered a semblance of coherent thought as well as political awareness of the desirability of learning from the UN weapons inspectors. He was, of course, correct in saying that the recall of parliament could only have been to obtain immediate approval for military action.
The interplay between the Coalition and Labour offered a depressing reminder of the bovine partisanship of our parliamentarians. Commentators have noted that the government motion and the opposition amendment were not so different in purpose and content as to be irreconcilable. Gripped by mutual antagonism, however, nothing - least of all the “national interest” - would have induced either to vote for the other. As a consequence, both motions flopped. But it is worth noting that had the Tories held their collective nose and approved the Labour amendment, we would now be holding hands with Obama and Hollande and readying ourselves for another perillous Middle-East adventure.
Much hand-wringing has followed the negative vote. Are we no longer prepared to intervene wherever wrong-doing occurs? Are we retreating into isolationism? Is the “special relationship” at an end? What if the master casts his unprofitable servant into outer darkness? Well, a mere decade ago, the French were “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, “French fries” had become “freedom fries”, and France formed part of the “axis of weasles”. Now "les grenouilles" are America's oldest ally. Redemption can come swiftly if nations make the right squeaks.
Following hard on the UK parliamentary negative, John Kerry claimed that a large volume of material existed all pointing to the Assad regime as the perpetrator of the chemical weapons atrocity in Damascus. Why didn’t Cameron offer up this evidence? Possibly because the State Department didn’t have any until Mr Kerry decided that it was needed. Who can forget Colin Powell’s embarrassing submission to the UN on Iraq’s WMD - his assembly of unverified accusations and grainy photographs that revealed nothing in particular? That, too, was incontrovertible evidence. In a BBC radio interview, one Tory spokesman offered an alternative explanation: that after the Iraq debacle, the British public no longer trust evidence provided by the government; although why he felt that we should have greater trust in the word of government ministers is a question similar to the one posed by the Carpenter to the Oysters after he and his pal the Walrus had consumed them: “...answer came there none -”.
The US President - no doubt with half an eye on what happened in the UK - opts to ask Congress whether to attack the Assad regime. He has power to act already but is understandably insecure both about the objective of military action, and whether he can carry public opinion. The second is, of course, dependent on the first. We know US intervention will not involve “boots on the ground”. Talk is of “punishment”, a “surgical strike” and lately of “infrastructure degrading”. What would be the consequences? No one can say given this rather complex version of prisoner’s dilemma. The region is a notorious powder-keg with major powers like Russian, Iran and Israel in the mix. For good reasons, no one articulates the aim in terms more definite than a handful of foggy abstractions.
Regime change, ruled out here as so often in the past, nevertheless has to be the only game worth playing. So it was in Iraq and in Libya. In the long run, Assad is doomed regardless of the outcome because, even in the unlikely event he were to win the civil war outright, he will become an international pariah. With the possible exception of Russia under Putin, the world community will not engage with him; and even Russia may tire of an association with someone so tainted by crime, so sullied by pursuit of an appalling civil war, and who sooner or later is bound to be replaced by a regime that will steer clear of involvement with an overt supporter of its predecessor. In other words, Putin’s support for Assad could, in the medium term, ensure that Russia loses its best ally in the region.
What of the imperialist fantasies of UK politicians? They appear still not to have caught up with the fact that we are now a medium-sized power with no money. The public understands this; understands that the government is savagely cutting public services, selling off whatever remains of publicly-owned assets, and making the poor pay for the greed and fecklessness of bankers. It is also slicing away at our military capability and making a wholesale mess of defence spending. Yet the inexperienced people who govern the country still think they can strut the world stage like 19th century commanders of the empire, summoning gunboats to bend ignorant natives to the imperial will. With apologies to Shakespeare, we may picture Assad in the role of Barnadine on the day of his intended execution:
Assad:...I will not consent to die this day, that’s certain.
Coalition: Oh you must; and therefore we beseech you, Look forward on the journey you shall go.
Assad: I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion.
Coalition: But hear you…
Assad: Not a word. If you have anything to say to me, come to my ward; for thence I will not today.
(Measure for Measure IV:iii)
What should we do? Provide aid to the refugees and support for the countries that harbour them. Leave the rest to the UN.