When U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron meets U.S. President Barack Obama at the Group of 20 summit, they’ll surely compare notes on the challenge, 10 years after the Iraq War, of aligning public opinion behind a call to arms.
Cameron gambled last week that his Parliament would back a strike against the Syrian regime and lost. Paradoxically, Britain’s decision to stand aside may have helped to convince Obama that he needed broader support at home -- though Cameron’s defeat was also a reminder, if one were necessary, that Congress can’t be taken for granted.
In St. Petersburg, the two men will affirm their mutual respect, their shared frustration with their Russian host (Syria’s ally) and their commitment to continued close cooperation. Yet Cameron’s setback raises serious questions about the future of the U.S.-U.K. alliance. These doubts should be faced rather than dodged. Before the British people accept a diminished role for their country on matters of global security, they ought to think hard about their national interests and responsibilities.
The Iraq misadventure scarred Britain’s politics at least as much as America’s. The British know they were misled by their government -- many would say lied to -- in the run-up to the war. So they view claims about intelligence findings on Syria’s use of chemical weapons with the deepest skepticism. The U.K. instinct to follow the U.S. into battle has become an instinct to hold back. With France offering to assist in a U.S. attack on Syria, Britain’s change of attitude is all the more striking.
Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, says he’s open in principle to punishing Syria’s use of chemical weapons -- but he wants proof that the regime is guilty and a guarantee of international legality before acting. That’s the position of Russian President Vladimir Putin as well. Miliband opposes not the larger cause but what he calls Cameron’s “rush to war.” This may be an accurate expression of the country’s views, but it’s disingenuous nonetheless.
Cameron did miscalculate in aiming to create a sense of extreme urgency -- a posture belied by Obama’s subsequent statement that “this mission is not time-sensitive.” Cameron was, as Miliband says, in too much of a rush. Yet Miliband’s tests for supporting a strike are wrong. The case against Bashar al-Assad’s regime should be proved not to a certainty (an impossibly demanding standard in this case) but beyond a reasonable doubt -- a test that’s been met. Legality can be established without United Nations Security Council authority, as Cameron has argued and contrary to Miliband’s claim. In any event, submitting to Russia’s veto over operations necessary to uphold UN norms seems fundamentally wrong-headed.
Without daring to articulate it plainly, Miliband is pandering to a national mood of excessive caution and timidity. The lessons of Iraq should be learned, to be sure, but not overlearned. Passivity in the face of threats or egregious violations of human rights is no basis for security. It emboldens enemies -- such still do exist, even post-Iraq -- and encourages fresh atrocities.
The U.K. is no longer a world power and is cutting military spending, but its defense budget is still the fourth largest in the world: This is no nonentity. Britain still has the means to be a useful partner to the U.S. in taking actions that serve U.K. and global interests. And, to be clear, it also has a responsibility to do so.
For decades, most European governments have designed their defense policies to free-ride on the U.S. commitment to international security. The U.K., up to now, has taken pride in standing apart from that unworthy tradition, and has accepted a share of the burden. If the U.S. Congress supports Obama and U.S.-French strikes against the Syrian regime go ahead, Britain will be free-riding with the rest.
It’s possible Parliament’s vote to do nothing about Syria’s use of chemical weapons is an isolated mistake, not a sign of a new and diminished Britain. Another test may come soon enough, if Assad uses chemical weapons again or if Syria’s civil war spills across its borders. Next time, Cameron should prepare his ground more carefully -- and Miliband, who aspires to lead his country, should resolve to be more of a statesman and less of a politician.
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