War-Mongering Will Always Stumble On Its Own Arrogance Eventually
September 4, 2013
by Martin Odoni
Good grief, the coalition Government of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats is petulant, isn’t it? Six days ago, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, tried to get an ‘agreement in principle for military action in Syria’ from the House Of Commons. To his evident shock and embarrassment, he failed, when the badly-drafted motion he put before the Commons was defeated by thirteen votes.
Since then, between Michael Gove’s grotesquely offensive slurs against members of the Opposition, and occasional underhand swipes in the media from Cameron himself, Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Chancellor of the Exchequer (no I’m sorry, but he genuinely is, at least officially) George Osborne against the Labour leader Ed Miliband, the amount of sourness and puerile spite coming from the Tory Party invokes memories of being at school and losing a game of rounders. All right, so there was an awful lot more at stake than there ever will be in a game of rounders, but really, some of the vitriol has been inexcusably childish, embittered and ugly, as the Tories (not so much the Lib-Dems), throwing a hissy-fit about not getting their way, have tried to paint their failure as the work of devilish political opportunism in the Labour Party.
At no point have they shown the slightest acknowledgement that the main reason for the defeat was that they had put together a stupid, premature, and completely unnecessary Parliamentary motion. The very fact that Parliament was recalled early from the summer recess for the debate absolutely reeked of Cameron trying to rig the agenda.
Now the idea of intervention in Syria is not exactly wrong. (Hypocritical, for certain, but I’m not going to discuss the same-old-story double-standards of global affairs here.) But it is clear to me from studying recordings of the debate that proponents of military action were taking a very simplistic view of matters. The general position many Conservatives were putting forward was that, should Parliament vote against military action, it would be voting to do nothing at all. This interpretation is of course absolutely moronic. There are all sorts of other forms that intervention can take, and in practise, some of them are far more likely to have a positive and controllable outcome than hurling missiles in the general direction of Damascus e.g. sending in peacekeeping forces from the United Nations, setting up an evacuation route for refugees, supplying medical aid to people in areas that have been devastated, opening diplomatic processes etc. Indeed, these are actions that should have been taken a lot more rigorously and long before now, but as they cost considerable money without causing spectacular explosions to show off on 24-hour news media, they offer no opportunity for a Prime Minister to ‘look tough’. (It was also noticeable that the long-running fallacy that ‘non-militarism-equals-appeasement’ reared its deceitful head several times during the debate, a deeply misleading notion that I dismissed years ago.)
Worse, the coalition’s stance has been that the Government of Bashar al-Assad was definitely behind the notorious chemical weapons attack of the 21st of August, but at no stage in the debate was the evidence to support this ever really presented or articulated. The main supporting thrust for the accusation seemed to be, “Well so many people in other countries agree that Assad did it, so he must have done it!” which is an argumentum ad populum (‘bandwagon fallacy’) of the most primitive type that it should hardly require pointing out. Just because the majority believe something, that alone does not make it the truth. Indeed, subsequent analysis of the key ‘evidence’ against Assad – a recording of a telephone conversation between a weapons officer and a regime official – shows it to be a great deal more ambiguous in content and doubtful in origin than was asserted in the debate. (See http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/18559-how-intelligence-was-twisted-to-support-an-attack-on-syria and http://www.fair.org/blog/2013/09/01/which-syrian-chemical-attack-account-is-more-credible.)
The further claim that there is no way the rebel groups in Syria could have possessed the chemical weapons was also not really explained in any coherent way, beyond a rather condescending assumption that the rebels are not a ‘professional army’ (left undefined). Given that large numbers of experienced mercenaries will always gravitate towards long-term conflicts, and that new back-door routes for even quite powerful weapons into a warzone will frequently be developed as the struggle continues, this is again more an assumption than a logical deduction. I would agree that Assad is the chief suspect for the attack, but there is every possibility that rebels were behind it. Some of the rebel groups in Syria are even more bloodthirsty and ruthless than the regime, and would be more than willing to use Sarin gas if they could get their hands on a supply of it (which itself is not a particularly remote possibility as it can be ‘home-made’ quite easily), and even if the ballistic potential required for this attack is difficult for them to obtain, it is far from impossible. (Just consider the many hundreds of US-manufactured rockets imported to the Middle East that American intelligence forces routinely lose track of. They must end up somewhere, and, yes, they frequently wind up in the hands of militant groups.)
There are other important questions that the debate never answered, thus leaving Assad’s guilt in serious doubt. Why would Assad launch chemical weapons into a part of Damascus that had a large presence of his own forces? Could he really afford to sacrifice large numbers of his troops during a civil war? Was it even necessary to make a sacrifice for control of that zone, given his troops were beginning to get the upper hand there already? Why would Assad launch chemical weapons just days after he had invited UN weapons inspectors into the country? If his regime were behind the attack, why did he not come up with an excuse – say because of safety concerns – not to allow the inspectors into the area affected? Another anomaly is that John Kerry, US Secretary of State, claimed earlier on the day of the debate that rocket launches by the regime on 21st August had been detected ‘just ninety minutes’ before the first reports of the chemical weapon use began to circulate – while there is no reason to disbelieve that the rocket launches genuinely happened, actually establishing a link between them and the chemical attacks is a tenuous business; no one in the Parliamentary debate explained why it would take an hour and a half after the launches for anyone to start reporting the widespread poisoning. Were the rockets just travelling very, very slowly?
None of this was really addressed during the debate at all, despite opponents of the motion repeatedly raising their concerns about them. They just couldn’t extract an answer from the Government about them.
The reason why there were no answers to these questions is, I suspect, the same reason why the debate should not have taken place last week at all – it was much too early. The UN weapons inspectors were still in Syria at the time, and would remain there until the Sunday. Furthermore, their report is not likely to be released for at least a couple of weeks, and without that report, critical information with which to make a sound judgement was simply not there for Parliament to consider.
Some Conservative MPs argued that this is irrelevant, because the inspectors are not in a position to apportion blame. Well, maybe not, but that doesn’t mean the information they provide in their report won’t make a big difference to the general understanding of those whose job it is to apportion blame, and without that information, any judgement made is by definition a less-informed one. So to approve a motion for military intervention before the report is published would be simply a rush-to-judgement, which is always deeply reckless and irresponsible when it comes to warfare.
This debate, or at least the vote, should have waited until after the weapons inspectors’ report. Again, some Conservatives (notably Michael Gove’s wife, whose Tweeted opinions are, for some reason, seen by the BBC as important enough to merit publicity on its website – see BBC – Gove’s slurs) have claimed that the vote should still have been a Yes, because it was only an agreement ‘in principle’, and that no military action would have accrued without a second vote. Well, I’m skeptical of that, for reasons I shall outline below, but this in fact underlines the point that the debate should have been held back until later; if the debate hadn’t happened, there would have been no military action until after a later vote anyway. (Assuming we can trust Cameron’s promise not to proceed with military action without Parliamentary approval.)
The question is, therefore, why did Cameron insist on recalling Parliament a few days early, and have this debate before the weapons inspectors had completed their work in Syria? My suspicion is that Cameron did it for entirely cynical reasons. Mainly, he knew that Barack Obama, the US President, is set on going to war against Assad, and Cameron knows that to maintain the illusion of ongoing British importance on the world stage, he has to be the main supporter of American action i.e. so that the British can continue to bask in the reflected glow of US hegemony (this being the true, very empty nature of the ‘Special Relationship’). But if the evidence from the UN came down against the rebels instead of against Assad, any military intervention would have to be in defence of the regime, or there would have to be no military intervention at all, neither of which is what Obama wants. Therefore, Cameron is conscious that, if he is to attack the Assad regime, there is every danger that he will have to defy the UN in order to do it. But he can’t be seen to be acting in a completely unilateral way, especially after his (undelivered) pre-election promises of legislation to prevent Prime Ministers from deploying the British military on the slightest whim. And knowing that the UN evidence, if it indicted the rebels instead of the regime, could also sway Parliament against using force, he wanted to get a Parliamentary vote for action ‘in the bank’ beforehand, so he could claim to have received some kind of endorsement, however flimsy and transparent that would be.
Therefore, for Cameron to accuse Labour of scoring political points seems very hollow.
Now Miliband’s position in the debate was perfectly reasonable and largely correct. He might well have adopted it for narrow political reasons, I can’t really say, but even so, nothing he said or did was unfair or spiteful or obstructionist. He didn’t try to ‘kill-the-bill’, but proposed a series of very reasonable amendments to it to clarify exactly what was being voted for, what the aims of a military intervention should be (something else that Cameron has completely failed to explain), and to remove some of the prejudiced conclusions that had been crowbarred into the motion originally tabled. (Mind you, all those people showering Miliband with great praise for his performance on Thursday should remember that his amendment was also voted down, and by a far bigger margin. It was one of Miliband’s best days as Leader of the Opposition, sure, but it still had a downside.)
It was not Miliband who was arrogantly manipulating the Syrian crisis, it was Cameron, but he tried to rig things in such a blundering, ham-fisted way that the whole attempt fell over its own feet. It was a testament to the folly of impatience, it deserved to fail, and it now leaves Cameron in a perilous position. He was already one of the most hated Prime Ministers in British history, seen as an uncaring and vindictive leader of the country. Now, he is seen as an uncaring, vindictive and spiteful blunderer, and one or two in his own party may well be thinking about whether they could do the job better than him.
Please note, I am not necessarily opposed to military intervention in Syria in its entirety. It might ultimately prove to be the only way forward if other types of intervention fail. But other types of intervention have, as yet, not even been attempted on any rigorous scale, and with Assad’s guilt over the chemical attacks still uncertain, and the exact aims, strategy, likelihood of success, and danger of worsening the situation, of an American military intervention not yet being quantified or defined, it would be unforgivably reckless to support it immediately.