It was a perfect storm of political ineptitude, short-sighted expediency, and gutlessness, with just a modicum of genuine, albeit misplaced, principle.
It involved an unimpressive Labor opposition leader, Ed Miliband, who has failed to connect to the British electorate and is unloved by his own party, and who saw an opportunity for political gain. He seized a chance to distance himself from his reviled predecessor Tony Blair, and no doubt harbored some genuine reservations about an over-hasty resort to force.
It starred an arrogant and earnest prime minister, David Cameron, whose gut told him that the international community simply could not allow President Bashar Assad to get away with gassing his people, but who dismally underestimated the disinclination of the British public, and their parliament, to rush headlong into unpredictable military conflict. Rather than waiting, with just a little patience, for UN inspectors to report back from the scene of the alleged Assad crime, for the UN Security Council to inevitably fail to agree on concerted action, and for the British Parliament and public to internalize that there would be no response to Assad if Russia’s assent were needed, and thus to prepare the ground for a reluctant but morally crucial punitive action against the use of chemical weapons, Cameron tried to steamroll parliament into rubber-stamping a yes to whatever Washington might be planning.
Feeling that it had been similarly steamrolled by Blair into what it regards as the disastrous and immoral Iraq war, on the basis of what proved to be false information about Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction, the British Parliament on Thursday night simply said “no.” Or rather, it thought it said “not for now,” but the impetuous Cameron, like a spoiled child denied approval, bizarrely then immediately stood up and misrepresented the vote as a firm no to any UK role in intervention in Syria — handing his opponents an even bigger victory than the one they thought they had achieved.
Blair himself was a supporting player in the dreadful affair, having declared that international intervention in Syria was called for. He has still failed to internalize, six years after his ouster from 10 Downing Street, that he is so disliked and mistrusted in the UK that any cause he supports — unfortunately including Israel’s — tends to suffer, not benefit, from his endorsement.
As a consequence of Cameron’s absolutely staggering defeat in the House of Commons on Thursday night, an already hesitant US administration — which has been wobbling for days about how to make plain to Assad that he can’t massacre his people with weapons of mass destruction, but to do so without embroiling the US in another muddy, bloody, unwinnable Middle East conflict — has lost its key ally in the unenviable, vital task of reining in the murderous tendencies of global, and especially Middle Eastern, despots.
In Syria, Assad must be delightedly flabbergasted, even as he braces for still-likely American intervention, having witnessed in Westminster how spectacularly wary the once mighty Britain has become of utilizing force to uphold even the highest moral imperatives. The nuances of quite how and why the vote played out the way it did may be lost on him, and why wouldn’t they be? Why would he care that Britain opted out of the challenge of opposing him because of a curious combination of political expediency, prime ministerial foolishness, recent Middle East traumas, and more? The bottom line is that the UK, asked by its leader to stand up and fight against the use of WMD to kill innocent civilians in distant Syria, walked away.
In Iran, for a regime which has always had a withering estimation of western moral purpose, the anti-Cameron opposition’s dramatic victory would have come as less of a surprise, and it can only reinforce Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s confidence that he, like North Korea before him, can safely lie and dissemble his way to a nuclear weapons capability, ignoring the empty rhetoric of the craven West.
And in Israel? In an Israel beset by threats and challenges in almost every direction, an Israel whose northern border is just an hour’s drive from Assad’s toxic Damascus, an Israel being urged by the international community to take territorial risks for peace in a vicious, WMD-using, phenomenally unstable Middle East — in that Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be feeling a further bitter vindication of his long-held and oft-stated conviction that, ultimately, against all dangers, Israel needs to be able to take care of itself, by itself. At the very least, he might be reflecting, perfidious Albion could not be relied upon to rally to the rescue.