Monday, 2 September 2013

Armchair generals underestimate Britain's influence

Here's the strangest revelation to follow from Thursday night's Commons vote, a decision that was both farcical (in the manner it came about) and magnificent (in the way it seems to have reinvigorated both the "Parliamentary" and "democracy" parts of what is mostly inaccurately called our Parliamentary democracy). It turns out that the believers in Britain's continuing role as a leading voice in world affairs, who often seem so delusional (never more so than when bemoaning the catastrophic consequences for our national credibility of not bombing Syria on this particular occasion) were right after all. The UK does still pack some sort of punch on the world stage. Just not in the way they assumed.

Large parts of the commentariat and the political leadership assumed that not joining in Obama's planned tweaking of Bashar Assad's moustache meant that the UK would never be taken seriously again. Many are still wedded to that dismal belief today. Take, for example, David Blair in the Telegraph, who seems to want to outdo his namesake in enthusiasm for war-related brown-nosing of Uncle Sam. In a hysterical piece, he writes that "by casting a grotesquely irresponsible vote, our MPs have downgraded our Prime Minister in the eyes of the world’s superpower." Hitherto, he thinks, the American president, whoever he happened to be, could rely on Britain providing "serious military capability" whenever there was somewhere that both countries agreed needed bombing. This gives the British "credibility" in Washington, he believes.

Such credibility is now at an end, thinks Blair, because of the "strange new doctrine that Parliament must approve any military action" (I think the word he's looking for is "democracy") and because of what he sees as the pacifist/isolationist tone of some of the speeches in the Commons, many of which stressed the importance of the UN. What he doesn't tell us is what such supposed "credibility" actually brings the UK, beyond patronising pats on the head at the White House (much talk of "our closest ally" and "special relationship", a phrase rational people cannot hear without wincing) and the ill-disguised contempt of the rest of the world.

A country is not strong and respected as an independent voice if its only international role is to fire missiles and drop bombs in pursuance of another country's foreign policy. Nothing proclaims weakness so much as pearl-clutching prophecies of doom from people who think that the nation is just one bombing raid away from global irrelevance. In their way, voices of the Blair (Tony as well as David) or Paddy Ashdown persuasion are just as pessimistic, just as defeatist, as those who urge Britain to give up its "post-imperial pretensions" and settle for for an international influence on a par with, say, Swaziland. They don't want this country to have actual influence either in Washington or the wider world - or, at any rate, they don't believe that such influence is possible. What they want is the appearance of influence, an illusion bought at great expense in wasted military hardware and often lives and which in any case fools no-one.

These people's greatest ambition is for the UK to be the monkey to America's organ-grinder. But who ever took the monkey seriously? The audience respects the organ-grinder while the monkey, if he's lucky, gets tossed a few peanuts. What kind of ambition is that?

Assuming you believe that Britain ought to have some sort of influence in the world, it can only exercise it by being true to its own principles or by acting in its own interests - as, for example, the French invariably do. Parliament rightly rejected the opportunity to join in with Obama's ill thought-through gesture bombing, recognising that there was nothing in it either for Britain or, more importantly, for the people of Syria. Syria isn't merely "not our war"; bombing military targets as punishment or as an expression of moral indignation isn't even our solution. ("Our solution", championed by William Hague, which strikes me as even more bonkers than the proposed bombing campaign, has long been to "arm the rebels.") It's not our responsibility as a nation, even a nation that has a few dozen Tomahawk Cruise missiles to its name, to dig President Obama out of the hole into which he dug himself by declaring his foolish "red line" last year. Even if you believe, as I do, that the Assad regime was guilty of using chemical weapons and deserves to be punished for it, there's simply no evidence that this proposed response will do anything to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria, which is after all the only thing that really matters.

David Blair, incidentally, passes over Syria entirely, beyond the merest of nods: "let’s leave aside the case for and against the proposed strike on Syria and focus on the diplomatic consequences for Britain." A remarkable example of tunnel vision, if all-too-representative of the general tone of the commentary. This isn't about us, and it isn't about the frustrations and hurt feelings of armchair generals not being allowed to join in the fun.

But we now know the actual impact, at least in the short term, of last week's Parliamentary vote. It was to bounce a panicked (or perhaps secretly relieved) Obama into putting the matter before Congress, not in emergency session, but next week, by which time both the case for military strikes and the likely consequences will be clearer. The Francophile John Kerry might have taken the opportunity to snub Britain and wax lyrical about an "oldest ally" that was last of serious military assistance to the United States in 1782, but Obama (despite his oft-alleged Anglophobia) appears to have more sense. He realises, as many in the US do, that the UK is a serious ally and thus should be taken seriously. He appreciates, better than many on this side of the Atlantic, that when the House of Commons, despite a tradition of bi-partisanship on questions of national security and defence, declines to support a particular military course urged by the government, that this is unlikely to be a petulant whim.

Far from destroying British credibility - even in Washington - Parliament's decision to apply the brakes on the rush towards a futile bombing raid has done much to restore it. Last Thursday, largely as a result of actions by Ed Miliband that were either fiendishly Machiavellian or just plain indecisive, and a response by David Cameron that was almost an object lesson in how not to do politics, Parliament reflected the will of the nation. It taught the American president a lesson in the value of reflection and the importance of democratic debate that he has shown himself perhaps surprisingly willing to learn. It showed the world that, whatever the desire of political leaders, leader-writers and BBC war-junkies to get involved in something - anything - that the Americans want to do the UK isn't quite a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Pentagon. It began to undo some of the damage caused by Tony Blair. It reasserted the national interest.

And the world took note. It made a difference. Who would have predicted that?