“BRITAIN HAS got its mojo back,” said the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne on December 7. He wasn’t doing an impression of Austin Powers. He was speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations about the British Parliament’s decision to bomb ISIS in Syria. Osborne explained to the council that he and the prime minister, his close friend and ally David Cameron, had tried to intervene militarily in Syria two years earlier and had been rebuffed by the House of Commons. “It was quite a striking moment,” he recalled, with sadness. “It was a moment when Britain was unable to follow the lead asked of it by our prime minister and the government.” But George Osborne felt better because now Britain was dropping bombs over Syria—for him a “source of real pride.”
He mentioned, almost in passing, that in 2013 he and Cameron had wanted to attack the forces of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, rather than ISIS. Yet he did not dwell on that fact, because he knows that ISIS is Assad’s enemy, and most analysts agree that harming the Syrian government in 2013 would have been a boon to death-cult Islamists across the Middle East, especially those fighting under the black flag of the Islamic State. The chancellor preferred to skip past such thoughts. “We are going with you as we reassert Western values,” he concluded to his American audience, “confident that our best days lie ahead.”
Most people know, however, that the British are not bringing much to the fight. The Royal Air Force (RAF) has already been attacking ISIS in Iraq since September 2014, and it’s hard to see what, if anything, that effort has achieved. Officials admit that British aircraft have carried out only 8 percent of the allied strikes, so the sub-Churchillian rhetoric about our proud nation never shirking its duties seems more like posturing than anything else.
In the days before the vote, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon emphasized that although Britain’s role would not be huge, the United Kingdom’s forces brought a “qualitative edge” to the war on ISIS. “The skill of our RAF pilots and the capability of our aircraft means the UK can conduct the most complex strikes—what is known as dynamic targeting,” said Fallon. He boasted about the United Kingdom’s Brimstone missile—“a low collateral damage, precision weapon that even the U.S. do not possess”—and something called a RAPTOR pod on our Tornado fighter jets, which is brilliant at tactical reconnaissance.
Such statements tap into the ineradicable British fantasy that we still punch above our weight in international affairs. Yet it’s fair to say the United States and other allies conducting 92 percent of the campaign could probably cope without the UK’s contribution. Britain’s hard power is not what it was, to put it mildly. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were stretched to breaking point. In the last five years, David Cameron’s “austerity government” has set about cutting back the size and budget of the armed forces as part of its failed attempt to tackle the nation’s debt problem. The RAF has been dramatically diminished. For the attacks on ISIS in Iraq, Britain has deployed just eight Tornado jets from its base in Cyprus. Now, for the Syria missions, it has added only two more. The Tornado is an old bird, first developed in the 1970s. The RAF has in recent weeks deployed a further six Eurofighter Typhoons to take on ISIS. Yet the Typhoon is itself a symbol of British decline, built as it is in conjunction with the European Union so as to keep costs down. And the Typhoon can’t fire that Brimstone missile of which Fallon is so proud.
BRITAIN’S LATEST military escapade in Syria is less about hurting ISIS and more about symbolism—“a highly potent gesture,” as Bob Stewart, a former British colonel turned Conservative politician called it. Britain wants to show solidarity with France following the ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Paris on November 13, and to make British politicians feel they could once again stand tall in the world.
It’s hard to exaggerate quite how badly parliament’s rejection of Cameron’s first proposed Syria intervention hurt his pride, and the feelings of his nearest and dearest. It’s possible he felt emasculated by it. The rumor in Westminster was that Cameron’s wife, Samantha, who had been on a charity tour of Syria with Save the Children that March, had persuaded her man something needed to be done. Following inconclusive reports that Bashar al-Assad had again used chemical weapons to crush his opposition, the prime minister cut short his family holiday and came back to London at the end of August gunning for war.
After agreeing with Barack Obama that Britain would support American missile attacks on Assad strongholds, Cameron realized that his diplomatic reputation was at stake. Because of the number of dissenting voices within his own shaky coalition government, Cameron knew that he would have to secure the support of the then opposition leader Ed Miliband for a vote to attack Syria to pass. He duly invited Miliband to Downing Street to persuade him of the need for action. Miliband initially appeared sympathetic, then wavered and finally refused to commit, and in the end Cameron’s motion was defeated in the Commons by 285 votes to 272. It was the first time a British government had been defeated on a matter of war since 1782. The Cameroons—as those in Cameron’s circle are called—felt betrayed and angry. Nick Clegg, the then leader of Liberal Democrats and the deputy prime minister, said bitterly: “I could tell Ed Miliband was thinking this’ll be a good way of absolving his party of Iraq and embarrassing the Liberal Democrats. He had a choice to do something big or score points, and he chose the latter.” An unnamed government source was more blunt, telling the press that “Number 10 and the Foreign Office think Miliband is a fucking cunt and a copper-bottomed shit.”
Cameron collected himself on the day and made a dignified statement conceding defeat. “It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” he said. “I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
Cameron stewed, however. He was particularly upset a week later, when, at a G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Britain was “just a small island . . . no one pays any attention to them.” Although nothing more than an off-the-cuff remark by a minor official, the prime minister took it as a grave insult. He responded by making an over-the-top speech about British greatness. “Britain may be a small island but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience,” he said. The prime minister’s PR men said that Cameron’s patriotic passion had been stirred by the smart that Putin’s man had inflicted, and the right-wing press duly cheered the prime minister on. But his overreaction was no doubt initiated at least in part by the recent blow that Parliament had inflicted on his pride.
DAVID CAMERON was not always such a chest-thumping chauvinist. He used to make quite sensible noises about the perils of intervention. As leader of the opposition, he promised that he wasn’t some “naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet.” As prime minister, however, Cameron and his colleagues felt that Britain must act as a force for good in the world—and if that means military intervention, so be it.
It was the civil war in Libya in 2011 that converted Cameron from liberal realist to liberal hawk. His biographer Sir Anthony Seldon calls the conflict “the formative experience in his premiership to date.” Seldon argues that Cameron had long felt a private animosity towards the Libyan despot, Muammar el-Qaddafi. In 1984, as a sensitive teenage public schoolboy, he had been shocked by the murder of the young policewoman Yvonne Fletcher by shots fired from the Libyan embassy in London.
He was even more horrified four years later by the blowing up of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in Scotland, which killed 270 people and was later proven to have been carried out by another Libyan, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Cameron was disturbed that, in the 2000s, his predecessor Tony Blair had overridden British principles in order to bring in Qaddafi from the diplomatic cold. Blair had allowed the release of Libyan prisoners, including—most controversially—al-Megrahi. Cameron believed that British Petroleum, which had substantial oil interests in Libya, had played a part in the shady détente. After he became Prime Minister in 2010, Cameron ordered an investigation into the last government’s relationship with Qaddafi. Later that year, he refused on principle to attend a summit that Qaddafi was hosting.
When the Arab Spring sprang, and Libyan rebels turned on Qaddafi, Cameron felt what Seldon calls “a strong sense of Schadenfreude” at the Colonel’s plight. He shared the fast-spreading liberal hope that democracy had at last begun to flower in the Middle East. Cameron decided he had to support the Libyan rebels, and act quickly.
As Qaddafi’s forces rounded on the rebels in the town of Benghazi and a slaughter seemed imminent, Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy cobbled together a United Nations coalition of the sort-of-willing, including a hesitant Barack Obama. Cameron then put the UN-approved commitment to Libya to the House of Commons, and received overwhelming support. Only 13 of the 570 members of Parliament present rejected the motion. Of 280 Conservatives, only one dared say no.
Defense chiefs recall Cameron being in such a rush to engage that he was unwilling to listen to problems. He summoned the National Security Council and informed them “intervention in Libya is in the British national interest.” When the then head of the Secret Intelligence Service Sir John Sawers disagreed, insisting that the prime minister wanted to act for humanitarian reasons, which was not quite the same thing, Cameron looked puzzled and said: “Yes, yes, but it is important that we do these things.”
“There were some very real difficulties that Number 10 didn’t really want to hear,” said General Sir David Richards, the then Chief of Defence Staff.
Cameron set up a committee to look into how Libya might function post-Qaddafi. He asked Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, to draw up “stabilisation plans.” But it seems to have been a token effort. Mitchell made some upbeat-sounding statements to the press about “lessons learnt” from Iraq and Afghanistan, but nobody seemed able to draw up a comprehensive proposal for an ideal and workable Libyan settlement.
Qaddafi himself contacted Number 10 through Tony Blair, offering a compromise through which he would demote himself to the position of “monarch without power,” but his approach was shunned. Cameron apparently convinced himself that the risk of deposing Qaddafi altogether was worth taking. Whatever his advisers said, he decided that Libya could turn itself into a stable democracy with only a modicum of Western aid.
At first the idea seemed to work. Qaddafi soon fell and was murdered. Western intervention had been pivotal, though as usual it was Uncle Sam’s might that proved decisive. British defense chiefs complained that they had been forced to “improvise” because military funding was so short: they had no aircraft carriers from which to conduct the strikes, and the stock of those precious Brimstone missiles had been reduced to single figures.
Nevertheless, Cameron played a crucial role in the war, and he felt vindicated. In the aftermath of the conflict, he visited Libya in triumph. He knew well enough not to make a “mission accomplished” speech, but he couldn’t stop himself from basking in the role of liberator. “Colonel Qaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats,” he told a cheering crowd in Benghazi,
“but you showed the courage of lions. Your city was an inspiration to the world as you threw off a dictator and chose freedom. . . . Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future.”
FAR FROM BEING an example of successful intervention, however, Libya has turned into a study in how the West makes things worse. It is now a failed state, a vast ungoverned space. The World Food Program says that 2.4 million Libyans are in need of humanitarian assistance; the country’s population is 6.2 million. Its economy is at one quarter of its capacity. Instead of fostering democracy in the Maghreb, Libya has become a breeding ground for Islamist terror—security analysts call it “Scumbag Woodstock”—and a springboard for the refugee crisis into Europe. Towards the end of 2015, Abdullah al-Thani, one of Libya’s competing prime ministers, wrote to Philip Hammond, Cameron’s foreign secretary, offering to cooperate against ISIS and the people-smuggling rackets that bring so many migrants across the Mediterranean into Europe. He didn’t receive a reply.
The Cameroons ignore the reality of Libya in favor of congratulating themselves on a job well done. As one Cabinet minister put it to the journalist Matthew D’Ancona, “whenever things get bad, and the press are saying what a rubbish government we are, I remind myself that there are people alive in Benghazi tonight because we decided to take a risk.” In a Christmas interview with the Spectator magazine, Cameron insisted that
“Libya is better off without Qaddafi. What we were doing was preventing a mass genocide. Then, as you say, the coalition helped those on the ground to get rid of the Qaddafi regime and it’s very disappointing that there hasn’t been an effective successor regime.”
Yet the idea of an imminent Libyan genocide in 2011 seems to have been exaggerated. The International Crisis Group concluded by the end of that year: “There are grounds for questioning the more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators, let alone engaging in anything remotely warranting use of the term ‘genocide.’”
Moreover, Cameron’s insistence that his intervention saved lives—when in the long run, it did not—and his use of word “disappointing” is telling. It suggests a near pathological unwillingness to accept mistakes. To admit failure in Libya would be to undermine the prime minister’s judgment, and he can’t have that. He would rather blame Libyans for not taking their big shot at democracy. This stubbornness seems to have driven him to be hawkish over Syria. Cameron and his friends want to recapture some of the magic they felt when they rid the world of a tyranny. It doesn’t matter whether Britain is tackling Assad, or attacking Assad’s enemy. It doesn’t even matter that Britain is making a pathetically insignificant contribution. What counts is that the Tory top brass can feel they are fighting the good fight. When it comes to international statesmanship, the Cameroons prefer West Wing–style fantasy to realpolitik.
Cameron is aware of this criticism, which is why he has tried to pretend that he had thought through his latest adventure in Syria. But his strategy didn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The prime minister’s office issues a document claiming that while the immediate motive for airstrikes was to degrade ISIS, there was a medium-term plan to work with seventy thousand “Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.” This was an obvious fudge to suggest that destroying ISIS did not mean propping up Assad; that a third force existed in Syria, one which could be brought to the fore, with Western help. Unfortunately for democrats everywhere, this idea seems based on wishful thinking. Experts maintain that the armed opposition to Assad is dominated by ISIS, as well as the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the equally Islamist Ahrar al-Sham. The smaller rebel groups might be labeled moderate, but they are able to operate only with the blessing of the jihadists. Besides, as journalist Patrick Cockburn, citing Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum, writes, these groups “commonly exaggerate their numbers, are very fragmented and have failed to unite, despite years of war.”
Cameron’s attempts to look perspicacious in foreign affairs only show him once again to be over impulsive and delusional—proof once again that the prime minister’s foreign policy is, as General Richards had put it, “more about the Notting Hill liberal agenda rather than statecraft.”
A STRONG opposition leader should have been able to destroy his case for intervention. Regrettably, the Labour Party is now led by the strange and divisive figure of Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has energized the Far Left but seems to be tearing his party apart. Corbyn is an antiwar radical. Labour supporters elected him to show how much they despised the stilted centrism of Tony Blair, with its embrace of capitalism and foreign entanglements in oil-rich countries. Yet Corbyn is reviled by a large proportion of his own parliamentary party—especially the so-called Blairites, who are desperate to get rid of him so they can get on with their project of modernizing the party. They spied in the Syria vote an opportunity to move against Corbyn, and they took it.
Corbyn had prompted anger with his reactions to the terrorist outrages in Paris. While Cameron made the statements the public wanted to hear about unleashing vengeance on the perverted Islamists, Corbyn made holier-than-thou statements about not being drawn into “responses that feed the cycle of violence and hate.” He asked the prime minister “not to keep making the same mistakes” and argued that “enthusiasm for interventions has only multiplied the threats against us.” Cameron reassured the public that he had issued a shoot-to-kill order for armed policemen searching for terrorists on British streets. Corbyn told the BBC he was “not happy” with such a dangerous policy.
Corbyn’s stances seemed wholly sensible, and probably supported by a majority of the British public, notwithstanding anxiety about another terrorist attack. Yet for the majority of the political class, they were utterly anathema. One Downing Street source fumed to the Sun newspaper that Corbyn would not vote for military action “even if the Isle of Wight was invaded.” Senior Labour politicians were embarrassed at their leader’s pusillanimity in the face of terror. A Labour shadow-cabinet minister even told journalists that Corbyn was a “fucking disgrace” (British politics, you’ll note, is pretty foul-mouthed these days).
As Cameron prepared to put his bomb-Syria proposal before the House of Commons, it quickly became the received wisdom among Westminster journalists that Corbyn had shown himself to be out of touch with the country and effectively unelectable. Cameron got so carried away that he accused Corbyn and others who opposed him of being a “bunch of terrorist sympathizers.”
Nobody paid much attention to the fact that polls suggested that, while public opinion was resolutely in favor wiping out ISIS, a majority remained uncertain that Syrian airstrikes were a good idea. Labour’s rebellion against Corbyn was the real story, and the merits of intervention were secondary to the discussion.
Corbyn didn’t help himself. He vacillated between letting his MPs make up their own minds and trying to force them to follow his lead. He told his shadow cabinet to think the decision over on a weekend so that the party could come to a “collective decision”—then promptly wrote a letter to all Labour MPs underlining his implacable opposition to airstrikes. He then went on television to insist that “it is the leader who decides” on such matters. Labour politicians understandably felt confused. Corbyn’s rivals within the party scented blood. Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, son of the famous Labour stalwart Tony, took to the airwaves to back the strikes and undermine Corbyn’s credibility. He informed the BBC that, while his leader was “perfectly entitled to his view,” he himself believed intervention was the right thing to do. Under severe pressure, Corbyn eventually agreed to allow a free vote. But the time he wasted making that decision had made him look insecure and politically vulnerable.
The parliamentary debate and vote turned out to be a bizarre piece of drawn-out theater, stage-managed to humiliate Corbyn and secure the result the government wanted. Corbyn, never the most charismatic public speaker, was besieged by his fellow MPs. He failed to articulate a convincing argument against Cameron’s proposition that “it is wrong for the United Kingdom to subcontract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain.”
Following ten hours of exhaustive and uninspiring debate, Hilary Benn was invited to make the closing speech. He began by berating the Prime Minister for calling Corbyn a terrorist sympathizer—thus establishing himself as a non-Tory—and then proceeded to make a relatively compelling case for action.
“We are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr. Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil.”
The speech was hardly a twenty-first-century Gettysburg Address, relying as it did on that tired rhetorical reductio ad Hitlerum device which Leo Strauss first identified in 1951. Yet most politicians and political journalists, desperate for some consensus after a long and repetitive debate, fell about themselves in wonder and praise. As Benn sat down, Maria Eagle, the then Shadow Secretary of Defence, leant across Corbyn to shake his hand. “One of the great parliamentary moments,” declared the Daily Telegraph. “Syria may not have been liberated,” wrote John Grace in the Guardian, “but Hilary Benn has been.”
CORBYN HAD BEEN outmaneuvered in the chamber, and the vote was a formality. Cameron’s motion passed with a landslide. Senior Labour and Tory MPs congratulated each other on having put aside party differences and come together in the national interest. Politicos immediately said that Benn had emerged as the clear frontrunner to lead the Labour Party and save it from the walking disaster that is Jeremy Corbyn. And Cameron and Osborne felt vindicated, their authority restored.
What about the rest of the country? It’s possible that most of the public sensed that the decision to join in the strikes on Syria was a charade, which would only feed the general contempt for politicians. Indeed, the day after Corbyn’s supposed humiliation, a by-election took place in Oldham, in the north of England. Oldham is traditionally a Labour stronghold, but political experts and pollsters had been warning for weeks that the party was about to get a bloody nose. Voters were put off by Corbyn’s far-leftism, they said, and were angry at the feebleness of response to the terror. At the election, however, Corbyn’s party triumphed, increasing their share of the vote from 54 to 62 per cent, while the Tory share halved. Perhaps the result had little to do with the Syria debate and more to do with the ongoing economic struggles in the north of England. Yet it does suggest that, while Corbyn may be a wet peacenik, he is not as hopeless as his opponents believe. Or perhaps the public doesn’t care as much about Britain’s mojo as does Osborne.
Freddy Gray, deputy editor of the London Spectator, is a regular contributor to the National Interest.
Image: Flickr/Number 10