The defeat of David Cameron in the British parliament is without precedent. The last time a British prime minister was humiliated by his own members of Paliament was in 1782. Then the House of Commons refused to support the war in the United States. Now the House of Commons is saying no to more war in the Middle East.
In both cases a pro-war Conservative premier was repudiated by his own followers. In the decade since 2003, Britain has gone from being America’s best friend to standing up for an alternative policy to the endless use of cruise missile and bombs to try and change politics in the Arab world.
Now only France appears to want to pick up and wear the deputy sheriff’s badge, the House of Commons last night ripped off Mr Cameron’s chest. Poland, usually the most loyal of Washington’s friends in Europe, has rejected participation in any military assault on Syria. Germany pines for the days when it did not have to take decisions on use or non-use of its soldiers. Both Angela Merkel and her social democratic opponent, Peer Steinbrück, will be grateful that British parliamentary democracy has decided against a military attack on Syria thus removing the issue from the German election debate.
In March 2003, it was President Chirac who said France would form a Paris-Moscow-Beijing axis in voting at the Security Council in New York to veto a UN resolution that would have forced the Iraqi dictator to comply with UN resolutions or face military action. The decision to invade Iraq became one for Washington and London, and the other European states including Spain, Poland, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands ready to take action.
Contrary to the myth it was not Tony Blair but the House of Commons that voted to endorse the attack on Iraq. After a stormy 2-day debate, a large majority voted for war. Today, that majority has disappeared.
The main reason is that the Iraq invasion turned out to have disastrous consequences. Not for all those living in Iraq of course. In northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds have won autonomy and the right to live their own lives after decades of Saddam’s oppression. There have been elections just as in Iran or Zimbabwe but the old networks of corruption and the ever-present violence between Sunnis and Shias has turned much of Iraq into a permanent killing field.
Thousands of American and British families mourn their sons lost in Iraq and in both countries the sense that the endless loss of soldiers’ lives has been as pointless as the loss of thousands of young Americans in Vietnam.
The flags fly and bands play at funerals. Politicians salute the bravery of the fallen. But in Iraq as in Afghanistan, men died because politicians do not know what to do. It is so easy to start a war, so difficult to end one.
After more than a decade of military attacks on majority Muslim nations, the mood in Britain is simply ‘that’s enough’. Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron sought to cover themselves with the laurels of war with their attack on Libya. The sight of Colonel Gaddafi who once pitched his tent in the gardens of the Elysée being dragged through the dust with a bloody head after his brutal killing may have pleased some. But today in Libya there is permanent violence spilling south as well as increasing instability in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.
Sarkozy and Cameron won their headlines but made the southern flank of Europe’s vital sea, the Mediterranean, much more dangerous. Benjamin Franklin said he never knew a good war or a bad peace. The fury over Europe’s impotence in face of the descent into civil wars in Yugoslavia after 1990 led the to the doctrine of the right to intervene and the duty to protect. It justified, rightly, the military action taken to stop the Serb genocidal massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. But this doctrine was too easily perverted into an absolute right by any western, white power to attack countries seen as a threat, sheltering terrorists or doing ugly things to their people.
To be sure, the murders of innocents in Ghouta shocked the world. Today in Washington, serious doubts are being raised whether the use of gas is 1000 per cent attributable to Assad. Syria has become a proxy battlefield for the Saudi-Iran conflict, and as in Afghanistan in the 1980s a new training ground for Islamist jihadis. The British intelligence services believe 100 British Muslim fanatics are now fighting in Syria learning all the techniques that can be used to target British citizens in the fascistic cause promoted by Islamists.
In the 1870s, the great British liberal politician, William Gladstone, tried to create a climate of fury against the Ottoman Empire as he described their atrocities in the Balkans in gruesome detail. He wanted Britain to “punish” (to use President Hollande’s metaphor) Turkey. But a cynical, old, Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, said ‘No’ to war. Today, a young, inexperienced, Anglican prime minister, David Cameron, sought to commit Britain to warlike action but was stopped by his own parliament.
The Labour Party under its new leader, Ed Miliband, is not anti-war. He supported Cameron in Libya. But Labour has learnt the lessons of failure in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and now is much more cautious. It was 70 of Mr Cameron’s own Conservative deputes who voted with Labour that caused last night’s historic defeat.
This reflects the deep unhappiness in the Conservative Party at Mr Cameron’s leadership which has not been a success. The right in Britain is decomposing on issues like Europe, taxation, immigrants, or gay marriage. The vote was a reflection of British public opinion. The British are now less ready to give a blank cheque to any prime minister wanting to go to war initiated and controlled by Washington.
Last night’s vote does not answer the question ‘What is to be done in the eastern and southern Mediterranean?’. But it does suggest that the days when cruise missiles were a substitute for politics and diplomacy are over. Now the strangest silence in Europe is that of the French socialist party parti and the assemblée nationale in Paris. Will France follow England? Or is socialist France now the only friend the war-makers in Washington have in Europe?