British Prime Minister David Cameron’s weekend war was going according to plan.
“I love that word ‘relationship’. It covers all manner of sins, doesn't it?”A horrific sarin gas attack in a suburb of Damascus kills hundreds of men, women and children: the perfect pretext for Western military intervention after two years of civil war have left 100,000 people dead and turned 2 million into refugees.
(Hugh Grant, as the British prime minister in the film “Love Actually,” referring to the so-called “special relationship” between the UK and the US)
President Barack Obama, flying in Air Force One to the G20 summit in Russia, calls in the Tomahawk cruise missile strikes from US warships in the Mediterranean, and drones take out selected targets in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
The Syrian army HQ lying in a smoking heap of rubble, Obama steps off the plane in St. Petersburg to declare “victory” virtually overnight in a “punitive” attack against the Assad regime. With a dutiful Cameron at his side, Obama makes sure to add a generous note of thanks to Britain, Washington’s traditional (junior) partner in imperialist adventures, for its military support.
Cameron then steps forward and shakes the president’s hand: Mission Accomplished.
Back in London, church bells peal out in celebration as Cameron graciously receives the applause of British members of parliament and the cheers of the public lining the streets. People have forgotten his woeful economic record, the deepening recession and the latest secret services government spying scandal.
Newspaper headlines ring out: “Dictator Assad taught a lesson” (The Telegraph), “Assad’s chemical weapons base destroyed” (The Guardian) and “Bashar bashed!” (The Sun). As if by magic, Cameron’s political fortunes are transformed, just like his hero Margaret Thatcher’s were by her victory in the Falklands War….
But then Cameron wakes up. It’s all been a dream.
‘A tale of two wars’Back in the real world, as Cameron woke up on Friday morning, the UK newspaper headlines were a little different, however.
The prime minister’s best-laid plans, urging military intervention on his senior partner in the White House, lay in ruins: All but destroyed by a vote in the British parliament, where MPs voted 285-272 against Cameron’s proposal for military action against Assad for using chemical weapons. While the vote was cited by Cameron as not a final approval, it certainly would have prepared the ground for military intervention after a follow-up vote next week.
The newspapers opposing Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal coalition were bad enough. The Labour-supporting Daily Mirror sneered: “We don’t want your war,” while The Guardian wrote: “MPs force Cameron to rule out war with Syria.”
Yet it was The Independent newspaper’s cryptic headline, “A tale of two wars,” that summed up best why Britain’s junior partner/cheerleader/poodle relationship with Washington – perfected during the US-led interventions in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya – had come unstuck.
The war on many people’s minds during Thursday’s debate in the House of Commons was not the one that Obama may still launch unilaterally, or with France’s support, in Syria. It was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, justified with great zeal but less honesty by then-British PM Tony Blair, whose “sexed-up” dossier on Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMD did much to discredit the whole idea of CIA-MI6 “intelligence” reports.
Cameron, clearly feeling the shadow of the Bush-Blair lies on Iraq, felt compelled to publicly disavow the Blair-era aim of regime change, even though that is what his government has been pushing for in Damascus constantly over the last two years.
“It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict, it is not about invading, it is not about regime change and it is not even about working more closely with the opposition,” Cameron told a skeptical House of Commons, adding: “The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode.”
‘We don’t want to be conned’
With Cameron’s Coalition government normally able to count on a majority of 77, the parliamentary vote should have been won hands down – even after Labour Party leader Ed Miliband backed out of a bipartisan deal to support Cameron’s war plans at the last minute.
Yet Cameron’s plans failed, as it was not just Labour MPs who voted against paving the way to war: it was members of his own government. Party managers tried to dragoon Conservative MPs into voting for military action, but more than 30 rebelled, another 30 stayed away from parliament altogether and two ministers even said they had “missed” the voting bell when it sounded.
Senior Conservative MP David Davis summed up many of the dissenters’ unease: “We don’t want to be conned into a war in effect by actions designed to do just that,” he said, noting that the case against Assad’s regime was not proven. "There are plenty of facts around, or at least reported facts, that the UN representative for human rights in Syria thought there was concrete evidence of rebels having sarin gas.”
Many Conservative MPs already fear they will be kicked out the election over mass dissatisfaction at the government’s tough austerity measures, and in Thursday’s debate many of them said they had received an avalanche of e-mailed complaints from local voters over Cameron’s war plans.
Polls show a clear majority of the British people are against any UK military action, with 50 percent opposing intervention, according to YouGov, and only 30 percent supporting a war in a Daily Telegraph survey.
Max Hastings, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, writing in the Daily Mail, also delivered a damning judgment on Cameron, saying he had “misread the strategic arguments, the interests of the Syrian people, the mood of Britain and now also of its Parliament.”
While Cameron suffered the worst defeat of his three years in power, the Labour opposition may not benefit that much either from the anti-war mood in the country.
Miliband also comes out of the affair less than honorably. His flip-flopping – first supporting military action, then calling for more evidence of Assad’s involvement, but still supporting the principle of intervention – rankled with many Labour MPs and anti-war activists, who wanted him to fully oppose any military action.
The parliamentary rebellion against Cameron and Obama came as a big surprise to just about everyone in mainstream UK politics, mainly because it was not organized by any of the main political parties. It came, rather, from the grassroots of society – ordinary people who lobbied their MPs before Thursday’s vote, and from the legacy of protests against the Iraq war.
From tragedy to farce
In fact, as Cameron heads to the G20 summit, his dreams of imperial glory make him look more like a character from a classic British comedy than a world leader.
Not so much the “Great Britain” of Queen Victoria, Churchill, or even Thatcher, Cameron’s version is more like the TV comedy “Little Britain,” where his government is forced to play a much more self-deprecating role on the world stage.
And while politicians of various parties jaw-jawed about military intervention in speeches for several hours, for ordinary people it was much simpler. One UK Twitter user, Stenbizzle, took only 135 characters to deliver his verdict: