Saturday, 31 August 2013

Reaction to the "No" vote on Syria

So the vote is done and now the party political battles begin. 

What's that you say? National interest? Obligations to the International Community? Sowing seeds for our children to reap later? Pfff, get out of town! Don't you know there's a (party political) war on?

As you can imagine, I'm quite annoyed about the no vote in Parliament yesterday, which I intend to explain here, using the context of a question that Think Defence asked;

"What is the short and long term impact on the UK of this vote against the following categories:

- Democratic health
- International prestige and influence
- Defence funding
- International relations with the US, Middle East and Europe,

So let's begin;
Democratic Health
Impact = negative.

There has been some talk that democracy was the big winner last night, with the government being voted down in accordance with the will of the people. This, I fear, is rubbish. Quite apart from the fact that stopping 300 people in the street and asking them a question of the poll takers choice is not (and never will be) a legitimate method of determining public opinion, last night had absolutely nothing to do with democracy.

The principle of democracy is simple; that we have the chance to vote for representatives who go to parliament and make decisions on our behalf. They do the donkey work of investigating matters of national importance so that we don't have to, they prevent any one individual from wielding too much power, and they ensure that Her Majesty's government is effectively scrutinised and held to account for the decisions that it makes. It also permits us to remove a government that we don't like.

None of that was exercised yesterday. What happened is that the party in opposition, who have openly stated that they agree to the principles of the motion that was being debated, voted against it in order to give the government a bloody nose and convince the general public that the days of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were over.

They didn't do it because it was in the public interest or because they had listened to what the public said. They did it for their own, pure selfish motivations. 

They, like everyone whose paid the slightest attention to what is going on in Syria, knows that the regime is the only entity in Syria that had the capability to pull off what happened on August 21st. They know that the evidence from the start was fairly clear and is mounting against the Assad regime by the day. 

Only those most desperate to see the UK sit on its hands, or perhaps those wishing to be seen as "cool" by not following the "mainstream" still cling to the notion that the rebels acquired a significant stockpile of chemical weapons, which they then orchestrated to fire at themselves, severely weakening their own positions in the face of a regime offensive, killing large numbers of their own fighters as well as civilians, overwhelming their own medical support, and managing to contrive to do this at the same time that a Syrian bombardment of those same positions began, all to coax the west into action.

Miliband was reportedly briefed by Cameron before the vote, having the opportunity to see evidence that was otherwise not made public. And yet still Labour opted to vote the motion down, a motion which is essentially a letter of condemnation of the Syrian regime and a desire to see the UNSC consulted before any action is taken. Their own motion (voted down before) was very similar.

This was a party political move, designed to win brownie points. Miliband is not a complete idiot (but he's gradually working on rounding that education out). His line is that Labour wants to hear what the UN inspectors have to say about it all first, as mentioned in the motion his party put forward. But he knows as well as anyone that the inspectors are only there to assess and report about whether chemical weapons were used, if so then what types were used, and what effect did it have. He knows damn well that the inspectors are not going to point fingers at people.

He was all behind the idea of action at one stage. Then someone patted him on the back and reminded him about Blair and the Iraq War, and by Jove how his tune changed to one of wanting explicit evidence before acting. What we have thus seen is that parliament, its processes and its mandate, has been undermined by electoral interests.

That is not, and never will be, a win for democracy. That is the antithesis of what democracy is about. The elected government, chosen at the last election because we believed it was better able to make decisions in our interest than its opponents, and possessed of better judgement, has been undermined by the desire to point score, get back at the government because they couldn't get their own way, and prepare the way for the next big vote. This is not democracy.

This is not democracy.

Nor has it paved the way for a better future as some seem to think. This vote is not binding. It sets absolutely no precedent. There will not be a "constitutional crisis" if a future Prime Minister decides to bypass parliament and take military action, as the Prime Minister has never been obliged to seek parliaments approval.

What has happened is that a warning shot has been sent to future Prime Ministers; the national interest is too important to be left to petty party politics. If you ask parliament to debate the issue, express its concerns, and then vote to support a fairly moderate statement then the issue can be hijacked by party interests and point scoring. Therefore it is in the interest of future Prime Ministers to make decisions based solely on the opinion of their cabinet, and without informing parliament or allowing a debate to take place. 

It is the only way to ensure that the decisions and actions that are important to the nation as a whole, even if not every single individual person understands them, are taken in a prompt manner.

As for Miliband himself, he was interviewed by the BBC today and was grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout. He could barely contain his joy. He made a point to turn every question back to this idea of doing "what the public wants" and making sure to emphasise the distance that he has placed between himself and Messrs Blair and Brown.

My only consolation from all this is that Miliband is heading for the fall of a lifetime. It is inevitable that the UN inspectors report will show that chemical weapons were used, and that as time passes more and more evidence will surface to point firmly towards the regime. It's one of those things where everyone knows it, but most people are afraid to say it, on the outside chance that they might be wrong and cop a bit of flak as a result. As the evidence unveils, and especially as it becomes more and more clear how much Mr. Miliband knew when he walked into that debate last night, the grumbles will begin. 

Further, Labour has been very keen to compare this intervention with Iraq and Afghanistan, and has gone out of its way to avoid pointing out to worried members of the public that there is no plan for "boots on the ground". They've allowed the memories of 2003 to fester in the public consciousness, without lifting a finger to correct peoples opinion.

Even today I have read on a forum of otherwise much more knowledgeable individuals repeated comments about boots on the ground and sending in the troops. Every single one of those people who mentioned that should know better than to try and compare what is planned against Syria with what happened in Iraq. It wouldn't even be fair to compare it with Libya, because Libya was a several month "no fly zone" operation designed to bring down the regime. What we're talking about here is nothing more than a series of strikes, that may last a few days, designed to slap Assad on the wrist for using chemical weapons. 

All of this will become apparent in the coming days. The US and France will conduct their limited strikes and then it will be done. At which point I suspect the general mood among the public will be "oh, was that all it was? Well why didn't you tell us? Surely you knew?", to which Mr. Miliband will have no answer. 

The combination of growing evidence and the realisation of just what was meant by a military intervention will begin to dawn on the public, as will the understanding that Labour knew this all along. People will begin to realise that far from being led away from a dangerous cliff edge, Miliband and his grotesque crew of spin doctors and faux working class heroes simply duped the public to win a bit of short term admiration, and that once again Miliband has proved himself to be a most spineless creature, easy to manipulate by whomever can promise him the most rewards.

And believe me, Milibands decision will not be allowed to rest quietly in peace. David Cameron will see to that. 

I'm no more of a fan of Cameron than I am of Miliband. I consider him an equally odious individual, just as removed and aloof from the general public as his opposite number in red. Yet despite his reputation for "turning" just a little too easily from any obstacle placed in his path, Cameron has shown a propensity to lash out with all claws bared when backed into a corner. He will not take this slight lying down and I suspect that over the next few weeks he will savage the meek and mild Miliband to shreds, hopefully to the point of forcing him to stand down as Labour leader. 

I live in hope, as it is a just reward for what Miliband has done in the name of his own interests.

International Prestige and Influence
Impact = negative.

When people sit down over a few beers and ask me about my time as a bouncer, one of my favourite stories to recount is the tale of two gentlemen I removed from a bar for chucking glasses over the fence at a neighbouring property. They left, moaning and dragging their feet, but otherwise offering no resistance. They disappeared off down the street and around the corner, only to reappear in a car a few minutes later. 

They stopped on the opposite side of the road, wound down the window and started shouting abuse at me, about how I was a c**t and how I was lucky they didn't f**k me up etc. As I took a single step from my doorway towards them they promptly let off the handbrake and sped away. I was on my own that night, the joy of a "single man door" (by far the most dangerous). They had every opportunity, from the moment I asked them to leave to the moment when they finally drove off, to "f**k me up".

Needless to say they were all talk, no f**king walk. 

And the problem is that the UK now looks much the same in many eyes. No two countries have talked louder about intervention in Syria than the UK and France. One of those countries is about to back up its big mouth by pitching in to a series of strikes against the regime. The other is slinking off into the corner to re-evaluate its position. 

By backing down at this critical stage the UK has been made to look foolish, prepared to talk itself up as a major player on the big stage and wag the finger at Assad, but too afraid about casualties in whatever form to actually follow up on the talk by walking the big walk. We've essentially told the people of Syria, especially the civilians caught in the cross fire that "we sympathise with your plight and we think Assad and his regime are pure evil.... but losing one of our own is not worth even several hundred of yours".

We've told the world that when someone does something truly inhuman that we will happily sit around in nice suits at conferences and condemn this action till the cows come home, but when it actually comes to stepping up and doing something about it, we've lost the nerve to act. And I don't think people realise just how dangerous that is.

In the aftermath of the first gulf war the investigations began into what on Earth had possessed Saddam Hussein to launch his attack on Kuwait. Early on it became quite clear that part of his calculus was that an intervention by the International community was unlikely, due to the internal and external opposition that had occurred during the US invasion of Grenada (1983) and more importantly, Panama (1989).

He believed that the US would not wish to draw the ire of the International community once more by getting involved in another countries dispute, and that nobody would stand alongside the US either. In the event that the US did respond he had calculated - based on the American publics negative response to the war in Vietnam - that Americans were weak, and that by drawing the US into the "mother of all battles" he could inflict sufficient casualties to turn American public opinion against their President, forcing an end to the fighting.

This misguided opinion was driven by the perception of weakness, which is precisely the same sort of perception that the UK has just sent out to the International community. This might also be a good place to bring up the Falkland Islands, and the perception of the Argentine Junta that the UK would not respond meaningfully to an invasion.

It's important to emphasise that word one last time; perception. It's not about whether the UK can intervene in the future. Or whether it ultimately would. That doesn't matter. What matters is the perception. If people do not perceive that we will act, that makes them more likely to take action that they would otherwise think twice about. By refusing to act, even on a very limited scale, we have sent a potentially highly problematic message to others about our commitment to our responsibilities.

For many of the countries with which we have close, albeit more low key ties, we have just sent the message that they cannot rely for sure on the UK to help them in their time of need, especially if it involves us taking action that might lead to loss of life on our side. We have sent the message that the UK parliament, and thus by extension the people it represents, are not currently robust enough to stand up and take action when it ought to. That could potentially have very serious consequences for British interests going forward.

Defence Funding
Impact = uncertain.

Defence has taken a hammering over the last few decades. The story since 2010 has been no different, as other budgets find themselves ring fenced and defence has to pick up some of the slack. The idea now that 2015 will see an uplift in the budget seems unlikely. I can't imagine Cameron or Osbourne authorising any increase in spending for what has clearly just become a massive political football. If it remains at current levels will be a minor miracle in its own right.

There is simply no justification for it. If you're George Osbourne, sitting in the Treasury right now, you're asking yourself why you need to fund things like Amphibious assault ships when the likely hood of them being used again has just been knocked down a notch.

Now let me be clear. I'm not saying that there will never be a need for this sort of capability again. I think you can all fairly guess which way the budget would go if I had my choice. What I'm saying is that in the mind of George Osbourne, as well as many others, a lot of the justification for much of our equipment has just gone out of the window. 

He's going to be sitting there with a glass of whiskey and his senior advisors, musing over whether the British public will ever again let the military loose in anything except a national survival context. He's going to be looking at all that shiny kit, and thinking about the pounds and pounds that could be saved from putting it all in storage, or flogging it off to someone else. This latest vote may even be used as the totem on which to hang the army, disbanding significant chunks under the pretext that the "public" has made its opposition to future enduring operations clear.

I fear we're soon going to learn just how skilled a negotiator the defence secretary Phillip Hammond is, as he fights off the wolves that are probably already beginning to circle around his department. 

International relations with the US, Middle East and Europe
Impact = negative.

The decision in the commons yesterday has been hailed as the end of UK obedience to the US. We are now no longer Americas' lapdog, or so we're told. The reality is that aside from one instance by that prat Blair, we've never been Americas' "lapdog".

We have disagreed with the US numerous times over the years and often taken divergent paths when interests were not mutual, or at best muddy. But in 1991 we sided with the US, because it was the right thing to do. We sided with the US over Bosnia and Kosovo because it was the right thing to do. We sided with the US over Afghanistan, because it was the right thing to do. We've sided with the US over Iran because it's the right thing to do. 

Not because we were towing the US line. Not because we were bowing down to US superiority. Not because we were pressured into doing it, or because we wanted to get into Americas' good books. We did it because it was the right choice to make.

The one blip in all of that was Iraq in 2003. Thanks to Tony Blair and co, a little over a decades worth of sensible diplomatic and military cooperation has subsequently been washed down the drain and dismissed as purely being the work of people trying to stay onside with the United States. 

Now we find ourselves, here in 2013, faced with the choice of approving military action alongside America against a despicable little man in the shape of Bashar al-Assad, and we're celebrating the fact that we voted 'no'. Let me just reiterate that point; we're hailing as a great success the fact that we have just refused to take action against a man who has used chemical weapons on his own people.

This is how completely warped this whole situation has become. You have that grinning prat Miliband on TV celebrating his great "achievement" in parliament, without so much as a hint of remorse present about the fact that he has just told that evil little twerp Assad that the UK is fine with him gassing civilians. And people are calling this a victory for democracy and the free world?

How far the apple has fallen from the tree.

At the risk of sounding like a left wing loonie pouring out heart string plucking indignation (a risk I'm more than happy to run in this case), is this what we now hail as being a great benchmark of freedom? Is this what world war two was all about? When we write on tributes and memorials to the fallen about how they died protecting the free world, and about how freedom isn't free, was this really what they gave their lives for? 

So that we could stand back and not only watch people like Assad indiscriminately pump gas shells into civilian areas, but then also rejoice about how clever we are for not getting involved? Have we really reached the point now as a society where we feel sticking two fingers up at the US is more important than doing something about the situation in Syria? Have we descended to such a level that not being perceived as a "lapdog to the US" is now a more important issue than dealing with the use of chemical weapons by a state actor against its population?

I believe the Americans have a phrase for this; FUBAR.

And despite the damage limitation assurances given tonight by the number 10 press corps, that Cameron and Hague have spoken to their respective counter parts in the US and that all is well, the US undoubtedly sees this as a slight. The front pages of the newspapers in America this morning were plastered with details of the British vote, and cries of "The British aren't coming! The British aren't coming!".

The American public and press has long used British actions as a barometer of whether they're doing the right thing or not. "If the Brits are involved, it's probably the right thing to do," has been the general norm. Even in cases where our military contribution may have been less than stunning, the political weight given by UK support has often helped to convince moderates in the US that what they're doing is the right course of action.

It's interesting to see the blowback across the Atlantic from the decision made in Parliament last night. Already those in the US opposed to intervention are hailing the British decision as a guiding light and talking about how sensible us Brits are. "Not even the normally stalwart Brits want a piece of this action," I've seen in an article making the case against action.

It doesn't end there though. It's not just the political fallout, it's the military fallout.

Over the last 24 hours people have shrugged their shoulders and said "well, we'd only have contributed a few TLAMs (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile) anyway. The Americans wont miss us that much". This ignores the fact that our TLAMs are not of real interest to the Americans. The TLAM is a very capable and handy weapon system - I wish we had more of them and more ways to deploy them - but it does have an important weakness, and that's it's limited use against hardened targets.

I made this point about TLAM the other day, so I wont go over it again here (check the front page for previous articles or the list over on the right of this page). TLAM is not the missing link. Storm Shadow is. It's why our inaction is a blow to any operations against Syria and why the French have suddenly become more valuable to America as an ally.

In a limited operation that will be carried out as cautiously as military actions can be, the ability to be fired from "stand off distances" largely beyond the reach of Syrias air defence network, as well as its ability to penetrate hardened targets, will make Storm Shadow a very useful asset. And this is before we go into the benefit that could be offered by UK aerial tanker assets (compatible with US Navy fighters) and UK Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets, as well as the added protection that Royal Navy surface assets could offer to US ships in the Mediterranean.

As odd as it might sound, given how accustomed we've become in the UK to beating ourselves up about our military, we actually would have a lot to offer any operations against Syria. 

That of course is out of the window now, and I suspect our Middle Eastern allies are none too impressed either. For years now the UK has been trying to cultivate influence in the region, including selling arms to Saudi Arabia, Oman and others, as well as getting involved in cross training with their militaries to strengthen ties. 

All that could potentially be upset by this latest move. Think about it from the perspective of a Middle Eastern head of state or important official. Who would you rather side closely with now, including buying equipment from, the UK or France? What guarantees do you have that Britain will back you over a dispute with Iran? What's to stop the UK promising you all the support and backing in the world, only to shy away when it comes to crunch time?

If the UK is not going to take action against Assad for using chemical weapons over fear of being drawn into a wider engagement (again, remember this is the perception we have sent out), then what is the likely hood that we would back up our words and join Oman or the UAE in a conflict versus Iran? We talk a good talk, sure. But we've just shown we're not prepared to walk the walk.

About the only people that might be happy over the result of this vote (aside from Labour, Assad, and his regime) are some of the countries of Europe who favour talk over action, this in the face of the fact that an earlier peace deal brokered by Kofi Annan collapsed within hours, and of course the small fact that the Assad regime has gassed its own citizens, among other things.

They can cheer all they want. I have no concern for such people. But this war has taken a surprising twist, in that a lot of Europe actually does condemn Assad and agree that action should be taken. Normally Europe looks to France and the UK to take that action on its behalf, but lately European nations have been pitching in themselves (such as during operations over Libya). It seems unlikely any of them will join in with any action taken by the US and France in the near future, but if someone does then it will be to our great shame that the normally much derided European nations were brave enough to stand up while we were not.

I also think the vote will damage confidence in Britain among the European nations, especially France. Having spent the last two years drawing closer to France and talking about how important it is that we work together for our mutual benefit, here we now are sitting on the sidelines telling them to go on without us.

I doubt the French will lose too much sleep over the opportunity to slot into our normal role as the key American ally, and I'm sure the French will make the most of this political coup, both in the US and in the Middle East. But it surely will also get them thinking. Is the UK the sort of country they really want to go "all in" with as an ally? Is the UK losing its value to them?

If you are a on the French side of the channel you have to be asking serious questions about whether the time and money invested in closer ties with the UK is really worth it? With a declining defence budget the French - just like us - have to make every Euro work harder. Are they really achieving that by investing their dwindling resources in an ally that won't fight?

I've written before that I am sceptical about how we use some of our training resources. We seem to spend a lot of time and money training with people who we are unlikely to work with in the future, money which could be better spent working with those who are more likely to be alongside our forces in the firing line one day. After this debacle I suspect some in France will start thinking the same thing about us.

In summary then, I'm absolutely despondent and disgusted with the way this has turned out. Camerons inability to make the case properly, both to Parliament and to the public, was a serious error. But that pales in comparison to the show boating idiocy of Miliband.

Miliband is a spineless coward and represents the worst elements of our modern political system. He has put cheap point scoring over the best interest of the nation, shoving our most important allies to one side along with any kind of morals, so that he can grandstand on television as some kind of sage like saviour. 

I hope his fall from grace is as spectacular and uncomfortable as is possible, and that before it's too late something can be done to rectify this mess. 

Utterly, utterly disgusted.


  1. I find it impossible to disagree with any of that; well said Chris C.

    A suitably impressed Gloomy.

    1. Perhaps a little less gloomy today then?

  2. I think your falling for the executives spin on this and maybe dont understand how parliamentary decisions work. (executives always say the sky is falling to try and get their motions through)

    Read the words on the Order paper - Neither motion passed so there is no actual change in the UK's policy - from what was said in the debate on both motions if next week more information comes to light that covers the reassurances that people wanted they can put another motion up in about 30 mins.

    1. Maurice,

      I understand perfectly well how parliament works.

      And Cameron has already thrown his hands up and said that's the end of it. They could throw up another motion later, but that a) could be too late and b) is reliant on i) Cameron not "one upping" Miliband by refusing a second vote on the principle that Labour has already made up its mind and ii) Miliband back tracking on his "victory" by calling for or supporting a vote on military action.

      The situation is not lost completely, but someone would have to lose face and take a polticial blow for it to happen, which means that neither side is likely to agree to it. The papers today have been full of gloating about how Britain is no longer the US lap dog. It would be very damaging for a political party to now go against that.

  3. I think as you know, DC screwed this right up and I imagine he is going out of his mind at his amateur handling of this situation. He knew he needed a wider mandate, he was right to seek it. He was totally wrong to rush it like a fool and not give himself time to show some deeper leadership and drive and persuade on his agenda.

    He was right to accept the outcome - there is no doubt in my mind that this would have escalated to a constitutional crisis resulting in the fall of the Government. In reality one cannot hold a plebiscite and then ignore that plebiscite. The opposition will align on you as a matter of course and your own backbenchers are going to see a man who no longer listens to anyone but his inner circle. You can't run a country without the confidence of Parliament or even your own party. You just can't. In theory he could have tried but by instinctively knowing he couldn't really then I see this as a triumph of our institutions.

    BUT! I don't see the result as being set in stone. There is nothing wrong with going back to Parliament and here DC is being a coward. He has completely ruled it out. He won't put his neck on the line again and that is cowardly, I expect my statesmen to put their neck on the line and to keep putting their neck on the line. If he was so sure it is in our interest he should not fear putting himself against the wall again as long as he listens to the result. Sure it could embarrass him and frankly he'd have to resign, but again if this is so fundamental to our interests then he should be more than willing to fall on his sword over it.

    He really doesn't come out of this well. Other than knowing it had to go to Parliament and seeing the writing on the wall he looks like a bull in a china shop and now a political coward.

    I am ashamed he won't be taking part in an action but comforted somewhat that the US will probably go ahead anyway. Who knows maybe they'll get sucked into another Iraq and we'll be gloating on the sidelines like the French over Iraq and Labour and others will be vindicated.

    Phil from TD

    1. I can't see it myself Phil,

      Cameron did handle this badly, but Milibands motion was very similar, just with slightly different conditions. He should have swallowed the fact that his little amendments weren't going to pass and gone with the vote. Instead he's using the whole thing as a game to trumpet himself.

      The US and the French will do the deed now. I just don't think it's politically viable to go back on it now.

      Personally I think we've seen before that Prime Ministers are more than entitled to act without consulting Parliament when the national interest is in play. And future Prime Ministers, especially those with slim majorities, are likely to do so from now on. Milband has set the tone; matters of this importance are too important to leave to the whims of party politics. Like Blair before him, he's just fucked a generation of parliament.

      As for Syria itself, I can't imagine anyone in their right mind putting boots on the ground. It would be suicidal politically. I imagine if the US was to propose it, France would shy away from it.

  4. In theory they are, but in reality as I say, you cannot call a plebiscite and then ignore it. Trying to plough ahead without the plebiscite in the first place would have been mildly more acceptable than asking for an opinion and then simply ignoring it. Prime Ministers have called General Elections and resigned for less than this.

    The trouble DC had was not everyone was convinced the national interest was at stake. His opinion it was was under pressure from some very influential opinion makers such as ex military figures.

    Milliband deserves everything he gets if you ask me. He used this for personal gain and I'd see him put on trial for treason if I could get away with it. But DC shouldn't have got himself into the position where he could be so double crossed and if he had had control over his backbenchers and control of the debate he would have won even with Millibands grandstanding. DC obligingly sprinted full pelt right off a cliff. That Milliband couldn't resist a short term domestic political attack shows me everything I need to know about the moral fibre of the man. He can go fuck himself. But that doesn't absolve DC from being a retard over the matter and it doesn't justify getting yourself in the shit and then ignoring the plebiscite you rushed into.

    1. I agree that DC could have waited a little longer. How long is the question? Would Miliband et al have been swayed by Kerrys' statement of evidence the next day? I'm not entirely certain if the haste was so much as what did him, as the failure to adequately explain what the action was that was intended. Even now, you see people over at Think Defence who should know better talking about invasions and boots on the ground. Perhaps if DC had made the limited scope more apparent then that might have tipped things in his favour?

      As for Parliament, I think as long as you're not declaring world war three and you're certain that time will prove you right, there is a case for bypassing parliament and just getting on with the business. DC could have avoided a lot of shit by not recalling parliament from its holiday and just going with the "the cabinet agreed, based on the evidence given line". By Monday the strikes would have happened, it would have become apparent this wasn't another Iraq, and Cameron would have come out looking decisive.

      My concern now is that in future other leaders with slim majorities will simply not ask when they really should (for something more serious than this) and the blame for that will fall squarely at Milibands feet. His callous game playing could come back to haunt the country. The git has made a mockery of the democratic process, using an open vote to win points.

      God I want to punch him so hard in the gob right now.