Cameron Defeated on Syria by Ghost of Blair


We welcome another guest post by Stephen Benedict Dyson.


The UK parliament has voted against authorizing an attack on Syria, in the most direct challenge to executive authority on foreign policy in recent British history. Britain will not be joining any U.S. action, and has taken the significant step of distancing itself from its superpower ally on the eve of a military strike. Prime Minister David Cameron is left a weakened figure, and the development poses terrific problems for President Obama’s Syria policy.

The high drama is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s troubles during the run-up to the Iraq war, when he won endorsement for his Iraq policy in the teeth of huge parliamentary rebellions by his own backbenchers. Blair’s choices then were repeatedly invoked during the Syria debate. Cameron will be reflecting upon the exquisite irony that it was Blair himself who established the precedent of asking for a parliamentary vote before committing armed forces. The government can do it regardless under royal prerogative, yet Blair was in such a pickle over Iraq that he felt he needed parliamentary backing. Cameron followed Blair’s lead and recalled parliament, to the chagrin of senior Conservative Party colleagues who saw the rebellion coming. After the final Iraq vote in 2003, The Guardian newspaper commented that parliament had been given “the power to stop war before it begins,” although it “did not take that chance, alas.” This time, it did.

Why did Blair win, and Cameron lose? Opponents of action in 2003 and 2013 used similar parliamentary tactics, asking for a vote not on the merits of the action per se but on the narrower question of whether the government had proven its case. Chris Smith was a Labour Member of Parliament who tabled the amendment opposing Blair in 2003. The amendment simply stated that “the case for war has not yet been established.” When I interviewed Smith several years ago for my book on Blair, he told me that the wording had been “very carefully chosen in order to try and unite everyone who had doubts, including some who would never under any circumstances have contemplated going to war, right the way through to some who, if the weapons inspectors had come up with evidence, would probably have voted for war.”

Similarly, in the Syria debate the core of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s critique was that the government was moving too quickly, and should follow a multi-stage roadmap of consultation with parliament and the United Nations. Miliband sketched out an elegant if opportunistic position: he was not against the use of force per se, but opposed precipitate military action before parliament had been consulted and the UN process had been exhausted. Beneath his headline moderation, the Labour leader spoke forcefully on the risks of taking action and raised doubts that he was persuadable. The contradictions in Miliband’s argument would have been exposed over time, yet his stance proved durable enough to hold together his own party on the issue and tar Cameron as over-eager to rush to war.

Cameron’s parliamentary position was much less favorable than that faced by Blair a decade ago. Blair made his decisions on Iraq atop a stonking parliamentary majority of 179. The opposition Conservative Party was fully supportive of intervention in 2003, and so Blair could survive a massive rebellion by his own MPs. Cameron presides over a hung parliament – no political party commands an overall majority. He governs in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the only major British party to have opposed the Iraq war. Scores of Cameron’s own backbenchers rebelled on Syria, and several Liberal Democrat MPs voted against their own coalition. The Labour leadership took the highly unusual step of opposing the government on a major foreign policy crisis. The composition of parliament this time left Cameron with very few votes to play with.

The scope of the proposed intervention was also very different. It was clear in 2003 that Blair was asking for the commitment of massive forces by air, land, and sea in order to overthrow the Saddam regime. Although Blair profoundly underestimated – or undersold – the cost and duration of the occupation, he was clearly seeking authorization for a major undertaking. This time Cameron was careful to stress the limited aims and means of the intervention. It was not about regime change, invasion, or taking sides in the civil war.

Paradoxically, these limited aims made it harder for Cameron to win the vote. At every stage in the Iraq debate, Blair raised the stakes, casting the issue in stark world-historical terms and threatening to resign the prime ministership if he did not win parliamentary support. Blair outlined a policy of total commitment in service of era-defining goals. By contrast, Cameron found it difficult to specify the mechanisms by which limited military strikes would achieve limited objectives. Upholding a norm of non-chemical weapons use, or punishing Assad, seemed nebulous aims compared to Blair’s all-in rhetoric. With limited goals and lower stakes, the forensic questioning at which Parliament excels was to the fore: what do we do if Assad uses these weapons again after we have struck him? How will we know if we have been successful in upholding a norm, or punishing a dictator? In 2003, Blair dodged specifics with impassioned appeals to the weight of history and the duties of moral responsibility. Cameron could not.

The thinking of Blair himself is one constant across the years. Possessed of a Manichean worldview, an expansive conception of the UK’s international role, and a healthy regard for his own persuasive powers, Iraq was very much Blair’s war. In 2013, the former prime minister retains the same moralizing, interventionist stance. Syria represents a “crossroads for Western policy,” he has said. The “forces” in Syria are the same as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They have to be defeated. We should defeat them, however long it takes, because otherwise they will not disappear. They will grow stronger until, at a later time, there will be another crossroads and this time there will be no choice.” These comments reminded British legislators and the public of the Iraq controversies at the worst possible time for the current prime minister. Cameron, who has in many ways sought to emulate Blair, was doomed to defeat by the long shadow cast by the dominant figure in modern British politics.

6 Responses to Cameron Defeated on Syria by Ghost of Blair

  1. Michele Castorina August 31, 2013 at 3:58 am #

    It was just democracy in action and Cameron won because he is part of our democracy.

  2. Stephen Dyson August 31, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    Hi Michele,
    It was certainly a type of democracy – a parliamentary system – in action, and if Obama goes ahead with a strike without a vote in congress we will have seen one of the neater illustrations of the parliamentary vs. presidential difference.
    Cameron, for sure, is saying that he is happy to have heard the will of the people as expressed through parliament. I suspect, like all leaders, he would prefer to have the autonomy to do what he thinks is right.
    Miliband’s position is an interesting one. Although he struck a principled tone in the debate some of the reporting indicates that he intended to support the government until Labour whips told him he would face his own backbench rebellion if he did so. The Tories are furious over what they see as craven opportunism.

    • RobW August 31, 2013 at 10:47 am #

      While certainly Cameron would prefer greater freedom of action, I suspect that this also provides excellent cover should the US and other allies get dragged into a prolonged engagement. Britain will face interesting pressures should the battle turn ill and alliance partners clamor for support. I suspect public opinion will soften during apparent successes but then harden again once it becomes clear that this will not be an easy campaign. Additionally, I don’t anticipate that this will sink Cameron especially if the Euro crisis flairs up again and draws public attention away from the Middle East. What do you think?

  3. Stephen Dyson August 31, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    Hi RobW,
    Cameron can’t return to parliament on this issue absent a radical change of circumstance, and I don’t think he’ll try. Lose a second time on this and we are in vote-of-no-confidence territory. But I don’t think he is done for either. Apart from anything else, Miliband’s position looks heroic because he won, but contained all sorts of contradictions.

    I don’t know what will happen if the battle turns ill because I don’t know how we will know if it has gone well or not. The problem Cameron had was that he couldn’t explain what he was trying to achieve with the action he proposed, and how we would know if it had been achieved. MPs couldn’t see a clear plan connecting means to ends, and so started thinking about Iraq, dodgy intelligence, and dark talk of being America’s poodle.

    Your point about Europe is interesting. If the Conservative Party wants a referendum on leaving the EU, yet can’t convince on the necessity of staying close to the U.S., what is the foreign policy strategy they can deliver?

    • RobW August 31, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      Obama’s decision to now seek Congressional authorization is very interesting given what we know concerning Presidential willingness to deploy military resources. To me this seems like a face-saving way to get out of declaring a red line when there was very little public support for military action. What do you think this does for Presidential authority moving forward if we assume he looses the vote?

  4. Stephen Dyson August 31, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    Hi again RobW,

    Very interesting and, like Cameron losing his vote, a surprise twist. They must be confident in the intelligence case to be made to Congress, and they have more time than Cameron did to be persuasive with the legislative branch. Raises a series of interesting questions that it would be good to have insider info on: why did Obama and Cameron get so far forward on this, indicating military action within a few days? They must be surprised by how effective the push-back has been. Did Obama look at the British vote and think, my goodness, I’m going to be awfully exposed here if this goes wrong and I didn’t ask for a resolution? If so, we may have seen that most rare of things: a happening in British politics that materially affected a high-level American decision.