A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to War

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Official UK government photo of the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street

Today, President Obama announced that he will seek authorization from Congress for a military strike in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, an act apparently committed by the Assad regime.  “This attack is an assault on human dignity.  It also presents a serious danger to our national security,” Obama said in his speech.  “In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”

The President stressed that the scope of these strikes would be limited.  “This would not be an open-ended intervention.  We would not put boots on the ground.  Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.  But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”

The most noteworthy element of Obama’s statement was not his assessment that the Assad regime had blood on its hands, nor his conviction that the use of chemical weapons ought to be confronted (both of which were entirely predictable).  No, the most interesting aspect was his insistence that while he had the power to order strikes on his own, he would be seeking the approval of Congress before proceeding any further.

“I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” he insisted, undoubtedly causing some to wonder when the president became such a big fan of Congress.

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President Obama meets with his security team about Syria in this White House photo by Pete Souza

Obama was quite intent on making sure the public knew just how courageous his decision was.  “Many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress,” he explained.   “Undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.”

Ah, I was wondering if he was going to mention our friends across the pond.  As I happen to be one of the few Americans who actually pays attention to British politics, I found this development spectacularly interesting.  But before I get to what happened in London (or more specifically, Westminster) this past week, I probably ought to provide my readers with a bit of context.

The alliance between the United States and United Kingdom has been analyzed quite thoroughly over the years, and it is often referred to as the “special relationship”.  Those who are big fans of this arrangement like to pull out anecdotes about Churchill and Roosevelt exchanging jokes while developing war strategy, Reagan and Thatcher bonding over their mutual hatred of Communism, etc.  However, not everyone is so enthusiastic about the situation.

GWB: Ceremony for 2009 Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom receiving the U.S. Medal of Freedom at a ceremony with American President George W. Bush. Their relationship was carefully analyzed on both sides of the pond. Official White House photo by Chris Greenberg

As negative as the American public was about the Iraq War, this was nothing compared to the attitude of many Britons.  A large percentage of the UK population was opposed to the war from the start, and things only got worse as the war became an increasingly bloody mess.  After the United States, Britain supplied the largest number of soldiers for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it suffered many casualties.

The perception was that Britain had become a stooge for the Americans, with Prime Minister Tony Blair so intent on maintaining a good relationship with George W. Bush that he would stoop to any level required, even if it included lying and sending young British men off to die.  Once a very popular figure, Blair became reviled by many in his later years in office.

More than a few Brits fantasized about sticking it to the Yanks.  A scene in the 2003 movie Love Actually where a British prime minister (played by Hugh Grant) stands up to an American president (played by Billy Bob Thornton) was apparently enough of a hit with some British filmgoers that Blair responded to it in his annual speech to the 2005 Labour Party Conference. (see video above)

Several years, one U.S. president, and two British prime ministers later, the “special relationship” has improved somewhat, but not enough to prevent what some in the British press are declaring “catastrophic” this past week.  The current prime minister, David Cameron (the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, a.k.a. the “Tories”), has been a vocal opponent of the Assad regime for some time.

After evidence emerged that Assad’s forces had carried out the most deadly chemical weapons attack since Sadam Hussein in the 1980s, Cameron brought a motion before the House of Commons (the elected and more powerful half of the British parliament) that would have authorized a response to the chemical attack in Syria, possibly including military action.

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Interior of the British House of Commons chamber. Official parliamentary photo

It is worth pointing out that the parliamentary system is different from the U.S. legislative system in several ways.  The prime minister is also the head of the majority party in the House of Commons, so their system lacks some of the checks and balances present in the United States.  When the “government” (as they call the majority party) proposes a bill, it rarely gets defeated.  Only a rebellion within the prime minister’s own party (or coalition of parties) can bring about this result.

Thus, Cameron was reasonably confident that Parliament would assent to his wish.  In fact, the last time Parliament rejected a request to go to war was in 1782 (around the same time that a bunch of pesky colonists game them the boot). Historically, pacifism has not been one of Britain’s defining characteristics.

Cameron may have expected that the opposition Labour Party would fall in line and vote his way after he made clear the implications of doing nothing.  For the Prime Minister, limited strikes against Assad probably seemed at least as justifiable as recent British military actions in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.  As it became clear that the U.S. intended to respond militarily, he likely felt Britain would do well to support the effort rather than getting stuck on the outside looking in.  He certainly didn’t want to risk alienating America at such a key moment.

Cameron’s opponents in the Labour Party, on the other hand, took a far different view.  Current Labour leader Ed Miliband was never a big fan of Tony Blair and did not share his idealistic views about intervention overseas.  Miliband saw it as his job to prevent Britain from getting involved in an unnecessary war in the Middle East.  He questioned the evidence of Assad’s chemical misdeeds and claimed that the UK needed to be more cautious before venturing into Syria.

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Cameron and Obama chatting earlier this year at the G8 summit. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Although Cameron made several concessions, , it was not enough to win over Labour supporters.  Fatally, some of Cameron’s own colleagues in the Conservative Party questioned their leaders’ judgment and either voted “no” or didn’t vote at all.  Some important conservatives didn’t even show up, perhaps believing that the bill would pass easily.  Oops!

Now the prime minister is stuck with egg on his face.  The vote went against him 285 to 272.  He called parliament back from its summer recess specifically for this debate and staked much of his credibility on it.  Now Cameron was left trying to explain to his good friend Barack why the British would be sitting this one out.  The Prime Minister certainly felt that Iraq had something to do with his misfortune, stating that, “”The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode.””

George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Cameron’s second in command), expressed his concern, saying that, “I hope this doesn’t become a moment when we turn our back on all of the world’s problems.”  Don’t worry, George.  You’re not turning your back on the world’s problems – just the ones in Syria.

British political analysts were at a bit of a loss to explain how the prime minister had so severely miscalculated.  More than one person suggested that Cameron had lost his authority in the House of Commons and could be open to a leadership challenge. (Oddly, the UK tends to only put people in the top job who are capable of getting things done and maintaining respect.)

The unkindest cut of all came when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a statement hailing France as “America’s oldest ally”.  The UK’s top-selling newspaper, the Sun, included a special obituary titled “Death Notice: The Special Relationship”, which lamented that, “We’ve lost our special place…to the French.”

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Obama and Cameron sharing a drink at a 2010 G20 summit. Their friendship is now facing an intense challenge. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Cameron is left trying to revive the “special relationship” along with his own reputation.  He can take some comfort from that fact that the White House apparently sympathizes with his position.  Still, this very public loss won’t help the Conservatives’ already dismal poll numbers even as they look forward to parliamentary elections that should occur by 2015.

A legislative body denying their head of government support for a military offensive: such things rarely occur.  Cameron has pledged that he will not try to take part in a military effort through the “royal prerogative”, which basically means getting “permission” directly from the Queen.

This is understandable: the British like to think of themselves as a thriving democracy rather than acknowledging that they technically still have a monarch. (This Queen has always returned the favor by never attempting to actually do something political.) It would also be illogical for the Prime Minister to ask the people’s representatives for their opinion and then immediately reject it.

As for whether the U.S. Congress is likely to follow the example of its British counterpart, I sincerely doubt it.  The British may have turned their backs on military engagement, but I’d like to think that the United States of America hasn’t quite given up on being the world’s policeman.  Still, it will make for a nice story some day: “Remember that time when the French wanted to go to war and the British didn’t?  That was hilarious!”

2 thoughts on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to War

  1. Just like 1780s..friends with France and at enmity with Britain…bring on the crepes!! With strawberries please, as we sit back and watch the war.

  2. Pingback: U.S. Politics Got You Down? Brits to the Rescue! - Church & State

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