By Paul Lewis
To the surprise of many, including myself, the House of Commons voted on Thursday evening against the principle of intervention. Government defeats on foreign policy are extremely rare, with leading academic Phil Cowley tweeting in the minutes afterwards that this was the first time this had happened in Britain since the Crimean War. Whilst I was on balance against military intervention, the way parliament voted against seemingly by accident poses a lot of serious questions about Ed Miliband’s suitability to be Prime Minister.
To start with, there are some very strong arguments for intervention. Whilst the chemical weapons attacks last week have yet to be confirmed, it would be a huge surprise if they were not when UN weapons inspectors report back next week. Nick Clegg, in his letter to members before the vote, called the Assad’s use of chemical weapons a ‘crime against humanity’. He was right to do so. It has been estimated that the poison gas attack in Damascus killed 1,429 people. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine claims that all states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens, and if they fail to do so the international community has the right to intervene. The precedent set from the intervention in Kosovo was that such intervention does not require the approval of the UN Security Council, with the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declaring that intervention to be ‘illegal, but legitimate’. Intervention is intended not just to deter Assad from continuing to use chemical weapons, but other authoritarian regimes from doing the same thing.
But despite these arguments I would not have been able to support intervention. R2P also requires that there is a reasonable chance of success. That is the problem that I have. The current plan is to conduct limited missile strikes against chemical weapons facilities. Tory MP and former soldier Dan Byles made the point in The Spectator by asking, what happens if that is not enough? By aiming to deter the use of chemical weapons, is it enough to just hit the facilities that the west knows about, with the full knowledge that Assad will continue to kill thousands of his citizens using other methods? Having intervened at all, I am not convinced that the West would be able to stop until Assad has been removed from power. But that would take a long, drawn out and very expensive intervention in support of rebels who are divided and unreliable. The reality that President Obama is asking Congress to vote on the issue suggests that he too has similar concerns about getting involved in a very complicated civil war. If he did not share those concerns, it probably would have already happened.
But despite my concerns about intervention, the way it was rejected in Parliament leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. Earlier in the week Ed Miliband seemed to have been successful in forcing Cameron to change the motion so as to require a further vote after the UN had reported back before military intervention would occur. This was the right thing to do, as it is better to make sure, especially in light of what happened in Iraq. But he still tabled an amendment to that motion, which appeared to be very similar to it, calling for intervention after a second vote. There can be little doubt that Ed Miliband supported the principle of intervention, but when it came to the vote on the government’s motion he ordered his MPs to vote against it. This is unlikely to have much impact on the people of Syria. Most likely intervention will still go ahead, just without Britain involved. What it does do is tell us something about the current leader of the opposition.
If Miliband had been principled in his opposition to intervention, or at least had concerns about its scale, this would have been a great victory for him. Instead he forwarded the narrow party interest of inflicting a defeat on the government ahead of his own principles. He was so desperate to put any kind of finger on David Cameron that he did so to rule out the military intervention that he supported and a motion that was drafted with his views in mind. Before this many believed Miliband to be too weak to be considered a likely Prime Minister. Now we know the truth, that by serving his own interests on an issue of great national and international importance, he lacks the statesmanship and maturity for such a role.
Paul currently works as a Constituency Organiser for Stephen Gilbert MP, and the St Austell & Newquay Liberal Democrats. You can also catch him on Twitter: @GingerLiberal