Walker's World: Why Cameron was right

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Sept. 3, 2013 at 12:07 AM
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PARIS, Sept. 3 (UPI) -- British Prime Minister David Cameron is refusing to follow the media script of personal humiliation and political castration after his defeat in Parliament on the vote for military action against Syria. Instead, on Friday night he threw a barbecue, inviting some of his party members who had voted against him.

Moreover, Cameron no longer looks quite so foolish in having sought the backing of Parliament, now that U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will also seek the support of Congress.

Last week, the buzz was that Britain had relegated itself from the ranks of the serious powers. The Britain of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher was being dismissed as just another toothless European softie, without the backbone to puts its military where its mouth was.

This week, it looks rather different. The agenda is shifting. It is clear that the essence of the Syrian issue is the shifting nature of the politics of democratic war.

When the president of the United States, to whom precedent and tradition has given a wide latitude in the launching of military strikes, decides to consult a notably recalcitrant Congress, we are seeing a change in the political balance of power.

And when Britain's House of Commons, which was hardly pacifist when it came to backing military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, decides that their government hasn't made an adequate case for military action, we are seeing something interesting taking place in the way in which democracies take the solemn decision to go to war.

Perhaps this is how it should be. War is a serious business. There is a strong argument that the peoples' elected representatives, many of them elected directed by men and women who will be risking their lives, should have a say in the decision to take up arms.

Perhaps it was different in the hair-trigger days of the Cold War when nuclear-tipped missiles could be flying within minutes. Presidents and prime ministers needed the freedom to take instant and decisive action. That isn't the case with Syria today.

There seems little doubt that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own people. The U.S. government cites detailed intelligence to say it is so. But their credibility is still tarnished by the feebleness of the evidence against Iraq a decade ago, despite the CIA director's claim that there was "a slam-dunk" case that Saddam Hussein was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction.

It is hardly improper to give the U.N. inspectors time to assess the evidence on the ground and to make their report. Equally, it is hardly proper to rush to military action simply because it is convenient for Obama's timetable to have the matter completed before the Group of 20 summit begins Thursday in Russia.

As Obama revealed in his address to the nation, his most senior military adviser had told him that an attack would be "effective tomorrow or next week or a month from now."

There is no rush. So the judgment of the British Parliament was neither supine nor foolish. They said in effect that they like to wait for the report of the U.N. inspectors and that they would like a further attempt to get the support of the United Nations for taking action, by a vote of the general assembly if Russia and China continued to wield their veto in the U.N. Security Council.

They wanted some form of legitimacy, some evidence of international consensus, some demonstration that no diplomatic stone had been left unturned, before, in Shakespeare's phrase, "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war."

In the British case, and probably also in the American one, the sour memory of the Iraq war pervades and perhaps pollutes political thinking. Many British politicians, including former Cabinet ministers, now regret bitterly their advocacy that war whose results have been so unimpressive. And it is clear that the Iraq and Afghan precedents hang like a dark cloud over today's White House.

"I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected to end," Obama said in his televised address.

So maybe David Cameron should be some not simply as a loser who lost personal and political stature in his parliamentary defeat. Perhaps we should acknowledge that his humiliation signals something morally significant and democratically mature that is unfolding in our democracies.

It is becoming plain, that when it is neither a matter of urgency nor a war of necessity, war is too important to be left to the presidents and prime ministers. Through their representatives, the people too should have a say, just as the U.S. founding fathers envisaged when they drafted the Constitution.

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