Rue Britannia: Britain’s Foreign Policy,A cock-up wrapped in a muddle inside a shambles.

 LONDON — A cock-up wrapped in a muddle inside a shambles. That’s as good an explanation as any for the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons Thursday, Aug. 29, as parliamentarians defied Prime Minister David Cameron and voted to ensure British troops will play no part in any military action in Syria.

cameron defeatCapture

A chastened — and angry — Cameron acknowledged that “the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action — I get that.” Not since the Suez crisis has a British prime minister been so humiliated on a question of foreign policy. “You’re a disgrace; you’re a disgrace,” Michael Gove, the education secretary and a foreign-policy hawk, screamed at rebel Tory MPs after the result was announced.

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Michael Gove

The MPs voted 285-272 to defeat a government motion that would have inched Britain toward intervening in Syria. The result may be bad for Syria’s desperate civilians, but it is a calamity for Cameron’s domestic authority and international credibility — and the vote itself was a product of confusion, duplicity, and incompetence.

There are no winners and many losers in London today. Neither Cameron nor Labour Party leader Ed Miliband emerge from this fiasco with their reputations enhanced. Neither man wished to rule out military action, but that is exactly what they have done.

This was, in any case, less a debate about Syria than one about Iraq. The ghosts of Operation Iraqi Freedom were ever present at Westminster on Thursday. A decade ago, the British Army went to war on the back of inadequate and, as events would prove, misleading evidence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. The wounds caused by that misadventure have not yet healed. The breakdown in trust between Parliament and the intelligence services, and between Parliament and the public, has weakened British enthusiasm for liberal interventions of any sort.

Syria, of course, is not Iraq, and a limited airstrike on Bashar al-Assad‘s regime is hardly the same as invading and occupying Mesopotamia. But, as Rory Stewart, Conservative Party MP for Penrith and the Border and a former governor of an Iraqi province, said in a statement, “Britain has learned the lessons of Iraq, but it’s in danger of over learning them.”

Tory MPs complained that “the well had been poisoned” by the Iraqi trauma. But amid such public and parliamentary ambivalence about the aims and viability of intervention in Syria, government ministers overplayed their hand. Accusing their opponents of giving “succor” to Assad’s regime was foolish and counterproductive in equal measure.

Cameron certainly misjudged the mood of the country and his party. His relations with his own backbenchers have long been tepid. Too often they feel taken for granted, and faced with the prospect of helping to authorize unpopular action against Assad’s regime, 30 backbenchers rebelled. The revolt was small compared with those endured by Tony Blair on Iraq, but coupled with defections from Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, it was enough to lose the day.

The difference with Iraq, however, was that then the Tories — in opposition — supported the government. This week, by contrast, Miliband placed domestic political advantage ahead of his own personal preferences as he led Labour to vote against Cameron.

Labour did not oppose the government or Syrian intervention on principle but, instead, chose to do so because it was politically convenient and opportunistic to do so. Thus Labour voted against a government motion that was substantively the same as the amendment it itself had offered. And because the motions advanced by the government and the opposition were each defeated, Britain is now left without a foreign policy at all. “I’m not with those who rule out action,” Miliband said Thursday. Yet his party has managed to rule out action anyway.

source: Foreign Policy

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