Has there ever before been such a debate as that in the Mother of Parliaments on August 29th? Conceived in error, promoted promiscuously, supported speculatively, and culturally iconic, the wide range of incoherent opinions its result produced were to be modified, contradicted and restructured by their possessors within minutes of them leaving the chamber.
Mr Cameron was grievously wounded, or his reputation enhanced by his integrity; the British nation was now an international joke, or its democratic virtues universally admired; Labour had won a stunning victory, or Mr Miliband’s conduct was disgraceful; the ‘special relationship’ with our closest ally was destroyed, or the American people would gratefully follow the example the British had given.
And at the centre of this confusion a “humiliated” Mr Cameron played the alpha male, basking in the admiration of those who claimed, or who were about to claim, or would later claim, that what he had done in seeking the approval of Parliament was right, while he reflected on the unhappy revelation that the 272 whipped votes he had captured might not actually represent the views of the British Christians he had for several months been hoping to take to war in support of Islamist terrorists fighting a tyrannical régime, and butchering minorities, including Christians, in a Muslim country.
From the cacophony monitored by the news media emerged substantial criticism of Mr Cameron, some eloquent, some barnyard, but in general it was justified. “He doesn’t do numbers, they’re not important, just detail,” and for this debate, certainly, it appears he neglected to calculate what might happen if Mr Miliband was as unreliable as Mr Cameron’s colleagues have been trying to persuade the voters. A loyal Tory said, “He’s not a chess player. He never thinks more than one move ahead.”
Another comment on a similar theme was, “The pawns are the soul of chess!” – a quotation resuscitated from an 18th century French musician of Scots ancestry (the de facto world chess champion) that recognised Mr Cameron’s weakness in forever concentrating, as of course did Mr Blair, on what is big, appears simple, and feeds the ego (e.g. the unaffordable HS2, the vulnerable aircraft carriers, and the uneconomic wind farms rolling out across the countryside to smother our children’s heritage).
But what if Mr Cameron’s supporters had numbered 282 instead of 272 and he had won the vote against an opposition of 275? Would we now be at war? Was that the plan? Was there a plan? Or did we not need a plan because we were going to war only to support the Americans? The Americans, of course, had produced the plans for the war against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the plans for the destruction of the Afghan Taliban, and the plans for the introduction of democracy to Libya, so with such experience Mr Cameron could safely leave these mundane matters to Washington, could he not? Well, he did.
So what was Washington planning for Syria? Who knows? Washington doesn’t, and whatever it might be it failed to win the support of General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), a fact well known in the USA but not so in the UK. General Dempsey is the equivalent of the British Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), and both the current CDS and his predecessor advised against going to war with Syria – so at the military level, at least, there was some agreement. (The boast of a ‘Special Relationship’ continues, naturally, despite the post-debate hysteria, because it is and has always been the correct way to describe the protocol governing our exchange of Intelligence with the American agencies. The term has never legitimately described any other arrangements.)
We have a fair idea of what was initially in President Obama’s mind, a punitive operation that would degrade President Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again, and we have a rough idea of how this transmuted into a larger and more intensive offensive that by destroying the Syrian government’s military advantage over the insurgents would reduce its resistance to entering negotiations, but what ideas did Mr Cameron have?
If we start from his oft-repeated claim to military power based on the UK’s defence budget being calculated as the fourth highest in the world, then we know we are in trouble. That is Bullingdonism. (Did he believe that when his night out with his club cost him £1,000 he had therefore eaten the best dinner in Oxford?) Does he not understand that Israel, whose defence budget is a fraction of ours, can within 36 hours field more armour and launch more aircraft strike sorties than the whole of European NATO including the North American contribution here in Europe? Money wasted is no measure of military power (scrapped Nimrods, unused Chinooks, short-range Tornados, Eurofighter Typhoons at triple the forecast price, and currently the vulnerable aircraft carriers and the ‘jump-jet’ Joint Strike Fighters, the F-35B, whose performance falls a long way short of that agreed in the Joint Operational Requirements Document and yet have a price soaring with every new estimate).
Has Mr Cameron learned nothing from the many months it took to defeat Libya, a nation of six and a half million at war with itself, after he had removed the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier and its Harriers from the fleet, and had to rely on the six RAF Typhoons for which we had operational pilots, each of these aircraft needing to be refuelled in the air three times while transiting between the UK and its target, and each needing a Tornado to fly alongside to help it drop its bombs?
An informal coalition of Generals and Admirals together with the current CDS and his predecessor explained to him the limitations owed to the legacy of Mr Brown’s years in power and exacerbated by the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010 (SDSR2010). He knew that he could not use the RAF to strike Syrian targets, for the Tornados would be easy meat for the Mig-29 fighters Russia promised (which might have been flown by Russian ‘instructors’), and with the Army kept at home by the “no boots on the ground’ promise, a British war on Syria would have had to be a naval affair.
But the UK no longer has a navy. We have a few warships left, certainly, but their number is now well below critical mass. We cannot deploy in all the areas in which we have maintained a British presence for centuries. We cannot even watch all the key problems we have monitored in more recent times, and we are continuing the tradition established in the Brown years of sending our ships to sea without their armament. The Royal Navy that once ruled the world is no more. In sum — Mr Cameron should be grateful to the Tory rebels who defeated him in the debate, for they pulled him off the hook on which his braggadocio had impaled him.
What then of the Americans? If Congress had approved (as Congress had to if President Obama’s explanation in 2007 was correct), would the action have been restricted to the US Navy and its cruise missiles? The four destroyers now in the Eastern Mediterranean have around 150 Tomahawks available, sufficient for a token strike perhaps, but not to inconvenience very much an enemy who has been given adequate time to disperse his crucial assets. (The destroyers would not launch all their Tomahawks ~ a substantial number would be retained because a resupply cannot be loaded at sea.) The American warships would be standing well offshore, outside the range of Syrian anti-ship missiles, but that means the Syrians, alerted by Russian reconnaissance whenever Tomahawks were launched, would have had half an hour or more of Tomahawk flight time to move sensitive assets away from the target sites recorded by American reconnaissance and programmed into the Tomahawks by the warship operators.
In area, Syria is a little less than one and a half times the size of England, and a Tomahawk will carry either 1,000 lbs of high explosive against a fixed target, or a load of light-weight scatterable submunitions for an area target – so we are talking about a gentle slap on the wrist.
Would the US Air Force have stood idly by while the US Navy had all the action and therewith earned a larger slice of future budgets? Targets for air attack were chosen, and if the MiG-29s, whose delivery from Russia had been delayed by payment problems, had been lent on approval, then American aircraft would possibly have fought with MiG-29s in Syrian colours but flown by Russian ‘instructors’. (The MiG-29 may not be Russia’s best fighter, but it is well proven and its missiles are good.) If Iran had then joined the party, Israel (capable of launching 2,500 short-range strike sorties per day) might have done so also, seizing the opportunity to eradicate Hezbollah establishments and Hezbollah forces in the field, while also prepared to pre-empt possible Iranian responses against Israeli population centres.
At that point, as the Middle East erupted, British politicians would have been claiming that the world had gone mad, American politicians would have been pleading that they really hadn’t wanted this to happen, and French politicians would have been demanding that the US and the UK take the blame and stop the fighting. But it would have been too late.
The First World War, ‘The Great War’ as we used to call it, was the awful price we paid for having national leaders who stumbled blindly towards catastrophe while retaining and ignoring their own ability to stop and sit down and talk. It began 99 years ago. What did it teach us that our present generation of politicians can remember? The French had great faith in their magnificent Army, the Americans had a moat 3,000 miles wide and little concern for minor squabbles in Europe, and the British were confident that the war would “be over by Christmas,” and that the Hun would “be taught a lesson.” So our leaders stumbled onwards, just as Messrs Cameron and Hague stumbled last month, oblivious to the consequences of making war unnecessarily with inadequate resources, but uncaring because they are truly ignorant of war.
Is it not ironic that, contradicting what we have been led to expect, it is President Putin who has demonstrated a statesman’s maturity, reluctant to be seen to act until he was ready to accept the applause, manipulating the players from behind the curtain. We knew his objectives – protection of Assad to ensure Russia’s use of Syria as a strategic naval base; defeat of the insurgents (a threat also in his own country and thus one to be discouraged violently); a demonstration of diplomatic superiority over the American president; and neutralisation of the American threat to attack – and he must be fairly well satisfied at what he has achieved so far. Mr Kerry has been out-manoeuvred, for if the speed of Syrian chemical disarmament drops below that agreed, it will not be possible for Mr Obama to say, “It’s too slow, so we are going to kill a few people with our missiles to encourage faster progress.”
The Tory rebels may or may not have “humiliated” their leader (this blog believes not), but in addition to persuading Mr Obama to think twice, they probably saved the UK from humiliation. Yes, we may assume that our Typhoon fighters would perform well against Syria’s ground attack aircraft, and even against the MiG-29 fighters, but Ayios Nikolaos (part of the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area), our Middle East GCHQ colony in Cyprus, could not be protected from the Syrian Scuds launched from short range as a legitimate and catastrophic response to a British act of war – or to an American act of war fed with GCHQ intelligence.
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