Leaders: Syria misjudgment hurts Cameron’s authority

David Cameron. Picture: Neil Hanna
David Cameron. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IRAQ cast a long shadow over the House of Commons on Thursday evening and left David Cameron severely wounded as the first prime minister whose wish to commit British forces to military action has been refused by MPs.

His political injuries came not just because his is the first government whose case for armed intervention has been rejected by the Opposition since Suez in 1956, but also because many of his own party did not believe he had made a watertight case.

The scars left by Iraq, which were admitted by defence secretary Philip Hammond to have been a significant factor in the government’s defeat, were two-fold. First, there was the memory of how MPs were assured by then prime minister Tony Blair that intelligence assessment left no doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to load them onto missiles capable of hitting Cyprus. This turned out to be a chimera.

There is no doubt that such a weapon is possessed by President Assad and the Syrian military, and little doubt that a chemical or nerve agent has been used in Syria, causing quite appalling deaths and suffering amongst civilian Syrian men, women and children.

But, recalling Iraq, many MPs were this time unwilling to accept Mr Cameron’s certainty that Mr Assad was responsible and wanted external verification to remove all doubt, which Mr Cameron was unable to provide.

Second, MPs and some senior former Conservative ministers now in the House of Lords were deeply uneasy about what might result from a missile attack on the Syrian military. Was it simply a forceful means of deterring Mr Assad from using chemical weapons? Or could it result in a worsening civil conflict in which many more civilians would die or be forced to flee as refugees? Again, Iraq, where there have been a series of bloody bombings in Baghdad this week, apparently the work of Sunni insurgents still battling the Shia majority ten years on from the war, was not far from minds.

All these doubts were perfectly obvious when Mr Cameron decided to summon parliament to endorse his government’s plans to strike Mr Assad and his forces. The lack of clear answers to some very pertinent questions meant that he had to amend the government’s position and admit there would have to be a second vote even before the debate began. This is pretty clearly a massive misjudgment which has greatly diminished his political authority, not just at home, but also abroad.

This vote is also a reversal for US president Obama, who has been seeking to build an international coalition for action against Mr Assad. While he has won the backing of the French government, Britain’s refusal to take part casts doubt on whether there really is the international will to do something to ease the dreadful suffering of the Syrian people.

A thrilling survey for today’s man

IT’S the weekend, chaps, so fancy a bit of sky-diving? Scaling Ben Nevis? Scuba-diving on a sunken wreck? What, no takers? C’mon guys, where’s your sense of adventure?

A very good question, it turns out. Since the late 1970s the male inclination for seeking out thrills has declined, according to University of St Andrews researchers. Whereas men used to be much more likely than women to try out risky activities, the male and female sense of derring-do is now pretty similar.

And that’s not because women have been liberated out of the kitchen and into parachute harnesses, its simply because men just aren’t the thrill-seekers they used to be.

According to the scornful, that’s because they have all become unfit and flabby. We don’t think so; the 1970s were not particularly the preserve of muscular gung-ho types and if you ask any veteran mountaineer, he will tell you that the joy of being the only person to scale a peak on a particular day has long since vanished in crowds of folks eroding mountain tracks.

We rather think that the researchers are right in thinking the questions might be a bit out of date. Modern man may well think donning a parachute is a bit routine compared to the thrill of microlighting, wind-surfing,

bungee-jumping or any one of the myriad risky sports now available.

And as for the activities labelled as safe, well, the researchers have to be kidding. Do they have any idea of the risks involved in producing perfectly formed roses for the local flower show? Or the terror that the prospect of having to cook a non-collapsed soufflé for a dinner party can evoke? Get a life, folks.