Who could have guessed Theresa May’s missile attack on Syria could so quickly turn “dangerous leftie” Jeremy Corbyn, into the voice of diplomacy and reason?
Friday night’s joint UK mission with the French and Americans was rapidly declared a success by the participating governments and I’ve no doubt the British public agreed, though for different and largely negative reasons. Citizens were indeed thankful that the clumsy and noisy orchestration of the missile attack by a “deranged” Donald Trump, meant civilians were evidently moved away from the three targeted bases and no conflict with Russia was accidentally triggered. Such a collective sigh of relief about the apparent absence of disaster does not constitute support for Theresa May. Similarly, Bashir Assad’s physical capacity for making chemical weapons was perhaps destroyed. But perhaps not, since Theresa May can only declare it “highly likely” he was behind the attack and Assad has proved capable of stashing or acquiring banned weapons already. The British public was shown a series of “before and after” aerial photos of Syrian Government weapon-making facilities. And that was basically it. So was it really “mission accomplished” or just choreographed tokenistic action for the benefit of the international media?
Did the destruction of three Syrian bases justify the risk of Donald Trump accidentally triggering Armageddon by shooting up the wrong target? Did the missile attack justify the cost to the supposedly cash-strapped British Exchequer? And did it connect to a wider strategy or simply commit the British government to inch ever closer to the abyss, should Assad or anyone else deploy chemical weapons in Syria again?
Indeed, was there really any genuine urgency for the largely symbolic airstrike on Syria – or have we just witnessed another British Prime Minister jumping to the warmongering bellows of an unstable American president and snubbing public opinion back home and the democratic scrutiny of British MPs in the process?
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, her thinly disguised motives for military action produce a strong feeling of deja-vu amongst an electorate still coming to terms with our collective failure to prevent the “act first, collect evidence later” disaster of Tony Blair’s Iraq mission 15 years ago. The rush to Brexit has also sensitised voters to the Prime Minister’s autocratic tendencies, deploying Henry VIII clauses, bumping debate into the unelected House of Lords, denying the existence of pessimistic Brexit forecasts and engineering a naked power grab from devolved parliaments. All of this casts a shadow over the Prime Minister’s stubborn refusal to summon MPs back from recess, citing a bizarre combination of MP inconvenience and international emergency – the latter normally being a pretty good reason for disregarding the former.
Small wonder then that commentators normally hostile to Jeremy Corbyn are finding his stance mature and reassuring by comparison and, worryingly for Theresa May, they are not keeping such heretical thoughts to themselves.
Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph told Sky News: “Jeremy Corbyn is at the moment, the voice of calm common sense on Syria. I strongly think he reflects the views of the majority of British people. Trump is disturbed. For a British Prime Minister to order military action to support an American president who is quite clearly out of control and irrational seems to me most improper.”
Corbyn has questioned the timing of military action just before weapons inspectors arrived at the site of the chemical weapons attack in Douma, and just before parliament reconvened. He’s pointed out that all of this echoes the run up to the Iraq War, he’s called for new legislation to ensure MPs get a vote before future military action and declares he will only back intervention in Syria if the United Nations backs it. Of course, such a lofty-sounding stance is easily pilloried. Russia has vetoed six attempts to sanction Syria in the Security Council. So if Corbyn means what he says, the Labour leader must be ready to argue for reform of United Nations’ structures in a major departure from Britain’s trademark gung-ho militarism. Is he ready for that?
If Theresa May has the guts to allow a full debate, it looks like he is. This weekend, despite criticism for failing to jump immediately on the bandwagon over the source of the Salisbury nerve agent attack, Corbyn returned to that vexed issue, saying he wanted “incontrovertible evidence” before blaming Russia and demanding more powers for the international chemical weapons watchdog.
Of course images of agonised and dying children demand a response. But the response they most need is one which ends death and suffering by every type of bombs not just chemical weapons; for all time, not just momentarily, and across every war zone including Yemen and Palestine, not just Syria.
That’s the enormity of the foreign policy challenge facing the world and most of us realise it will take time, determination, diplomacy and a massive empowerment not a weakening of the United Nations to see any real improvement – the same sort of dogged, decade-long, painstaking, behind the scenes efforts that produced the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.
Theresa May will doubtless try to bring the missile attack back to the threat posed by chemical weapons. But the opposition must bring it straight back to the issue of democratic procedures and genuine diplomacy, or rather their signal absence under the leadership of Theresa May.
Nicola Sturgeon has called for a full debate and a vote in the House of Commons within 48 hours. It would be impressive if opposition MPs combined to force a vote on this. Rather than weighing in with American-led military action, (ignoring all due process), Britain could usefully lead the way in trying to reform the UN and find a way to outflank a permanent Russian veto by applying the force of world authority rather than military hardware.
Yes, that sounds happy clappy. But if MPs believe in democracy, this is the hard work a “Mother of Parliaments” should be determined to begin. Each military intervention – each failed attempt at a simplistic Gordian Knot-style solution to complex world problems – leaves the public older, wiser and more cautious. The shame is that the same cannot be said for the Tory government.
Theresa May’s Syrian intervention looks like a cynical power game where everyone can claim victory – a domestic political risk for a questionable humanitarian prize.