LONDON – Lap dogs no more!
After the British Parliament’s decision to reject taking part in any U.S.-led strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, that victory cry rang out Friday from many quarters of the nation. For those who smarted at the memory of former Prime Minister Tony Blair — lampooned in the press as President George W. Bush’s “poodle” — Friday marked the first day of a sweet new independence.
But Britons of another stripe awoke in a daze. How had the Churchillian spirit of a nation suddenly turned into a Chamberlain moment, appeasing a tyrant? At great risk, they argued, was Britain’s outsize role in the world, a role it has earned since World War II by playing global deputy to Washington’s sheriff.
Despite official assurances that the “special relationship” remains intact, these Yankophiles sensed that a bellwether moment had arrived.
“In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed,” tweeted veteran British politician and diplomat Paddy Ashdown. “Britain’s answer to the Syrian horrors? none of our business!”
In Britain, prime ministers, and not Parliament, have traditionally been the deciders on military intervention. But the extraordinary events Thursday night appeared to signal a change.
It left Britons engaged in a bout of national soul-searching, with top officials saying the political earthquake in Parliament raised a fundamental question about what kind of nation Britain ought to be. Will it remain a global force or begin to drift, as some suggested Friday, into a diminished state of splendid isolation?
For the United States, a less reliable Britain will be undeniably damaging. British military involvement was key to U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, with troops from the isles making up the single largest foreign force on the ground after the United States. In addition, Britain’s decision to sign up to U.S. operations lent them international legitimacy.
Yet Britain might have even more to lose. Its close relationship with the United States gave it a global footprint decades after Britain shed superpower status on its own. The relationship afforded not only diplomatic clout, but also boosted British trade and industry around the world.
“Parliament has set a precedent with the intention that it, not the prime minister, is going to decide whether or not we go to war in the future,” said Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. “The British people, the many who say we have been America’s poodles for far too long, will now get much more used to this idea of saying no.”
During Thursday’s marathon debate, resistance appeared to be rooted less in straightforward anti-Americanism than fatigue, distrust and frustration with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But also loud and clear was a newly pragmatic view that has only seemed to grow there since Parliament agreed to join Washington in launching a strike in Libya two years ago. The British military, skeptical lawmakers argued, should be reserved for action clearly and unquestionably in the national interest.
Some lawmakers laid Thursday’s debacle squarely at the feet of Prime Minister David Cameron, who has long argued for a tougher stance on Assad.
Cameron failed, lawmakers said, to offer a clear mission statement, with few accepting his argument that bombing regime targets amounts to “not taking sides” — many Britons see the Syrian opposition as filled with elements just as bad as Assad’s forces. He also failed, the critics said, to learn the lessons of Iraq by appearing too eager to meet a rapid U.S. timetable for action, and he offered what several called flimsy evidence to back up claims of Assad’s hand in an alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus.
Britain and the United States insisted Friday that their relationship is not under threat. In a phone call, U.S. President Barack Obama assured Cameron that their relationship remains strong and that he “fully respected” the prime minister’s need to seek Parliament’s approval before taking Britain into the conflict, according to No. 10 Downing St.