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World Politics

Syria crisis: Vote raises questions about Britain’s credibility as a global big-hitter


The toughest job in Washington belongs to President Obama, seemingly obliged to embark on yet another military intervention in the Middle East, but this time without America’s most faithful ally. The second most uncomfortable moment today may well have belonged to Her Majesty’s diplomats here, as they tried to explain away to their US counterparts the shock Commons’ vote against UK participation in an attack on Syria.

And make no mistake. Shock was indeed the reaction. Militarily of course, the US is more than capable of handling any operation on its own, but the assumption had been that Britain would be at its shoulder, lending moral support and a veneer of international solidarity.

But not so. And not for the first time, obituaries are being written of that much-cherished old friend, the so-called “special relationship” between London and Washington. Reports of its final demise however are surely overdone.

For one, many of the doubts that produced David Cameron’s defeat at Westminster are present here. Americans are schizophrenic about Syria. They feel a moral outrage at a regime that turns sarin gas on its own people. On the other hand the last thing the US wants is involvement in another Middle East war. That view is widespread in the military establishment here and shared, for differing reasons, by many on the right and left. If Congress were recalled to deliberate the issue (it won’t be), the outcome might be close.

For a second, we have been here before. For Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher (as for Tony Blair), the transatlantic relationship was paramount. But Franklin Roosevelt did not always repay Churchill in kind, and Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden, learnt the same thing over Suez. Harold Wilson earned LBJ’s ire by refusing to send forces to Vietnam. Nor did the “special relationship” prevent Ronald Reagan from enraging Thatcher with the US invasion of Grenada, the UK’s former colony, launched without warning to London. In each case, Washington acted without illusion, its focus on US interests, not British feelings.

And third, the “special relationship” is about more than military and diplomatic co-operation. It embraces history, language, literature and a shared common law heritage – bonds that will not be eradicated by a Commons vote against a war many Americans feel the same way about.

Reaction from around the world

Dr Alan Mendoza Executive director of think-tank  the Henry Jackson Society

“If not reversed, this vote means the UK will join the rank of third-rate nations, condemned to be the prisoner of events and with no power to shape them. We have essentially said ‘game on’ to a war criminal, giving him a green light to use appalling chemical weapons against his own people with impunity. This is a shameful result which will not be readily forgotten by our allies. We can be certain that more atrocities will follow in Syria.”

Professor Michael Clarke Director-general of the  Royal United Services Institute

“At a background level Britain will be cooperating in ways that the US will find marginally useful. But as it stands, we will not be there firing off our cruise missiles, if that happens, and there is big political symbolism in that. We lack the symbolism of joining in. I suspect we will patch this up quickly and it will be seen as a blip that is embarrassing for the UK but one has to be aware that it may become more difficult and may become the beginning of a more festering row.”

Lord Ashdown Former Liberal Democrat leader

“Maybe I am just an old war horse from the past but I think it has a profound implication for our country. I think it diminishes our country hugely. We now have a bunch of people – the same ones who voted against this last night – who want to get out of Europe and have smashed our relationship with the United States. To see my country draw back from a coalition in favour of international law and decide that the answer is to stand aside does not fill me with great joy. I’m forced to look at those images of burning schoolchildren... and say my country’s reaction to this is nothing to do with me.”

George Osborne Chancellor of the Exchequer

“I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that big, open and trading nation that I like us to be, or whether we turn our back on that... I hope this doesn’t become a moment where we turn our back on all of the world’s problems.”

Sarah Wollaston Conservative MP and rebel

“It’s not about us being a nation of appeasers or apologists. Britain isn’t turning its back:we are delivering enormous amounts of humanitarian aid. But we just do not feel that aid in this instance should come in the form of cruise missiles. We need to be consistent in our message to the Middle East because if we don’t we just fuel resentment.”

Dr Andrew Mumford Lecturer in politics and  international relations at the  University of Nottingham

“I don’t think  this is going to  prove a major ruction in the  so-called special relationship. The British and Americans still have incredibly close military and intelligence cooperation. Even if Britain doesn’t participate in any further military action against Syria that the US might lead, you can guarantee that the British will be giving as much support and help in an indirect capacity as possible.”

Francois Hollande President of France

“Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France. All the options are on the table... Few countries have the capacity to inflict a sanction by the appropriate means. France is one of them. We are ready. We will decide our position in close liaison with our allies.”

Richard Haas President of the Council on Foreign Relations

“The UK is in danger of separating itself from both the EU and the US, an undesirable status for a medium-sized country that wants to play a world role but has few independent options.”

Yuri Ushakov Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief foreign policy aide

“This reflects the opinion of the majority of British and Europeans. It seems to me that people are starting to understand how dangerous such scenarios are. It is not entirely clear why the [UN inspectors] should simultaneously return to The Hague when lots of questions remain unanswered.”

Syrian opposition spokesman

“It’s regrettable that the British lawmakers were not able to understand the true situation in Syria. We do not believe that this vote will prevent a recourse to air strikes. The US clearly said that Bashar crossed a red line and France has reiterated, through President Hollande, its intention to participate. Even without the involvement of Britain, a lesson will be given to Bashar al-Assad.”

Chuck Hagel US Defence Secretary

“Every nation has a responsibility to make its own decisions. The British have been very strong in condemning the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and that vote in the Parliament doesn’t change that. And that’s a very significant position for any nation to take publicly. Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together.”