The Worst Argument Yet for Intervening in Syria: If We Don’t, Other Countries Will Snigger At Britain

18 June 2013

10:33 AM

18 June 2013

10:33 AM

We should, I suppose, be grateful to Benedict Brogan for his column today examining some of the reasons for why Britain should become more heavily involved in the Syrian civil war. Grateful, that is, because Mr Brogan’s article reveals how pitifully inadequate these reasons are. Here’s Mr Brogan’s conclusion:

The coalition against intervention in Syria appears to have all the arguments on its side. It is, by any measure, a terrible idea, and on current standings the Prime Minister would struggle to secure necessary support in the Commons. But Mr Cameron says he wants to save Britain from international relegation. In which case, membership of the league of front rank nations comes with a price that is sometimes quite awful. Going in could have consequences that, after Iraq and Afghanistan, we are all too familiar with. But we should acknowledge, as he evidently does, that sitting this one out carries a price as well. The global race is not just about economics. It is about the willingness of the few countries with the capacity to intervene to stand up and be counted when the need arises. Mr Cameron knows that the burden is always ours.

Is that it? Intervention is a terrible idea but we need to do it because otherwise other people will think Britain’s penis has shrivelled. Good god.

But when it comes to problems such as Syria Britain may have a voice but it does not, not really, have a foreign policy. We gave that up long ago. Indeed, Brogan’s argument is quite clear on this front:

As his predecessors have done, [Cameron] has understood quickly the price of our reliance on the US. The advantages that derive from that unique strategic relationship are not just special, they are vital. From intelligence sharing to cooperation on our nuclear deterrent, all the under-appreciated contributions that keep us in what Mr Cameron calls the global race stem from our ability to be able to call on American support that exceeds what we can offer them in material terms. A historic commonality of interests is expressed in a basic trade-off: in exchange for our moral and political support on the international stage, we secure privileged access to the vast resources of the world’s hyperpower.

It is a deal that all prime ministers have understood. It informs, no doubt, the Tory belief in a like-for-like replacement for Trident. Even when he refused to follow the US into Vietnam, Harold Wilson strained every sinew to offer the Johnson administration vocal political support. Margaret Thatcher set aside the embarrassment of the Grenada invasion in favour of the importance of the long-term partnership. Mr Blair stayed alongside Mr Bush on Iraq because he understood that whatever the cost, Britain had to be seen at all times to stand shoulder to shoulder with its principal ally. Gordon Brown understood the centrality of the relationship, to a point that was embarrassingly needy.

In other words, we cannot afford to upset the Americans, “whatever the cost”. If they want to do something then we need to do that something too, even if we might think it unwise, if we doubt our capacity to actually do that something or if we consider it contrary to our own national interest. The only thing that counts  – the consideration that trumps all others – is remaining close to the Americans.


As it happens, we do gain a good deal from the Atlantic alliance but there remains something unseemly, something almost pathetic, about this kind of clinging neediness. And if we sacrifice our own independent judgement then how can we reasonably still claim to be in the Top League of Leading Nations?

It is a curious way of thinking. But, as Brogan has the honesty to admit, it is a view that governs other features of British policy too. The strongest argument for a like-for-like replacement for Trident rests upon the feeling that if Britain gives up, or reduces the potency of, its nuclear deterrent it signals to the rest of the world that we are no longer a Top Nation. The bomb is not a real weapon that might ever actually be used; it is instead a mid-life crisis status symbol that’s designed to impress the beholder but that, like a new sports car or a younger, trophy wife, signals something close to the opposite of what is intended.

If we’re going to become more heavily involved in Syria then fine, but let’s at least do so for the right reasons not because of some imagined historical responsibility or because Syria is a six-point fixture the losing of which will result in Britain being relegated from the top league. There may be worse arguments for doing something than this but it is hard, this morning, to think of any.


Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • paulus

    Yes I read that and thought it was rather odd , funky was doing it in the Times today as well. Must be the silly season.

    The reason why the Russians can arm Assad because his government is the recognised government of Syria by the UN and as such the russians can enter into contractual agreement to provide weaponary.

    The British position of providing arms to the rebels is in violation of International Law. Before there is hand to hand fighting in Aleppo an ancient city and a world heritage site I think if these so called decent democrats who are fighting against Assad should ask for a ceasefire.

  • JPJ2

    I agree with the headline to this article.
    It sums up the essence of British Nationalism, and is a principal/principle reason why many people in Scotland WILL vote “Yes” in 2014.

  • Andy M

    Things have changed since the 00’s. Back then the USA had a President who was less concerned with his global image and more concerned about protecting his country and the Western Democratic world from terrorism. Notice most of the worst decisions relating to managing Afghanistan and Iraq have come from Obama, not Bush. Now Obama is trying to make some world events of his own to mess things up even more than he already has. This is just another example of how Obama is clueless and the reason he is in power is purely because of his ridiculous PR campaigns. I fell for it too when he was first running for President – I thought how fantastic it would be for the USA to have its first black President. I didn’t much care about the policies. Saying that, it’s probably also due to not being American I don’t know much detail about the national politics.

  • Michael Ray

    Cameron is determined to interfere in Syria regardless of public opinion; his own party opposition and the consequences.I just watched a convenient breakdown in sound link when Alastair Stewart asked these questions on the ITV News.he also thinks he can prevent the weapons we will surely provide falling into the hands of the west hating extremists, select the interim government and ensure that the extremists are not involved in a future democratically elected government.Am I losing it?

  • edlancey

    Alex. I almost never agree with you, but I agree with you here.

  • CraigStrachan

    “other people will think Britain’s penis has shrivelled”

    Only if they are unaware that Britain is feminine.

  • Alexsandr

    Special relationship? Like we had when we had to retake the Falklands? where were the US then. and since.

  • greggf

    I thought Brogan’s piece was a bit stretched after all France hasn’t bothered about its refusal to support the Iraq debacle.

    The point is the US do not like the Ba’ath party. They didn’t like it in Iraq so they got rid of it and its leader.
    Unlike Al Qaeda, which is terrorist and few care if the US find it easy to chase and kill with drones etc., the Ba’ath party is a regular national political force in Arab nations. It’s not easy to mount a policy that undermines such politics, unwelcome as they may be to the West.

    Thus Assad and his party might not last, it seems to depend on Russia.

  • Sean Lamb

    Maybe the destruction of Syria as a nation state is and always was the end game?

    After all if Syria disintegrates as a nation state – who owns the Golan?

    The Light Unto The Nations owns it obviously.

    So the Light Unto The Nations intercepts an email (or possibly fakes it, but clumsy though it is, I kind of think it is genuine to the extent Qatar was pushing around such cack-handed schemes, not that Britam took them up on it) like this:

    “We’ve got a new offer. It’s about Syria again. Qataris
    propose an attractive deal and swear that the idea is approved by
    We’ll have to deliver a CW to Homs, a Soviet origin
    g-shell from Libya similar to those that Assad should have. They want us
    to deploy our Ukrainian personnel that should speak Russian and make a
    video record.
    Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea but the sums proposed are enormous. Your opinion?”
    And then leaks it to the Russians so that they dig in behind Assad, simultaneously tightening their grip on the testicles of Cameron, Hollande and Obama. Predictable results. Pundits solemnly begin to declaim that Sykes-Picot is the original problem. Eventually, after a couple of hundred thousand more deaths, Christians, Alawites and Shiites are beaten back to a coastal strip, Sunnis keep the interior and Israel inherits the Golan by default.

    A bottle of cheap Australian red will do this to a person

    • Austin Barry

      “…the Russians so that they dig in behind Assad, simultaneously tightening their grip on the testicles of Cameron, Hollande and Obama…”

      Unhappily, I don’t think they have functioning pair between them.

    • MaxSceptic

      Israel annexed the Golan long ago. They didn’t need to concoct a Machiavellian conspiracy. Arabs in Syria and elsewhere are quite capable – and have a long tradition – of self destruction without Zionist intervention.

      • Sean Lamb

        Yes but the annexation is illegal under international law and I don’t believe any country recognizes it.
        If, however, Syria ceased to exist, there would be no entity with a continuous existence to have a legal claim to it.
        Or if Syria was reduced to a rump state along the coast with no continuous border with Israel, the claim of the rump state on the Golan would be unsupportable.

        • Thor fenris

          Who cares if it is recognised or not?

      • Sean Lamb

        Just to continue along the lines of a possible Break Up Syria/It s all Sykes-Picot’s fault school of thought that might develop.

        If anything results that can be seen as Syria, that will be a failure as they will immediately inherit Syrian sovereignty over the Golan. Obviously Assad can’t be allowed to win nor can he be allowed to be defeated too quickly. But even a rump Assad state on the coast might not be sufficient, since who ever holds Damascus would have a strong claim to be the successor state of Syria.

        I notice that Al Nusrah has merged with Al Qaeda in Iraq to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham. So maybe what Cameron and Obama are angling for (or rather the people who pull their strings) is an AQ-Sunni state based around Central and Eastern Syria and Anbar province/Western Iraq, a rump Alawite, Shiite, Christian enclave on the coast, a rump Iraq running from Baghdad down to Basra which will be mainly Shiite. A Kurdish state comprising Kurdish Syria and Iraq and which will eventually peel away eastern Turkey. With a nice little squabble over who gets Mosul. Since the borders of Iraq and Syria and eventually Turkey will be totally redrawn no one can claim to be the successor state of Syria,

        This should be able to be achieved with no more than 500 000 deaths tops. It is all Sykes-Picot’s fault, you see. Anyway this is going to run and run.

    • Eddie

      I think you should stop listening to the typical Muslim conspiracy theories of your anti-Semite friends. Really, Israel and Jews did not start the Syrian war, or cause 9/11, or do 7/7. or make it rain too much, or drink babies’ blood (that’d be the Muslims in Syria, who have a penchant for human flesh it seems).
      The only conspiracy in town is the one to destroy Israel and kill all Jews – which all the racist Islamofascist countries of the Middle East – which all expelled their Jewish (and often Christian) populations seem to want.

      • Sean Lamb

        Well obviously Israel has no influence over the Gulf states which are the countries that are did most of the heavy lifting in terms of starting the conflict.

        But they do have a lot of influence in Britain and other Western countries and might have induced them to give the green light to their client monarchies in the Middle East. There has to be a reason for Cameron and Obama to be acting so counterproductively and so contrary to commonsense – they are winning neither plaudits from the population at large nor even the punditry. Even the armchair bombardiers seem mournfully half-hearted when beating the drum on this one. The politicians don’t even look they believe their own claims about chemical weapons, they just repeat the claims flatly and robotically.

        So its legitimate to ask why they are acting so strangely.

  • HarryTheHornyHippo

    There’s only two reasons for intervening in any conflict – either they want to nick your land or you want to nick theirs.

    Otherwise – STAY OUT OF IT!

  • zanzamander

    Look, Obama does not give a toss about Britain (no doubt he has some issues about our colonial rule in Kenya) — only we keep harping on about the “special relationship”. If you want other countries to stop sniggering at us then stand up to US and don’t be its slave.

    What I don’t understand, for the life of me, is why can’t we work with the Russians on this. They were right about the Islamists in Afghanistan but we chose to arm the Medievalists who, once having got rid of the Reds, immediately waged a war on us. Russia was right about the Boston bombers, but US is still in the cold war frame of mind and ignored the warnings. Russia is again right on Syria, but again just because Russia is supporting Assad, we want to do the opposite and want to arm the jihadis.

    Cameron is itching to put a mark on his premiership and I’m afraid, we will all end up paying the price for his vanity.

    • Eddie

      Yep, Obama dislikes the British – as was evidenced when he tried to blame BP or as he called it ‘British Petroleum’ (even though 40% of it is Amoco and American) for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, despite the fact that a US company built the rig and a Swiss-American company ran it – and the hasty and unsafe exploration of the oil reserves at sea was done because immense US government pressure to find ‘home grown oil’. (And let’s not forget that after the Amoco Cadiz French oil spill in 1978, that US company fought for 20 years in the courts to avoid paying compensation, and the only coughed up £5k per victim in the end…)

      Fact is, if the British hadn’t given Kenya and Obama’s drunk of a father opportunities, then Obama would have been born in some Kenyan slum (to be exploited by the elite there), so what we see in him is typical self-hatred which is projected out to The British as a whole.

      But really, we must stay out of Syria – let em all kill each other. If we’d allowed that in Libya there wouldn’t be an Islamist government there and in Egypt now. Not our business. We must stay out – and we must certainly not support, fund and arm the Islamofascists there at the self same time that we are condemning them for planting bombs and trying to decapitate young soldiers on the streets here.
      The only thing I can’t work out is if all this is comedy or tragedy.

    • Simon Morgan

      Russia is arming Assad. It is not a level playing field, and the ones who are losing are the ones trying to overthrow yet another dicatator of the ME. The Iranian people tried to do the same, but were ruthlessly suppressed.

      It’s not certain what would eventuate if we intervened – it never is. But I don’t want to hang the Syrian people out to dry, as we did the Iranian people.

      I also don’t know why the Russians (and Chinese for that matter) get carte-blanche from the international community – nobody seems to tell Putin to stop arming Assad.

      Rather than listening to the Kremlin, we should be condemning it.

      I think we should arm the rebels and impose a no-fly zone to give them a fighting chance.

  • Austin Barry

    I wonder how much the fact that 96% of UK muslims are Sunni has determined Cameron’s support for the rebels? Wouldn’t want to upset that sect would we?

    • zanzamander

      You do get the feeling that someone else is pulling his strings, say…the House of Saud, maybe? I wonder if a big order for military jets is in the offing.

      • RobertC

        Or some oil for us?

  • Tim Toddles

    We need to stop arming and aiding rebels, I fear more beheadings.