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Obama, Cameron and the Syria Vote in August 2013

John Kerry is being somewhat disingenuous in blaming Britain for not 'dropping a bomb' on Syria in 2013


The defeat of David Cameron by 285 votes to 272 in parliament in late August 2013 over bombing Syria for regime change did have a huge impact.

And it was testimony to the enduring importance of the anti-war movement in Britain.

John Kerry is, however, being somewhat disingenuous in claiming Parliament's vote against intervention in 2013 derailed Obama's strategy in Syria.

A major article in The Atlantic last year by Jeffrey Goldberg, based upon extensive interviews over years with Obama and senior figures in his administration, identified three reasons for Obama's reversal over bombing Syria back then.

The first was indeed the shock vote in the British parliament. The second, though, was Obama's assessment that he would have to go to Congress to get approval. That was not legally necessary, but it was seen as politically vital, before the British parliament vote and for the same reason Cameron did similarly. That is because the whole idea of going into another war was so contested.

And the assessment in the White House of Congressional feeling was already indicating strong opposition, even before the Cameron defeat. There were reports of Congressmen and women receiving large volumes of emails running overwhelmingly against military action.

The third reason is that Obama wanted cast iron evidence that the Assad regime had been responsible for using chemical weapons - the issue upon which major, overt military action was to be launched.

Forget all sorts of online flame wars over this issue. What mattered is what the decisionmakers of the US state thought. Obama asked the head of the CIA for an unvarnished report. And the CIA conceded that the evidence was not "slam dunk", which was the term its director had used to George Bush boastfully in 2002 about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Obama was already deeply sceptical of the case for bombing. And he had created an institutional block in the White House to the elements in the administration - from Samantha Power, to Hillary Clinton and parts of the Pentagon - who were committed to an ongoing strategy of liberal interventionism and cavalier direct use of US military force.

He had termed them the "stupid-shit caucus". He was determined to avoid another Iraq, and preferred more subtle means - the massive extension of drone strikes and calibrated support for conflicting state and non-state actors in the kaleidoscope of Syria. Virtually all the people urging on one big push of a bombing campaign had predicted that Assad would fall within months of the initial uprising in Syria in 2011.

Two years later that had turned out not to be true. In reality, it is less that Cameron derailed Obama's bombing plan. It is more that the anti-war feeling in Britain stopped the US interventionists from getting Cameron on board to leave Obama with no choice but to bomb hard in 2013.

There is likely to be for some time a concerted push to claim that it was "Obama's inaction" over Syria which caused the level of suffering. The central concern of the interventionists in the US and in Britain is not people's suffering, of course, but that the US has lost significant leverage in the Levant region to Russia.

Notwithstanding the yet to be seen foreign policy of the Trump administration, this is a right wing argument that the left should have nothing to do with.

The US did intervene. Kerry himself has admitted to years of covert intervention. Its degree vacillated, as the reality on the ground broke up utopian schemes about constructing reliable forces which would carry through a policy favourable to the US, but without "blowback".

And then in 2015 the US and France, followed by Britain at the end of the year, ramped up direct intervention using the ISIS attacks in Europe and advances in the region as pretext.

We should not allow that just to pass by unnoticed. Thirteen months ago in Britain the Tory government and Labour right were confidently claiming that British bombing would help to bring an end to ISIS and the threat of terror attacks. Since then, we have had Turkey, Germany and elsewhere.

It is a basic argument, but a central one - the war on terror is not ending terrorism. It is central to the cycle of violence which is fuelling it.

After his catastrophic bungling of the EU referendum, Cameron is now a convenient whipping boy, and the outgoing Obama too, to some extent.

It is not a backhanded defence of either of them to say that the dilemmas facing US and British policy run far deeper.

The elephant in the room in 2013 and after over Syria was that the only reasonably assured way to achieve the outcome in Syria favourable to them was to commit to a full scale land war. Iraq was and remains the big inhibitor on doing so. So they opted for a series of forms of intervention which could not achieve their aims.

In response to that it would be the most catastrophic mistake for the left to point - even ambiguously - to the vacillations of US and British policy as the problem. Because if that is the central argument, then the vacillation can be resolved by a much more bellicose and dangerous policy.

And we will have a US administration in two weeks time headed by Donald Trump. It will face an increasingly conflicted global politics which is quite capable of leading to a challenge in some areas which US doctrine sees as its vital interest. One such vital interest remains not so much the wider Middle East, but the Persian Gulf.

The decisionmakers of the US state will likely again have to weigh up moments such as August 2013 in the coming years, possibly months.

The last place for the left to be should be echoing in any way the arguments of the "stupid-shit caucus".

It remains to be seen just what stupid shit Donald Trump's administration is capable of. One thing's for sure, it will not be with honeyed words about humanitarianism and the spread of a liberal global order.

But that is unlikely to stop liberal interventionists falling in with it. For it was the unholy alliance of liberal interventionism, plus raw realpolitik, and the last ideological innovation of the conservative right - neoconservatism - that brought us the era of the war on terror in the first place.

Tags: syria

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