It’s all getting a bit meta


I had an unusual experience yesterday, especially for an academic interested in how newspapers use sources to support stories about foreign policy. I was called by a journalist and asked to comment on a story about foreign policy. If you take a look at page 4 of today’s Independent, there I am. I’m a news source.

The journalist, political correspondent James Cusick, emailed me yesterday afternoon looking to talk about US views on the release of original documents underpinning the Chilcot Report, and particularly the “200 Cabinet-level discussions, 25 notes from Mr Blair to President Bush and more than 130 records of conversations between either Mr Blair or Mr Brown and President Bush” that Sir John Chilcot mentioned in his letter to the Prime Minister of 4 November. He had a source (or sources) within the Cabinet Office that said US State Department officials were privately asking that the latter two categories of document be kept classified. Chilcot has always said that he would work within the bounds set out by the Cabinet Office, and the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood remains the ultimate arbiter of what can and cannot be released. A decent wedge of material is already in the public domain, but Sir Jeremy has previously insisted that these particular documents be kept private, in part to avoid damaging the convention that governments keep private communications between leaders private.

Sir John isn’t actually challenging this point, despite what some media coverage has suggested. It’s also important to remember that he has actually seen this material. The unresolved question is how he uses it in his report. The US is very tetchy about secret documents, and tends to take the view that once something is classified it should stay that way. That is why it responded angrily to Wikileaks despite the fact that, in the end, there was little particularly sensitive material released.

The Cabinet Office knows the US position. It’s a position the UK broadly shares, and one most states would recognise and follow. But the government has committed to transparency, hoping Chilcot will finally draw a line under Iraq. So Sir Jeremy and his colleagues face a judgement call. How much material can they release before the Americans get upset, and how upset can the Americans get before there are negative consequences for the special relationship? It’s incredibly difficult to predict, and it’s obviously taking them a long time to strike a balance they feel they can defend.

Having returned to my office after teaching I called James Cusick and talked to him for about 20 minutes. It was an interesting experience. We have different roles in relation to this sort of issue. His role is to be as questioning and critical as possible. You won’t find anything out as a journalist if you don’t push the envelope. Academics can afford to be more circumspect. So we naturally have different interpretations of what is going on here. I think the story here is the time delay – which Chilcot is obviously finding frustrating – rather than the level of US involvement or otherwise.

I also don’t think there is anything particularly to be gained by having the documents themselves in the public arena. Chilcot has more than enough evidence to conclude that Blair decided in early 2002 to support the US in confronting Iraq, knowing that would probably mean military action. He has more than enough evidence to conclude that Blair was at least economical with the truth when it came to explaining his position to the public, to parliament, and to the Cabinet. He has more than enough evidence to conclude that the decision-making process was riddled with hubris and groupthink (see the Butler Report on how groupthink affected the interpretation of intelligence). So I’m quite relaxed. I expect the remaining issues will eventually be agreed, the report will emerge, and it will criticise the Blair government, though it will stop short of calling for Blair to be shipped off to The Hague.

Cusick can’t be that circumspect. He needs a headline – for the front page as it turned out – and he needs an angle, to keep readers once they’ve been drawn in. So he has to frame the delay in terms of US interference. What he wanted from me was an independent opinion on whether there was anything surprising about the US taking an anti-disclosure position. He was hoping I would agree with him that the answer is no – and he said he’d looked at my thesis before getting in touch, which is interesting in itself since I arguably take a fairly mild line on Blair-era ‘spin’. As it turned out, I did agree, so was willing to be quoted as I am in the article. He didn’t include my more qualified views about the significance of the documentation not being released, because it didn’t fit his line. That’s how the process works.

Speaking to the media is part of my job. Academics are supposed to generate new knowledge, and then share it – through publications and through teaching, of course, but also through engaging with public debate. That’s why I have an LSE experts profile, though unhelpfully it usually leads to queries about domestic politics in Libya, Syria, or Iraq, about which I know relatively little (for a foreign policy analyst). Journalists don’t have much time to research their stories. They need authoritative sources. Academics are authoritative because they are perceived as both independent and expert. They’re also boring, for the same reason, which is why I’m cited at the end of the article. Did I really add anything in objective terms? I’m not sure. The article was essentially written by the time I spoke to its author. I didn’t change his views on anything. But hopefully I lent some credibility to what I think is a valid point – the US thinks in terms of categories of document, rather than contents. If the State Department has asked for this  material to be kept confidential, it’s because it’s the sort of material that is usually kept confidential, not because it says anything dramatic.

Update 17:06

Following on from my appearance in the Independent, I got a call from Al-Jazeera asking if I’d come in and  speak to them in the studio about the same issue, as part of their News Hour programme. I think I answered about four questions in a 60-second slot, and it all seemed to go well. So today has been a day of firsts for me!

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Spy chiefs testify in public

Live blog as the heads of Britain’s three spy agencies are giving evidence to MPs in public for the first time, at the Intelligence and Security Committee. C is wearing a green tie so we know which one he is. Andrew Parker is wearing blue as well.

Key messages: the chiefs maintain their work is necessary, legal, proportionate, and ethical. The Butler Report is described as a “bible” for the intelligence agencies.

Malcolm Rifkind opens by asking C and Andrew Parker where what they do is still necessary. Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, say yes.

Hazel Blears asks about the global nature of contemporary threats. C says the three agencies have to work together more closely, and share systems.

Lord Lothian asks why the intelligence committee failed to predict the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and the Arab Spring. C says there was no secret in a safe in Cairo that predicted the Arab Spring. Everyone saw the tensions, but you can’t predict the exact trigger.

George Howarth asks about technological change, and whether it’s helped the agencies or the enemy. Andrew Lobban points out that the global technology industry is worth £3trn per year so it is a challenge just to track. Issues about scale, speed, and skills. Need to be global, agile, and flexible, and so to work with partners. Technology helps terrorists with communication, platform, planning. Have been able to use some aspects against terrorists, best kept secret.

Everyone is speaking very quickly. Malcolm Rifkind is also speaking very loudly. Nice of him.

Julian Lewis asks what can be done to prevent future breaches along the lines of Edward Snowden. Andrew Parker says there are tight restrictions on IT access, but that a full range of security measures have to be used. Extremely stringent access, vetting, and management measures should help.

Rifkind asks if the agencies have raised the issue of who has access to documents with US partners. All three say yes.

Hazel Blears asks about working with governments with dodgy human rights records. C says it’s easy to work with western democracies, but that isn’t where the threats are coming from. Often we need to co-operate with the local agencies in other states, and often those states are not western states. C also says MI6 takes the law very seriously – e.g. There is no way of working with Syria at the moment – and seeks assurances that british information will be used legally and that any detentions following from British information will be conducted according to british standards. Issues can be and are escalated to ministers if necessary.

Blears asks about allegations of complicity in torture. C says he disputes specific allegations but recognises that MI6 took some time to scale up its activities after 9/11. After over a decade of learning there are very clear (public) guidelines on what is and what is not permissible.

Menzies Campbell asks about how decisions on the ground are audited. C says it’s a dynamic process. People in the field are in touch with head office and can get guidance if they need it, and HQ can wake the foreign secretary up if they need to.

Blears asks C if he can guarantee that MI6 is not complicit in torture. He doesn’t reply directly, emphasising standards, procedures, and learning over the last 12 years. Then he says “yes”.

C seems to be taking the lead. He’s probably more experienced at speaking publicly than Andrew Parker, who is new, or Ian Lobban! who rarely speaks in public.

Mark Field asks about whether the British government would take actions that led to the torture of an individual in order to prevent terrorism. Andrew Parker says no. C says MI6 was glad to see changes in the law to allow evidence in cases relating to alleged torture to be held in secret so the agency can now defend itself against what he sees as unfair allegations.

Andrew Parker takes the opportunity to pay tribute to British troops, noting that Britain has not been subject to terrorist threats during the time British troops have been in Afghanistan. He does note the spread of Al-Qaeda’s ideology into new areas. C says the new range of countries involved has raised issues, and that the overall threat is rising – more British citizens killed by terrorism in 2013 than in previous 7 years.

Menzies Campbell asks about the risk of “terrorist tourism”. Andrew Parker says this is a key part of the threat faced, and is growing at the moment because of Syria. Campbell asks what factors go in to assessing the nature of a threat. Parker says JTAC is based in MI5 but works with all three agencies to assess threat levels around the world. Campbell asks if the heads question JTAC or just take it’s conclusions as given. Parker says they co-operate in agreeing how to respond with specific issues.

George Howarth asks if the deaths of British citizens in terrorist attacks constitute a failure of intelligence. How many plots have been disrupted and how much of the services’ work relies on luck. Andrew Parker defends his agency with reference to the ISC’s own report on the London bombings. He says 34 plots have been disrupted since then. One or two each year were major mass casualty attacks. The majority were disrupted by the agencies. One or two just failed. The majority were home grown. Several thousand individuals in the UK support or engage with violent extremism. Parker isn’t sure about the term “home grown” as plotters usually have some sort of link to extremists in South-East Asia, the Middle East, or East Africa.

Blears asks how important the Prevent programme is, and whether is is sufficiently emphasised. Parker says the agencies focus on people who have already been radicalised.

Parker says it remains the case that the threat has not worsened, but it has changed. The level of counter-terrorism activity have been constant in recent years. No serious threats arose during the Olympics for example. 330 prosecutions have been brought since 9/11. The threat in Northern Ireland persists but is declining.

Parker has been careful to link his answers to his predecessor’s comments and statements by the Home Secretary.

Big questions – the cyber threat and the agencies’ engagement with the internet. Lord Butler asks how the agencies assess the overall cyber threat. Lobban refers to states, corporate spies, criminals, hacktivists, and terrorists as the key threats. Capable non-state actors have made the picture look different. Less well-armed states have used cyber methods to compensate for their lack of conventional strength. Industrial espionage has been impacted most severely. GCHQ works closely with industry, BIS, and academia to build skills and resilience.

Rifkind asks whether mass data collection is the real threat. Lobban says GCHQ does not listen in on the majority – it would be illegal and impractical. They do need to investigate the sort of communication media that most people use. They do target what they look for, and they are aware that the data involved is private. They have to meet very specific legal thresholds before they are allowed to listen to specific communications. Lobban also thinks his workforce would refuse to snoop on innocent people.

Rifkind asks why this point wasn’t made sooner. Lobban says the government’s first duty is protection, and sometimes that needs to be secret, though secret need not mean without oversight. Rifkind pushes him on the point about the public. Lobban holds the line on keeping methods secret while referring to safeguards within the “ring of secrecy” including the ISC itself.

Blears asks for a guarantee that GCHQ does not act outside of British law. Lobban gives it. Blears says the public supports the existence of the powers, but would like more transparency about how they are used. Lobban says your communications will only be listened to if you pose a threat to the UK. Parker says the agencies have become more open, but it’s for parliament to decide ultimately. Rifkind asks if the agencies push secrecy too far. Parker says no, the point is to avoid letting the enemy know what the agencies are up to. Operational advantage can sometimes be quite fragile. Keeping the country safe is hard enough without making methods public. C says it would be bizarre not to make the most use of technology given the enemy does it.

Blears asks if the agencies are between a rock and a hard place. Blamed for failures and criticised for knowing too much. Parker says MI5 exists to protect Britain as a free society. British people, including MI5 officers, don’t want to live in a surveillance society. Governments have offered powers in the past that the agencies have turned down.

Rifkind asks for examples of the damage done by the Snowden leak. Parker says he can give specifics in private. In public he can say MI5 needs GCHQ intercepts to disrupt terrorist plots, and losing the advantage of secrecy makes that harder. Lobban says SigInt relies on targets not knowing how capable Western agencies are. GCHQ have intercepted discussions between terrorists about how to avoid the methods revealed by Snowden. He sounds quite angry about it, predicting damage for years to come. Describes intelligence as a “fragile mosaic” that can be seriously damaged at any time. Rifkind asks if withholding specifics from leaks helps. C says the journalists involved are not well placed to make such judgements. Snowden’s leaks have damaged current operations and adversaries are “rubbing their hands with glee”.

George Howarth says people don’t understand why the agencies can’t just have access to those who pose a threat. Lobban says everything is intercepted, but nothing is looked at without a specific rationale.

Campbell asks if the existing legal framework is up to dealing with the revolution in communications technology, and whether the agencies would participate in public debate over the implications. Lobban says there are legal safeguards on privacy which are followed rigorously, and that the laws are technology neutral. Necessity and proportionality as key watchwords. “Within our DNA”. If parliament changes the rules, “so be it”. Lobban also highlights the role of the intelligence commissioners, appointed by the Prime Minister. Rifkind notes the latter don’t operate publicly. C says the agencies are public servants. Parliament sets the law, and the agencies work within it. Parker says article 8 of the human rights act underpins the acts that define the agencies, which is the element dealing with privacy.

Lord Butler asks how the legislation can still be fit for purpose given the last piece was passed in 2000. Parker says work is lawful, is overseen in multiple ways – parliamentary, executive, and judicial. Parker is on his fourth formal appearance at the ISC, has received three visits from the commissioners, and sees the Home Secretary 2-3 times per week, all in his first six months in the job.

Butler asks about offensive cyber capabilities. Lobban says GCHQ would contribute expertise but, like SIS, is primarily responsible for intelligence gathering – the military is responsible for offensive capabilities.

C says the strategy is to break links between Al Qaeda overseas and jihadists or possible sympathisers in the UK. Syria is a particular concern because of the lack of a local partner. Andrew Parker says a number of people in “the low hundreds” have fought in Syria and returned to the UK. Most will not be a threat, but some will. Blears asks if having fought in Syria grants kudos to potential radicalisers. Parker says this is one area in which the prevent and pursue strands of contest overlap.

Butler asks about the intelligence community’s contribution to the apparent thaw over Iran’s nuclear programme. C says the picture is incomplete but intelligence has helped both with understanding the programme’s development and with making sanctions stick. MI6 has a lot of expertise on Iran which it makes available to government. Rifkind asks how much confidence there can be in commitments given by Iran. C says the IAEA is a useful monitoring body and Britain can rely on it, at least to monitor publicly declared programmes. It won’t be easy. C describes the Butler report as a “bible” for MI6, in terms of procedures, assessment, and personnel management.

Malcolm Rifkind asks about the threat from North Korea, Julian Lewis about the threat from espionage. C says Britain is not the lead on North Korea but does contribute what it can. Andrew Parker says 10% of MI5’s work is counter-espionage, which is a lively business that goes beyond Russia, primarily in military and technology areas. Rifkind asks about relations with Russia after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. C says there has been a gap between the states for some time, which has thawed slightly due to discussions around the Sochi Olympics.

Lewis asks if it’s true that we spy on everyone and everyone spies on us. C says terrorism, cyber threats, and nuclear proliferation are the key targets. Britain doesn’t spy on everyone. Targets are highest priority challenges faced by UK, as authorised by ministers. So the short answer is “no”.

C ends the session by praising the work of the officers of the three services, who “don’t work for high salaries, because they don’t get high salaries”.

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Book review: British Foreign Policy (2013) by Jamie Gaskarth

I recently wrote a review of Jamie Gaskarth‘s new book about British Foreign Policy (2013) for the LSE Review of Books blog. I enjoyed it, particularly its high level of specific detail about the foreign policy making process and the actors and processes involved. My big question, though, was whether it was a textbook or an original study. It contains elements of both.

Review here:

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Do repatriation ceremonies damage public support for war?

An MoD study from 2012, obtained by The Guardian, suggests the prominence given in media coverage to British military fatalities from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over recent years has led to an inaccurate public perception of the actual risks involved in using military force overseas. Accepting the premise that public support is important for any military action, the report suggests a number of communication policy steps that might help counteract trends seen during recent conflicts. It acknowledges the particular problem with the Iraq and (fourth) Afghan wars, as well as with the vetoed Syria intervention – that the public saw no clear national interest in involvement – while also suggesting ways to frame the risk of military casualties as “knowingly and willingly undertaken as a matter of professional judgement”.

The paper is quite sensible in many regards, though newspaper coverage in the Guardian and Daily Mail (technically the same coverage, as the Mail’s story is based entirely on the Guardian’s exclusive) focuses on the “disgraceful” suggestion (and it is just a suggestion) that repatriation ceremonies should take on a lower profile. It does warn against creating a “Praetorian Guard” culture, with the armed forces cut off from society, while also arguing that military service needs to be seen as more than just another job given the particular risks involved. It also makes a number of more ‘blue skies’ suggestions, including placing a greater emphasis on using drones, special forces, mercenaries and soldiers from allied states with higher levels of public tolerance to casualties in future operations.

How viable is all this? I think there are two distinct questions here:

  1. Has the greater prominence given to individual military casualties in recent years made the British public more sceptical about military action in general?
  2. What impact would there have been on public perceptions of the war in Afghanistan had repatriations been given a lower profile?

To answer 1), I looked at casualty levels and YouGov opinion polls since mid-2010. Before this date (and this is significant in itself) relatively few polls were conducted asking either how significant individuals considered the war in Afghanistan to be, or what prospects respondents saw for its successful conclusion.


Figure 1: Casualty levels versus salience of Afghan war and views on prospects for success in Yougov polls.

Figure 1 shows monthly military combat fatalities, the average salience ascribed by poll respondents to Afghanistan as a national political issue, and poll respondents’ estimates of the prospects for military victory in the Fourth Afghan War. It appears to show a relationship between casualties and issue salience, with a pattern of general decline in both interrupted by a large jump in March 2012 following the deaths of six servicemen in one day, an event that prompted widespread media coverage because this was the joint largest one-day combat fatality count of the entire operation. What it does not appear to show is a relationship between prominent casualties and declining public faith in the likelihood of ultimate victory. That faith does decline slightly, but only slightly. The March 2012 shock does not register at all.

Figure 1 suggests that prominent coverage of military casualties causes the public to pay greater attention to military campaigns, but does not necessarily shape public attitudes towards those campaigns. The wide literature on public opinion as an influence on foreign policy predicts such a finding; while casualty levels are not irrelevant, they have a relative rather than absolute effect on public attitudes. Democratic publics are generally willing to tolerate military fatalities incurred as part of campaigns seen as necessary, legitimate, and successful. The two elements are not independent; both the number and manner of individual deaths can shift views on any of these factors. But death alone does not change how the public views a military campaign. The public understands that military action implies military casualties.

To answer 2) I pose a counterfactual. What if RAF Brize Norton had never been closed for refurbishments in 2007, forcing vehicles carrying the repatriated remains of deceased service personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan to travel through the town of Wootton Bassett on their way to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford? What if the poignant images of a small town brought to a standstill in tribute to 345 fallen men and women had never been relayed across British television screens and reported prominently in British newspapers? Would that have lowered the place of military casualties in the public’s calculations about the Afghan conflict?

I don’t think so. I don’t think so for two reasons. Firstly, the public was growing gradually less sure about Afghanistan before 2007. Wootton Bassett did not cause the British military to experience rapidly rising casualty rates after June 2006, the decision to attempt to pacify Helmand province did that. Nor did it contribute to the immense difficulty Britain will still have in achieving anything that can be labelled victory in Afghanistan’s lawless hinterlands. Secondly, however, I think it is worth noting also the difference that Wootton Bassett made in disaggregating British public attitudes towards the armed forces from those towards specific military campaigns. Before Wootton Bassett uniformed service personnel were personally abused in the streets around military bases. But the simple acts of remembrance enacted, if not spontaneously, then at least without state direction in this small Wiltshire town caught the public imagination. By recognising the fallen of the Afghan war, Wootton Bassett helped the public more generally to treat individual soldiers as heroes, even while disagreeing with the specifics of their present mission.

This is crucial. Historically, public attitudes towards service personnel have varied according to how a particular campaign is perceived. The dead of successful, legitimate, or necessary campaigns are lionised while those of unsuccessful, illegitimate, or unnecessary wars are pitied. The contrast between how the US public treated Vietnam veterans compared to their World War Two predecessors is the usual example given. Yet Wootton Bassett made heroes of the Afghan war’s dead, regardless of the public’s scepticism about the campaign. This then fed back into public perceptions about the action as a whole. The dead of unsuccessful, illegitimate, or unnecessary wars are victims (usually of politicians’ incompetence), the dead of the Afghan war are heroes, therefore  it cannot be an unsuccessful, illegitimate, or unnecessary war.

Wootton Bassett alone cannot save public attitudes towards Afghanistan. The war has gone on too long, the goals are too diffuse, and the casualties too high. There will be no moment of victory, only a moment of weary withdrawal. But the suggestion that the prominent coverage given to repatriations undermined the public’s willingness to stay the course deserves careful consideration. I haven’t proved it, here, but I suspect, as I have set out, that the dynamic was more complicated than that.

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Parliament doesn’t decide yet, but sort of does

Parliamentary opposition has forced the British government to water down a motion seeking approval for military action against the Assad regime in Syria. This is a big deal, given in theory Parliament has no role in decisions about the international use of force. As the BBC’s Nick Robinson put it, “It is without modern precedent for a prime minister to lose control of his foreign policy, let alone decisions about peace and war. That, though, is what has happened in the past 24 hours”.

It reinforces a growing shift in the constitutional balance of power that began when Tony Blair was forced to allow a vote before the Iraq invasion in 2003. Cameron saw no downside copying Blair over Libya in 2011. The Libyan action was backed by the UN Security Council, so Parliament voted unanimously to support it. By treating Blair’s unusual act as a precedent, however, Cameron helped cement a new convention. Since the entire royal prerogative, from which the authority to direct the use of force stems, is a conventional power, it changes when the conventions around it change. It doesn’t matter that promises by Gordon Brown, William Hague, and Cameron himself failed to result in new legislation guaranteeing Parliament a vote on any future military actions. As Cameron’s u-turn over Syria shows, he is bound by the new norms of British foreign policy making whether he likes it or not. What we have witness over the last 24 hours in British politics is nothing short of the birth of a new parliamentary prerogative.

Even with legal advice confirming any strike would be in line with international law, and the JIC stating it is highly likely there has been a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime in Damascus, it is unclear MPs will back the use of force. In which case, Britain simply won’t be able to take part.

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Parliament now decides

In some respects, the decision to recall Parliament to approve what David Cameron calls a “clear motion” authorising action in Syria is unsurprising. William Hague promised the Andrew Marr show on 9 June that any intervention would be signed off by MPs. The government would have struggled to back down from Hague’s unambiguous statement without suffering considerable political opprobrium. At the same time, it is hugely significant. Through debates and substantive votes over the Iraq war, the Libyan intervention, and now Syria Parliament has gradually gained a conventional right to veto the international use of force. The power, previously part of the royal prerogative and reserved to the Prime Minister, has been gradually given away and ultimately yoked to parliamentary support. No future leader will be able to row back from precedents set in 2003, 2011, and 2013. Against the weight of convention now established, the absence of a formal change in the law remains odd but insignificant. MPs will always get a vote in future. The government retains only the freedom to decide the timing.

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Selling Syria

The British government has followed the US lead over Syria, playing a cautious game and refusing to commit to intervention in the country’s ongoing civil war in the absence of unambiguous UN Security Council approval. Foreign Secretary William Hague told The Andrew Marr Show on 9 June that Britain would take no action without first securing parliamentary approval, and given the importance of UNSCR 1973 when MPs voted in favour of intervention in Libya in March 2011, that looked to be a clear sign that nothing was to be done.

Foreign Secretary William Hague

Foreign Secretary William Hague

This morning, however, Hague changed his tone. Although Russia has rolled back its position of absolute support for the Assad regime in recent days, it still seems unlikely to approve western military intervention. Echoing rhetoric last used by British politicians in the build-up to the Iraq War, Hague told the Today programme that the Security Council was ‘failing to shoulder its responsibilities’. Even The Guardian is relaxing its anti-war stance, albeit only slightly. Yet without a Security Council Resolution, the government will struggle to gain parliamentary approval for a substantial intervention, and rightly so. The ‘soft realist’ stance epitomised by The Daily Mail with its “why is it our problem?” line opposes foreign entanglements on principle. Many Conservative MPs will share this view, which is why they are already beginning to demand a parliamentary recall. Hague has promised it, so there will be a substantive debate before any military action.

Tony Blair meets Bashar al-Assad, Damascus, 2001

This is where things get really interesting. British public opinion rightly senses that the Syrian conflict is more complex than that in Libya, and recognises that the outcome of the Libyan intervention was far from perfect. At the same time there is wide revulsion at the prospect of a dictatorial regime using chemical weapons against civilian populations. British MPs will reflect these views, adding concern for international law (a very real issue if there is no further UN mandate, albeit one glossed over in Kosovo in 1999) and for domestic procedure in the form of their own right to vote on war. Whether they agree to act depends on what action the government proposes. A limited campaign of airstrikes, calculated to hurt the regime without necessarily tipping the balance in the ongoing civil war, seems the most likely proposal. Russia might be persuaded to accept a Security Council Resolution that explicitly limited the scope of the campaign. Even absent that shift, MPs may yet be persuaded to vote in favour by the corollary of the ‘soft realist’ position, the ‘hard liberal’, pro-intervention stance last seen during the Iraq debate. Any debate will be dramatic and any vote close.

If Cameron thinks he will struggle to win parliamentary support, however, he may decide not to risk seeking it. That may have been Hague’s intention in promising a vote in the first place. Matt Baum over at Harvard has done good work on the use of “domestic audience costs” by democratic leaders to tie their own hands deliberately when entering negotiations. Hague may have done that here, by guaranteeing MPs a veto on intervention, even intervention short of military action. Unless the case is clear, and unless Ban Ki-Moon’s strong statements are backed up with an unambiguous UN mandate to act, Cameron may not be able to get sufficient parliamentary support to go ahead, and probably will not want to in any event.

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