Theresa May backed Donald Trump’s Syrian airstrikes out of weakness, not strength. But this is nothing new. The need to project strength goes to the heart of UK foreign policy since the end of empire. This is one of the symptoms of our post-imperial malaise.
The invasion of Egypt in 1956 was a marker in world events in more ways than one. Not only was it the end of European empire, particularly the British empire and its French counterpart, it was one of the contributing factors to the emergence of the New Left – the other being the Soviet invasion of Hungary. This would help set the stage for the counterculture of the 1960s.
It was also the moment that Israel became aligned with Western powers. Israel’s main patrons would be the British and the French at first. The American partnership with Israel wouldn’t take shape for more than a decade, the Six Day War being the key moment that transformed Israel into a US client state.
At the same time, Britain and France would have to come to grips with the loss of imperial grandeur. The British establishment responded to the loss of empire, in contrast to the French ruling class, has been to become slavishly pro-American in foreign affairs. However, the reasoning was the same in both cases.
Not to liken Assad to Jeremy Corbyn (obviously!), but reading “US slave”, brought to mind Corbyn’s tweet the day after the air strikes on Syria.
“The UK Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament, not to the whims of a US President.”https://t.co/oAMy3JD8wh
— lizzee (@Dawn_AlbaAurore) April 21, 2018
Both wanted to assert their own claim to importance in the world: the British living vicariously through American imperialism, and the French claiming its own sphere of influence. The British establishment wishes it could return to the glory days of empire when the sun dared not set on its power. That’s what the Anglo-American relationship is all about.
When the British empire fell, the UK was superseded by the US in almost all areas of the world. Never fully recovering from the loss, the British ruling class decided to throw in its lot with the new superpower. Indeed, ever since the calamity of Suez, British foreign policy has been defined by its subservience to American hegemony.
Theresa May’s support for the airstrikes were no different yet she had an additional stake in bombing Syria. Facing her abysmal poll ratings, she cast aside the notion of parliamentary sovereignty for the whims of the American president. This is what it really means to have a ‘special relationship’.
The UK takes an ad hoc approach to constitutional matters like sovereignty and war powers, leaving open all kinds of possibilities. Even still, at least Blair held a vote to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, so did David Cameron when he wanted to attack Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2013. Yet May skipped this protocol in her rush to join the Franco-American bombers.
It is clear May did not want to run the risk of losing a vote to back the airstrikes. When David Cameron lost the 2013 vote on Syria, it was the first time parliament had failed to back an intervention since 1782. It was a major moment in British politics, yet it only happened because the opposition and the government cancelled each other out.
Of course, plenty of liberal hawks backed the airstrikes against targets in Syria on humanitarian grounds. Many of the same people were complaining that Miliband cost them the intervention to save the Syrian people.
The lack of sufficient legal, diplomatic and military deterrence displayed by the international society gave leverage to the Assad regime to carry out chemical attacks.
by Murat Yeşiltaşhttps://t.co/tnymoRdKzS
— The New Turkey (@TheNewTurkey) April 16, 2018
In reality, the US was looking at ‘punitive bombing’, which would not have mitigated the violence in any way – in fact, it would have escalated the war.
NATO forces, led by the US, have been involved in strikes in Syria for more than four years now. But this has not stopped between 400,00 and 500,000 persons from being killed in the conflict. If the airstrikes are a deterrent to the use of chemical weapons, the attack on Douma should have never occurred since the US launched 59 missiles into Syria last year for the exact same purpose.
As Souciant editor Joel Schalit argued recently, it is most likely that the strikes are meant to signal to Russia Western displeasure at its foreign policy in general, not just in Syria. Due to Russia’s military presence in Syria, the country is the best place to do this without resorting to direct clashes in Europe. It is much safer to attack targets in Syria than anything in Eastern Ukraine.
The British joined the French and the Americans in bombing Syria against the backdrop of Russia making its return to the Middle East. Russia is reasserting its military influence in West Asia for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which its allies Syria and Egypt were defeated by Israel with US-backing. The US and its proxies enjoyed almost complete hegemony in the region until the Second Gulf War.
So the UK is embroiled in the US effort to defend its claim on the Middle East. Not just for the sake of American patronage, but for the sake of staying relevant in an increasingly fractious world. As the US goes into decline, Russia and China are asserting themselves in their near abroads – just as American allies are feeling ever more anxious about their own status in the world.
In the post-war period, the UK was important to the US because it was a major economy and a European powerhouse with a sphere of influence spanning the world. Britain sat on the UN Security Council and was well placed to play a vital role in Europe. And this is about to change with Brexit. It will be more difficult for the UK to pretend it is relevant as it withdraws from the European project.
Yet the British ruling class still sees itself as a ‘junior partner’ to the US, even though we were always a lieutenant. The world is not where it was in 1945 and we may well be on the cusp of a multipolar era. However, the transition from one era to the next is unlikely to be peaceful.
Photograph courtesy of Defence Images. Published under a Creative Commons license.