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About That Special Relationship

Some are fretting about whether the special relationship that has bound the United States and the United Kingdom since World War II has been damaged by the House of Common’s vote against British participation in Syria and Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to accept the Commons’ verdict. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, who has been writing from the UK for some time now, says in his column today that “Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the ‘special relationship’ in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.” Cohen’s column, rarely praised by COMMENTARY, is spot on.

Britain’s capitulation to war-weary public opinion is foremost a personal defeat for Cameron—the first prime minister to lose a vote on going to war since 1782—ironically, when Great Britain was at war with the United States. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Cameron rushed the vote unnecessarily. He lost by only 13 votes, which could not have happened had it not been for an internal Tory Party revolt. Additionally, the public debate was short. Another week and the UN inspectors’ report might have changed things. At this point, no one quite knows the mission and goals of intervention. So Cameron’s decision to heed the call of Parliament and sit this one out may easily be interpreted as a transient problem, suggesting he needs to work on his communication skills, party unity, and overall popularity.

But there is a deeper problem that goes beyond Cameron or the vote. Consider that Ed Miliband, the current British Labour Party leader, has repeatedly indicated that he wants any action against Syria to be squarely placed under international law—meaning some sort of UN umbrella. Miliband not only seems unconcerned that yesterday’s humiliation of the prime minister handed a spectacular propaganda victory to Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad; he knows full well that making a Syrian intervention dependent on a non-existent UN path means giving a green light to Assad to continue his butchery.

Miliband, in other words, wants Britain to commit itself to a pointless act of endless diplomacy designed to stall rather than facilitate military action. That is not what allies do. It is all reminiscent of French President Jacques Chirac and his Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s effort to undermine President Bush when he was seeking a second UN resolution to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Should Cameron soon exit the political scene—something he might consider after losing such a fateful policy vote—his successor will move Britain further away from the days when it could be counted on as the bedrock of transatlantic relations.