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In the aftermath of the Syria vote, what should David Cameron do next?

Cameron Dark

Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich and Clacton: So much for the idea that Britain’s “special relationship” with America is dead.  The United States Congress will now follow Parliament in having a decisive say over military strikes in Syria.

As for the notion that the House of Commons decision to veto military strikes has weakened the United Kingdom, when was the last time a decision made in Westminster recalibrated policy not just in Whitehall, but in Washington and the wider West?

David Cameron should take this as an opportunity to try to reshape the Western policy towards the Middle East. 

Ten years ago, Western powers invaded Iraq in order – so the liberal interventionists told us – to bring democracy.  Those who confidently predicted the spread of democracy across the Arab world turned out to be disastrously wrong.  Or did they?  Perhaps they had a point?

In 2011, people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere rose up against tyranny, demanding the kind of economic and political freedoms that much of the rest of the world takes for granted.  The desire for democracy turns out to be universal after all.

Yet still we in the West buddy up to the regions autocrats and tyrants.  This – not the failure to bomb Damascus – has been the biggest flaw in Western policy in the Middle East.

Democracy, it turns out, comes to the Arab world not through Western force of arms, but because Arab people demand it.  If we want to see the spread of democracy in the Middle East, we should think less in terms of military action and more about how we might lend legitimacy and moral support to those Arab leaders who insist that authority comes from the ballot box.

We cannot act in defence of democratic values in Syria two months after we failed to speak out in defence of the democratically elected Government in Egypt. We cannot act when hundreds of civilians are murdered in Damascus, but continue to arm the Egyptian junta that slaughtered a thousand in Cairo. We cannot champion the right of self-determination in one part of the Arab world, yet ignore those who seek basic human rights in another.

The West needs a coherent, consistent strategy to promote democracy in the Middle East.  Now is the chance for Britain to help make it happen. 

Max Wind-Cowie, Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos: Last week's result was an affront to David Cameron's personal authority, the authority of the office of Prime Minister and Britain's standing as a world player. We were in Suez territory. 

Having said that, the Prime Minister was wrong to say that 'Parliament has spoken' and wrong to effectively rule out action altogether. 

This result was not born of principle. It sprang from poor party management and senseless opposition opportunism.

No. 10 is guilty of letting PR crowd out the basics of political tactics, let alone strategy. They mistakenly assumed that the argument was won long before it had really been had. This error hurt the PM on Syria as it has hurt his Leadership before. Mixed with unforgivably low politicking on the part of Ed Miliband, it helped produce an almost accident  defeat for Cameron, for British strategic interests and - most importantly - for Syrian civilians. 

But just as that result stems from longstanding weaknesses, so what comes next must be framed by longstanding strengths. David Cameron is a popular man. He is seen as a leader and a decision maker. Folk think he's tough but also that he listens. Use all of that to regain some authority, Prime Minister.

Cameron should use the breathing space creates by US and French debates to start again. A specific plan for limited action - with clear stated objectives and metrics for success - must be put together. Combined with the evidence laid out by Senator Kerry & the UN, a powerful case for intervention can still be made. As Fiona Melville has already suggested, Cameron should then take his case to the public directly. Using a TV address, the PM should go over the heads of MPs and demand the public's support in this terrible but vital question. I suspect that, as we usually do when asked, the British people would rise to the challenge. And then, finally, Cameron should call another vote - on a specific and clear strategy for intervention this time - calling Miliband's bluff.

If he doesn't, if matters rest here, then not only will we be abandoning our responsibilities as a nation but David Cameron's personal authority will struggle to recover.

Alistair Thompson, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners: It would be simple, but wrong to bring forward the plans for the expected reshuffle in a misguided belief that some mid-level ministerial musical chairs is all that is needed.

Moving a few people around will not address the real problem, which is Mr Cameron’s relationship with his own Party. He is still viewed by many of his own backbenchers as aloof, someone who wants to reign not rule.

The PM knows he has a problem, hence why he is focussing on the economy and has started to ditch controversial legislation although he continues with HS2. He will be helped by bringing in Lynton Crosby.

But the gulf between his inner circle and the rest of the party must be closed. The summer charm offensive had started to bear fruit. He should replace the Chief Whip with a senior backbencher like Liam Fox, or Andrew Mitchell and unite the leadership of CCHQ under one chairman, either fully or partially elected by the Party’s members, with aim of reversing the dreadful decline in membership. Finally he must bring in talent to No 10 from the right of the Party and most definitely from outside his immediate group of friends

Dr Alan Mendoza, Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society:  Just about the worst thing that David Cameron could do now is to pander to his backbench rebels. Their actions have weakened Britain’s credibility with our allies and undermined our ability to influence global affairs.

Some rebels of a more isolationist tinge may of course be satisfied with that outcome. A British Prime Minister – knowing that in the globalised world of 2013 there are no faraway countries of which we know little without the power to affect us – cannot be.

So instead, he needs to show resilience in another area of international policy to demonstrate that our national resolve to determine our own destiny and to advance the interests of the free and civilised world is undimmed.

Iran would be the obvious option – the Iranian nuclear programme is UN-condemned after all, and the strategic implications of a nuclear Iran would directly harm British national interests.

And he must not be timid.

Over Syria, Mr Cameron led from the front, but allowed a great moral and strategic issue of our time to be reduced to a question of chemical weapons use. He then bartered over linguistics, rather than engaging in a sustained effort to tackle the myriad myths about intervention and to educate political and public opinion on the real issues at stake. When it comes to the next challenge, boldness and clarity will reap better rewards.

Christina Dykes, adviser in political leadership: Assad has no friends in the Commons. MPs competed to roundly condemn him. The split was on whether Britain resort to military action now, rather than at all.

After the Iraqi debacle MPs' caution should have been anticipated but the Prime Minister failed to  read the mood. His plans were too vague; too imprecise and too hopeful.

So if Cameron believes in his cause, which he undoubtedly does, he needs to show that military action is the last resort not the first. So collect the evidence from the UN inspectors; make sure that Ban Ki-Moon understands the UN has to deliver or be shamed into obscurity; and look at other ways of punishing Assad (can his overseas assets be seized for example?).  

Above all Cameron has to learn that impetuous and good political management are seldom bed fellows. 

Christopher Howarth, Senior Analyst at Open Europe: David Cameron’s Syrian fiasco will reverberate through many aspects of politics. But how will it affect the UK’s international standing?

The US may now look at the UK in a different light but, ironically, within the EU the UK’s reputation may improve.  Europe tends to dislike what it perceives as rushed and unilateral military action (a UK/US-led operation is seen as unilateral). Parliamentary opposition to military action is something most EU states can easily understand and the UK’s break with the US may seem refreshing.

However, there is an important exception - the French Government. France and the UK are the only two EU states with the capability and (until now) the will to act. Recognising this, the FCO have been at pains to improve Anglo-French defence and foreign relations - UK help for France in Mali being a recent example. The FCO realise that if France and the UK cooperate they can be a powerful force within the EU and indeed the world. The most serious ramification of Syria is that these plans for Anglo-French defence cooperation may have taken a knock.

We have been here before. The last time UK foreign policy went spectacularly awry was in Suez. Then as now the UK bailed on France. We remember Suez as a lesson in the need to work with the US, for the French it was a lesson in the folly of trusting Anglo-Saxons. Things are nowhere near as bad this time but the relationship needs to be repaired.

Of course Syria is not Suez and the lessons will be different. Eden was tripped up by opposition from the US and Tory liberal internationalists, appalled by the naked pursuit of British interests. Cameron’s Tory opposition came from the descendants of the traditional wing who backed Eden, but who fail this time to see a British interest. After Suez, liberal policy makers agreed that the UK’s role in the world had shrunk and that it was a mistake to act without the US.

This time it is important to ensure that we do not accept any further shrinkage and that future US action is not spurned by the UK and an already sceptical EU. Like Anthony Eden, David Cameron has come unstuck on an area of policy that seemed to be his primary interest. Unlike Eden, Cameron has the opportunity to move on and repair the damage.


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