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Opinion: Is it time to forgive Neville Chamberlain? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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File photo of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brandishing the Munich Agreement on September 30, 1938.

If we are to look at public opinion trends in the major Western countries, then the picture is clear: two thirds of the public in these countries, namely the US, UK and France, oppose intervention in Syria.

Perhaps both US President Barack Obama, and before him British Prime Minister David Cameron, took this fact into account when they decided to shirk responsibility by deferring the decision to Congress and Parliament respectively.

There can be no doubt that democracy is a good and necessary system of government. While it is also true to say that US and British citizens remain traumatized by the invasion of Iraq, mainly as a result of heavy human losses and the high financial cost of the war, in addition to feeling that their leaders in the White House and Downing Street deceived them and betrayed their trust.

All this is true.

It is also true that British Prime Minister David Cameron is a middle-of-the-road politician with weak convictions and a penchant for compromise. In fact, this is the main reason why the Conservative Party elected him as leader following three bitter defeats at the hands of the Labour Party. Yet, even when he led the Conservatives to victory at the last elections, Cameron failed to win a parliamentary majority; this is why he had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

Those monitoring British politics know that a party leader’s influence and status largely depend on the number of parliamentary seats his party occupies in the House of Commons. If the prime minister enjoys a large majority—as Margaret Thatcher did following the 1983 elections (144 seats) and 1987 elections (102 seats), or such as that enjoyed by Tony Blair following the elections of 1997 (179 seats) and 2001 (167 seats)—then they will concurrently enjoy a stronger position. Even if some MPs rise up against the prime minister, the large parliamentary majority that the leader enjoys renders any act of mutiny largely ineffective. Conversely, a slender majority not only demonstrates sharp political division in a country, it also shows that the party leader’s influence on his MPs is limited, encouraging backbenchers who are displeased with their leader’s policies to rebel. This is precisely what is happening with Cameron now as the Conservatives do not enjoy an absolute majority. Prime Minister Cameron is the head of a coalition government based on horse-trading, amicable settlements, and exchange of favors.

In light of this reality on the ground, Cameron’s move to place the Syria resolution before the House of Commons raises a number of questions: Does he actually want to intervene in Syria? If so, why did he first seek a parliamentary mandate, something that he as prime minister was not bound to do? Was he certain of emerging with a “yes” vote? If he was certain that parliament was with him, what happened there that led to the defeat of his motion? We must also bear in mind that the Conservative Party has a Whip’s Office—which is tasked with ensuring that all members vote according to party guidelines—so what exactly went wrong?

In short, Cameron has failed as a “leader” even though he succeeded—in many people’s eyes—as a “democrat” who respects the will of the people. Here it must be noted that the wording of the draft resolution on Syria was ambiguous and vague, while domestic political considerations played a large part in Cameron’s downfall, namely the opposition’s desire to humiliate a sitting prime minister. In addition to this, the right-wing of the Conservative Party are also seeking to weaken, and potentially even topple, Cameron before the next elections, particularly as the isolationist right-wing UK Independence party (UKIP) which is calling for Britain to secede from the European Union (EU) is expected to pick up a high percentage of traditionally Conservative votes at the polls.

Barack Obama finds himself in a not too dissimilar position from David Cameron. Like Cameron, Obama is a moderate and populist politician with weak convictions and a penchant for seeking settlements at the expense of his principles. He also did not have to resort to the US Congress for authorization, keeping in mind that the military strike he has pledged to launch against the Syrian regime is merely is a “disciplinary” warning. However, Obama has so far sent several contradictory signals which only served to encourage intransigence on the part of Russia and China, and allow the Assad regime to feel overconfident. This sense of disregard and conceit from Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry is something that we continue to see in Washington, even after the death toll in Syria exceeded the 100,000 barrier.

Let us now turn to the initial response to the shocking chemical attack on the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus.

During the early hours following the attack, Washington and London lapsed into a practiced silence, and sometimes even denial. I recall how the BBC’s flagship Newsnight TV program dealt with the chemical attack that night. The coverage was very poor and unsympathetic while the interviews with former US Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, Conservative MP John Baron, and US researcher Michael Rubin were passive and skeptical.

However, the disturbing footage coming out of Syria forced the BBC to change its tone the following day. The subsequent interviews conducted by Newsnight with Dr. Rana Kabbani, US former Vice Chief of Staff Jack Keane, and former US ambassador to the United Nations Nancy Soderberg were excellent. All three guests highlighted the world’s moral and principled duty towards the use of chemical weapons, regardless of passing political interests.

It was not too long before Kerry issued a statement accusing the Assad regime of committing the chemical massacre in eastern Ghouta, announcing that Washington would seek to punish the Damascus regime for its break of international norms. Following this, there was a widespread belief that a direct military strike on Damascus would take place in a matter of hours, rather than days, and a large number of desertions from the Syrian army were reported. It was also reported that several of Bashar Al-Assad’s top aides had fled the country for Lebanon. Then, all of a sudden, Obama surprised everybody by deferring the decision to the US Congress.

Obama is a politician who truly believes in democracy, just as the British prime minister does. Like Cameron, Obama knows how to manage a crisis, but he ultimately lacks leadership qualities.

The late French president Charles de Gaulle once said: “When I want to know what France wants, I ask myself.” This is because he was well aware of his political status and the value of his moral attitudes, in addition to his duty as a historical leader. As for great US statesmen Henry Clay, he said: “I’d rather be right than a president,” and this is because he understood the meaning of sticking to one’s principles.

On the subject of principles, countries that describe themselves as “democracies” rarely sought appeasements or compromises when dealing with dictators and war criminals. This is why generations of British people have mocked former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for brandishing the Munich Agreement and promising them a “peace for our time” following his meeting with Adolf Hitler.

Now, considering Obama and Cameron’s recent actions, perhaps the time has come to forgive Neville Chamberlain.