6 Sep

Parliament debateOn Thursday 29th August 2013 at around 2230 hours the British Prime Minister (PM) lost a vote in the British parliament. Not for the first or last time to be sure but in this case the government motion being debated concerned the PM’s ability to conduct foreign policy – for the United Kingdom to join allies in punitive military strikes against the Assad Regime in Syria. The decision of the leader of the opposition (supported by a sizeable number of government back bench members of parliament (MPs)) to oppose the motion not being, on the face of it, too outlandish as it was just another exercise in democracy. Except, this particular decision by the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition broke with precedent and in so doing possibly changed the political landscape for all future administrations; not least the PM’s prerogative to conduct foreign policy without constantly having to refer decisions to a vote in parliament. Indeed, not long before the recent parliamentary recess MPs were debating this very issue and although the back bench initiated motion was calling for parliament to be consulted ahead of any military action in Syria underlying the motion and the speeches was a view that the Executive should always consult MPs before committing British forces.

The 29th August debate into potential Syrian intervention brought into sharp focus the interconnecting strands that underpin Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) ability – or not – to prosecute United Kingdom (UK) foreign policy. For example, when a lack of confidence in the executive’s decision making restricts or prevents military action in support of vital national strategic interests and values. The latter unfortunate circumstance having its origins in the flawed intelligence briefings leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Therefore, undermining the whole Syria debate sat the issue of trust in the evidential and legal case HMG was using to justify its decision to take military action. An action, more often than not, referred to by MPs as ‘going to war’ – the latter defined academically as an organised and often prolonged armed conflict that is carried out by states or non-state actors.

In his 1832 treatise ‘On War,’ the Prussian strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz, defined war as ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will’. Whilst definitions of war are helpful on an academic level this form of terminology can also be emotive, incongruous and misleading, not least alone when the term ‘war’ is being used in a political context to clumsily describe any and all types of military action beyond routine operations and training. Whilst the rationale for the Syrian action – to punish and prevent – certainly seems to meet the maxim in respect of ‘compelling our enemy to do our will’ the limited nature of the proposed strike may arguably, if not legally, fall short of war – albeit that there is no guarantee that a war might not develop as a consequence of such military action.

In this context military action can be kinetic and non-kinetic, large or small scale, defensive or offensive and always in direct response to national and/or international authorisation. [HM Armed Forces do not act without national political authorisation.] Sometimes, however, the transition from peace or watchfulness to kinetic military force is in response to a surprise attack or through the application of Rules of Engagement (ROE) which are pre-set by HMG ahead of an operation. The importance of this distinction in the context of parliamentary scrutiny and/or authorisation for action cannot be overstated. A foreign policy decision to use military force (go to war) in pursuit of national strategic objectives or defence should be referred to parliament if time and circumstances permit but this may not always be the case. In any event we must be clear that military action, never routine, is a atter of life and death for our service personnel and that success or failure can depend on prior secrecy, the speed of reaction and clarity of aim.

The difficulty that faces all political leaders and their military commanders, most especially within democracies, is how to meld the democratic exercise of authority (the will of the people) with the complexity that diplomatic and military imperatives confer. A largely unresolved issue that has in the past been addressed in a doctrine to the effect that ‘HMG – through parliament – sets the overarching policy and strategy, leaving the military to advise on and implement the tactical plans to meet the pre-agreed strategy’.

If the Syrian debate is seen as a victory for parliamentary democracy – the will of the people being expressed through their legislature – it must also bring into sharp focus the lamentable dearth of any definable national strategic narrative around which HMG could frame their wider diplomatic, military and political position. Whilst the British armed forces, as always, and within the bounds of their continually reducing capability, stood ready to carry out their orders, a majority of parliamentarians (arguably the British public too) were left unconvinced by the government’s case – the requirement for an overarching UK national strategic narrative having been ignored or dismissed by successive British administrations that prefer, for whatever reason, to react rather than pre-empt.

In the Syrian instance, HMG seemed largely content to rely upon an emotive and reactive ‘values’ based case, arguing that UK could not simply stand-by whilst international law was flouted and innocent civilians were gassed. However, without having first articulated or attempted to explain the wider strategic case to the British public – the crucial importance that international standing and credibility have in relation to UK’s national interests – HMG’s purely ‘values’ based case was somewhat lost in the noise of the debate. Indeed, without the firm foundation that an articulated cross party endorsed national strategy might bring, almost all foreign policy can be viewed through a sceptics eye, and trust, or lack of it, not the national interest, becomes the focus of the debate.

A national cross party dialogue into setting and articulating UK Grand Strategy would go a long way to excising the ghost of ‘Iraq 2003’ – helping to restore trust and credibility in the core of the British body politic. However, even if trust were not an issue, the defeat of the Prime Minister’s Syria policy in the House of Commons on 29th August 2013 should most eloquently demonstrate to him the importance that a United Kingdom Grand Strategy would play in the formulation and successful execution of government foreign policy.

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