Flawed decision-making processes in Pennsylvania Avenue and Downing Street

President Obama is not thrilled to assert American power around the globe. His worldview is peaceful, contra Bush. But when Assad crossed the red line by using chemical weapons, Obama decided that this gross human rights violation justifies intervention for variety of purposes: to declare loud and clear that this is not to be done; to punish, and to deter.

Once he decided to attack Syria, the first phone call was to the American closest ally, the United Kingdom. PM Cameron explained that the British public is not supportive of opening yet another battle zone. Britain is still licking its wounds afterIraq, and is still Image

losing soldiers in Afghanistan. Cameron thus explained that he would need to seek Parliament’s support. 

Obama understood. He told Cameron: do whatever you need to do. I am not interfering with your business, but do this fast. We need to strike while the iron is hot.

Obama was oblivious to Cameron’s constraints and to the public mood in Britain. He somehow confused the American presidential system, where the president possesses broad powers, and the British parliamentary system, where the prime minister has to reckon far more closely with parliament. Obama did not understand that while he can strike the iron whenever he wished, Cameron simply cannot. He needed time to orchestrate political support. Cameron should not have been pushed into an immediate decision. This was a major mistake on Obama’s part. It was also a gross political mistake of Cameron.

Cameron initiated debate in Parliament. Meanwhile, Labour understood this was a golden opportunity for them to undermine and embarrass the prime minister. Labour knows that the British public is very reluctant to intervene. The prevailing view is: we know when and how war starts. We do not know when it will finish. Thus better not start at all.

Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, sent an email message to all Labour members, explaining that in a few days there will be a debate in parliament regarding Syria, and that he wants to have a feel for Labour members’ preferences. Miliband asked several questions: first, whether or not Britain should attack Syria, yes or no. For those who answered positively, more questions were asked: whether Britain should wait until the UN special inquiry mission, at that time still in Syria, should be allowed to leave Syria prior the attack; whether Britain should wait until the UN special inquiry mission publish their report; and finally, as Assad claimed that it was the rebels who used chemical weapons, whether Britain should wait for confirmation that it was indeed Assad who used weapons before attacking the Alawite regime.  

Even people who in principle support attacking the brutal Alawite regime would concede that Britain should not be rushed into action before getting concrete assurances that Assad was behind the chemical attack. And surely the public would not like to risk the lives of UN officials. Time should be allowed for them to leave Syria. Cameron, who sought quick affirmation, realised he made a gross mistake. Unsurprisingly, not only that the entire Labour MPs opposed the attack, but Miliband was able to convince enough coalition members that quick attack was unwarranted. PM Cameron’s motion was defeated. Cameron was humiliated. Miliband gained many brownie points for his political astuteness. It was a political triumph for Labour and very sad news for the Syrian opposition. Continue reading “Flawed decision-making processes in Pennsylvania Avenue and Downing Street”