Why Miliband is right to sit on the fence on Syria

Politicians, far more than commentators, have a moral and a legal duty to proceed with caution.

In his response to David Cameron's statement on Syria, Ed Miliband signalled that he was neither with the hawks urging US destroyers towards Damascus nor with the Stop the War protesters (addressed last night by Diane Abbott) declaring "hands off Syria!" He refused to "rule out military intervention" but also insisted that he would not be pushed into a decision today. "I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today," he concluded. Cameron needed to explain how intervention would affect Britain's wider stance on Syria (is regime change the de facto aim?), the UN weapons inspectors needed to report and provide "compelling evidence" that the Assad regime was responsible for the Ghouta massacre, and the approval of the Security Council needed to be sought (although, as he rightly noted, a Russian or Chinese veto should not be a bar to action). Until all of these conditions are met, it is too early to say whether military action is justified. 

For this stance, he is inevitably being denounced as a fence-sitter, as a flip-flopper, unfit to be leader of opposition and certainly unfit to be prime minister. But in a political culture that too often prizes certainty above all else, Miliband's honest expression of doubt was immensely refreshing (as well as in line with public opinion). Many of the same commentators who have openly struggled to reach a position are now denouncing the Labour leader for his equivocation. But politicians, far more than columnists, have a moral and a legal duty to proceed with caution. How many of the 412 MPs who voted for Iraq now wish that they had sided with those who called for the inspectors to be given more time? 

At some point in the next week, Miliband will need to decide whether to support Cameron's plan to take military action. But until then, who can argue with his assertion that it "is right to go about this process in a calm and measured way"? As he noted in the most important passage in his speech, "the basis of making the decision determines the legitimacy and moral action of taking action". Whatever stance Miliband takes, it will be infinitely more credible for being reached with patience rather than haste. In a repudiation of Tony Blair, who, in the infamous words of the "Downing Street memo", shaped the facts around the policy, he declared: "evidence should precede decision, not decision precede evidence." If I was leader of the opposition, I would want to wait until all the facts were in - and that is what a prudent Miliband is doing. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the New Statesman centenary party at Great Hall on June 20, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era