High cost of the Syria climb-down

It’s safe to say that it wasn’t a great moment. Prime ministers are never — really, in modern times, never — overturned in the House of Commons on great matters of foreign policy. I don’t think I could argue with the universal conclusion of my colleagues that to lose in this way on acting in Syria was a disaster. I don’t suppose David Cameron disagrees either.

I did, however, find myself at variance with two commonly stated views about what went on. The first is that the prime minister blundered. If only he had waited, or used different tactics, he would have been fine. The second is that it wasn’t the prime minister’s fault, he was cheated by Ed Miliband. I don’t think either of these things is true. Oh no, it was all much worse than that.

Talking to MPs during the day of the Syria debate, I realised that the prime minister would never be able to win support for action without Labour support. He might have won that day’s vote, but he would never have won permission to act.

And Labour support would never have been forthcoming. This was not because Ed Miliband was decisively against action (he hadn’t decided) and certainly not because he was duplicitous (an unfair accusation). It was because voting for action would have split his party, and he would always have tried to avoid it.

Every enemy of ours will take heart from the Syria debacle

So the problem wasn’t tactical or party political. It wasn’t about the day’s ups and downs and some people failing to hear the division bell. It wasn’t even about doubts concerning the evidence, since the evidence has always been perfectly clear. Or about needing to consult the UN, since the outcome of doing that has always been perfectly clear, too.

The vote was the reflection of a deep change in public and political mood. After Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a desire to retreat from the world. If the Arabs want to kill each other, let them. We can’t do anything. Except perhaps make things worse.

In America, something similar has happened. Barack Obama, having drawn his red line, has seen it crossed. Puzzlingly, he did nothing. Except to say that he was cross. And then he carried on discussing what to do for so long, that he lost control of the situation.

It has been an extraordinary sight. Just like the vote in Britain, the president was reflecting the public’s mood. This isn’t our fight, we are not a global policeman.

While it is possible, of course, to argue about the wisdom of acting in Syria, this more general mood should worry Jews. I have noted in The Times that my family owes its very existence — its survival — to the willingness of Britain and America to be global policemen. If those countries were not willing to connect their own interests with those living in distant lands, we wouldn’t all be here, it’s as simple as that. Your family may be the same.

A firm Western liberal leadership, and a public in Britain and America willing to make sacrifices for liberty, has been essential to the modern survival of the Jews.

Every enemy of the Jewish people – Hizbollah, the mullahs in Iran, Hamas, Al Qaeda – will take heart from any retreat by the West from leadership. And they are sure to have taken heart from what has happened over Syria.

Even those in the West who thought it foolish to act, and are pleased we haven’t done so, cannot escape the conclusion that by threatening to take action and then failing to do so, then stumbling into unintended and open-ended negotiations, we have shown ourselves weak and uncertain.

There will be a price for this. There always is. Unfortunately, it’s often the Jews who pay it.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

Last updated: 11:29am, September 17 2013