One repeated theme in the desperate series of events taking place in Syria is the dilemma facing leaders embroiled in them. Politically, so often doing what a leader believes to be right risks public perceptions of being a week leader
The struggles are clear if we look at the behaviours in the UK last week [August 24-30th] of Prime Minister Cameron and the leader of the Opposition, David Miliband as well as the impact on those of President Obama.
Early in the week, the bloodshed in Syria escalated in the deaths of hundreds of civilians apparently from a chemical weapons attack. President Obama had indicated earlier that use of chemical weapons would pass a ‘red line’ resulting in intervention by the USA. After the attack, the White House indicated that some military response would occur.
The House is recalled
Mr Cameron returns from holiday early and recalls MPs to the House for a motion backing direct action against the perpetrators of the chemical attack, and implicitly supporting the imminent US actions. Mr Cameron was at one with many Western commentators that the Syrian regime was responsible and that action to respond to ‘discourage and degrade’ future use of chemical weapons in Syria. Initially Mr Miliband supported the principle of military involvement. Both leaders also took pains to recognize the intervention in Iraq by Tony Blair was increasingly seen as ill-judged, and the public would need reassuring of the possibility of a limited strike without unintended longer-term consequences. As I write those words it seems inconceivable that Cameron and Miliband believed the military case that such a ‘hygienic’ strike was possible.
In a few days, the recalled members of Parliament had made it clear to their respective leaders that many of them would not support military action. Both back-pedalled. Miliband found a form of retreat that called for time, which Cameron did not seem to have if the American action were to be supported. Cameron proposes a watered-down motion seeking agreement in principle on military action, and promising further debate before actual action.
Defending the indefensible
Cameron skilfully almost defended the indefensible. Miliband had a bad attack of first night nerves. The subsequent debate was at times muddled. Some speakers seem to have stuck to their original drafts ignoring how the motion had changed. The mood of the house however was of individuals with honourable intentions to support or oppose according to conscience or argument, regardless of leadership intentions. Enough conservatives opposed the motion for it to defeated. Immediately, Cameron said he ‘got it’. There would be no UK support for US military action.
The American response
A few days later President Obama indicated that the intended action would be delayed, following a proposal put to his own legislators. It was widely interpreted as a response to the UK political debate
Doing right and appearing weak
What do I mean by ‘doing right and appearing weak’? The three leaders changed their positions during the period of a week. Obama had made the commitment to act in Syria if the regime crossed the red line of using chemical weapons. He believed he had the moral right to do so, and the support of the American public. He was risking appearing week by delaying. Now pollsters suggest the public considers him even weaker, although several commentators have recognized that his search for consensus in and outside The US is attempting to avoiding unintended consequences of action. [One defense was made by an earlier politician, ‘when events change, I change my mind, what do you do?’. The issue is more how often the leader changes]
Mr Cameron is judged weak when he tried to seek cross-party support for military action by offering a second vote so that in principle he could support any American action.
Mr Miliband quickly learned that he could not deliver opposition support to a military venture. It may have been a cunning plan on his part, but if so he looked thoroughly miserable as he spoke in the house to his new position.
It is rather easy to see how seeking consensus, and changing one’s position are seen as signs of a weak leader. Seeing what is the right course of action is altogether trickier.