That delay is a huge tribute to the Prime Minister. It is a recognition of the role he has played in leading the response to the atrocities of Assad of Syria. It is also, frankly, a reflection of the quandary we all face. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the forces of the Syrian regime have indeed used chemical weapons, and killed hundreds of civilians in an act of utter savagery. I wrote in this space a few weeks ago of my deep anxieties about our getting embroiled in Syria — and I still have them.
But to use gas for mass murder is a crime that we cannot allow to go unpunished. It is no use saying that we let Saddam get away with using chemicals at Halabja: so we did, but doing the wrong thing once is no justification for doing it again. Nor is it relevant that the Americans used defoliants and napalm in Vietnam. Even if you accept the moral equivalence, one form of barbarism does not legitimate another.
This was a peculiarly nasty attack on innocent people, and the most likely account seems to be that it was perpetrated by Assad’s sinister brother, in the belief that it would teach rebel communities a lesson they would never forget – and that the West would never get round to a response. As the debate in Parliament showed, there was some shrewdness in that view. It is thankfully very difficult to get democratic politicians to vote for military action. They require hard facts, and there are still many questions to which the answers seem vague at best. There are some who say that the gas was unleashed not by the Assad regime, but by rogue elements.
You will find plenty of seemingly authoritative reports on the web — mainly emanating from Russia or Iran — that suggest the chemicals were in fact in the possession of the rebels, or had been supplied by the Saudis. There may still be some who are puzzled as to why the regime was so arrogant and insouciant as to use chemicals when they knew the weapons inspectors were nearby. All these questions can no doubt be answered — and perhaps already have been — but you can see why Obama would want them properly masticated in a debate.
Then there is an even more difficult question: what does the “strike” consist of, and what is it meant to achieve? Is this a slap on the wrist, or six of the best? Or is it regime change? The world needs to hear how Obama’s plan will be commensurate and effective — and that discussion will now take place in Congress. If the President can articulate such a mission, I doubt that US legislators will stand in his way.
There is one British figure that excites the unanimous scorn of all American politicians, and that is Neville Chamberlain. The Americans have a horror of appeasement and the notion of failing to stand up to dictators. After due consideration, I bet Washington will endorse a limited and punitive strike against Assad — provided it can be shown that the intervention will not escalate and provided there is no hint that it will lead to boots on the ground. By then, too, the evidence against Assad may have solidified.
The UN will have had longer to report. If there is new and better evidence that inculpates Assad, I see no reason why the Government should not lay a new motion before Parliament, inviting British participation – and then it is Ed Miliband, not David Cameron, who will face embarrassment. The Labour leader has been capering around pretending to have stopped an attack on Syria – when his real position has been more weaselly.
If you add the Tories and Blairites together, there is a natural majority for a calibrated and limited response to a grotesque war crime. I predict that by the end of this episode it will be Labour that looks divided, and David Cameron who looks the statesman. In the meantime, the West has longer to weigh up the two evils – doing nothing and doing something. That is a delay for which we can thank the British Parliament, and proof (if you really needed it) that Britain matters a great deal.