An old adage says that, if you have to walk through a dark and dangerous place, you should ‘talk quietly, and carry a big stick’. The government – and the foreign secretary in particular – seem to have modified this advice somewhat, by talking aggressively whilst carrying a twig.
The one reality that no-one seems to have raised about Britain’s aggressive stance over Syria is that the UK is in no position to use military force against the Assad regime.
Compared with the minimum number of about 300 cruise missiles needed to have a material effect, Britain can deploy a maximum of perhaps eight from a single Trafalgar-class submarine. Adding a handful of Tornadoes to this would make little or no difference. After the Labour administration stripped the Navy of its aircraft, the present government has completed the job by taking away the carriers as well.
What are we supposed to attack Assad with?
One cannot fail to admire David Cameron for his principled anger over the use of chemical weapons. His government is right to articulate anger, but not to threaten. It is difficult to imagine an action more heinous than gassing innocent civilians. Indeed, the only worse crime that comes to mind is that of carrying out a nuclear murder on foreign soil, heedless of the risk to innocent bystanders. Prior to the Syrian affair, though, William Hague’s most assertive language had been reserved for the Ecuadorians.
Many parallels have been drawn between the Syrian crisis and the invasion of Iraq. At least, in that instance, the then government had the partial excuse of being influenced by a gung-ho American administration. It is to be hoped that the Iraq invasion will one day make it to the silver screen. Given Hollywood’s love of sequels, The Madness of President George seems an obvious title.
This time around, Washington seems significantly more measured, and has provided no prompting for the aggressive language used, most noticeably, by Hague. France, of course, has been equally assertive, but the French do at least have an aircraft carrier to send.
If talking quietly and carrying a big stick is good advice, the most important step should be to recover the stick. This can happen, at the end of this decade, if both of the new carriers enter service, suitably funded and equipped with full complements of aircraft.
Until then, talking quietly should be the order of the day.