During her trip to meet President Trump in January, the prime minister’s aides were struck by the frequency with which her presence stirred memories of Margaret Thatcher. As one US grandee put it: “It’s so good to have her back.”
Well, not quite. Resonant as it may be for Americans to see a female prime minister standing beside a Republican president, Theresa May is no clone of her predecessor. For a start, it is impossible to imagine Thatcher giving the speech that May did before she entered No 10 about the “burning injustice” faced by the disadvantaged. Nor is this prime minister an instinctive warrior-leader, yearning for her own Falklands moment.
So it is no surprise that her ministers have been endorsing Trump’s Tomahawk strike on Syria by praising its limited character. In the Sunday Times, Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, was quite specific that the president “made the right call by resorting to careful and narrowly focused military action”.
In the circumstances, Boris Johnson’s cancellation of his trip to Russia – presented by some as a grand humiliation of the foreign secretary – makes ample sense. For now, the showdown is between the US and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a client-state of the Kremlin. Vladmir Putin needs to hear a single message from a single envoy both about diplomatic possibilities and new realities. It is logical that this envoy should be Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state – a friend of Putin, dispatched both to reassure and to caution.
All the same, do not conclude from this that Britain is definitively on the bench this time, absolutely determined to avoid involvement should the US intervention intensify – which it may well do. As Trump spelled out in his letter to Congress on Saturday: “The United States will take additional action, as necessary and appropriate” – reaffirming the warning of Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, that “we are prepared to do more”.
Those who consider May incorrigibly opposed to broader UK involvement in Syria cite the speech she gave to Republicans in Philadelphia three months ago, in which she declared that “the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over”. Yet that was a single-sentence caveat to an otherwise robust reaffirmation of the US-UK military alliance. Having dismissed nation-building, May immediately asserted that Britain and America could not “afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene”.
She insisted that, while “it has been America’s destiny to bear the leadership of the free world”, the UK was “proud to share that burden and to walk alongside you at every stage”. She reminded her audience that “the UK-US defence relationship is the broadest, deepest and most advanced of any two countries”, and, quoting Theodore Roosevelt, refused to be numbered among the “cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat”. Hardly the words of a prime minister preparing to withdraw militarily from the world.
On this basis alone, I find it difficult to imagine May lingering on the sidelines if the US engagement escalates. Consider, too, the urgency of the bilateral trade talks with Trump’s regime – the centre-piece of the prime minister’s post-Brexit commercial strategy. Back to that under-examined speech in Philadelphia: in the midst of all this military rhetoric, she declared herself “delighted that the new administration has made a trade agreement between our countries one of its earliest priorities”. You would need a pretty tin ear not to catch the implication: allies do business with one another, in the market and on the battlefield. Such is realpolitik.
But there is also a strong, principled case for Britain to offer every form of assistance: diplomatic, humanitarian and – yes – military.
Since last Thursday’s missile strikes on the Shayrat airfield, it has become commonplace to disparage the attack as a tactic without a “strategy”. In truth, “strategy” is all we have had in the past six years. We have had “strategy” coming out of our ears. And where has it got us, and, much more important, the people of Syria? Red lines (ignored); the destruction of chemical weapons (evaded); humanitarian aid (thwarted); sanctions (inadequate); talks in Geneva (scorned). What has been lacking is not strategy, but will.
The central fact of the Syrian conflict before Thursday was that Assad believed he could do what he wanted and slay as many people as he pleased, by any means at his disposal. Now he knows that actions have consequences and even the patronage of Putin is no guarantee against retaliation. We must thererfore await his response, and that of his master in the Kremlin. Are we on the brink of a “quagmire”? Possibly. But, in case you haven’t noticed, all modern conflicts are quagmires: messy, multidimensional, protracted. No wonder the modern mind, with its mayfly attention span, recoils from such commitment.
But at least be honest. No less than intervention, inaction has consequences. More than 400,000 Syrians have been killed during this monstrous civil war, and almost 5 million have become refugees – uprooted and exiled, only to find themselves the subject of populist controversy in the west where they desperately seek sanctuary.
Trump is a contemptible figure: a shallow, bigoted impostor whose only access to the White House should be as a tourist. But he is also president, conceivably until January 2025. Do the Syrian people have to wait until the occupant of the Oval Office is someone the rest of us feel comfortable with?
More to the point: he was justified in doing what he did last week, and if the unfolding of this crisis compels him to strike Assad again, the UK should be at his side – not least as a guide through the thickets, as Athens to Washington’s Rome. Detest Trump all you like, but have the moral courage to see that, on this occasion, he is right. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.