As the full horror of events in Iraq dawn on a seemingly unprepared international community, the spectre of last August’s parliamentary vote on military action in Syria – in which the government was defeated – continues to stalk Whitehall. According to news reports, ministers are unwilling to risk a repetition. It is necessary to lay this particular ghost to rest.
There was no need to seek parliamentary approval for any military action. Constitutional authority lies with the government. It is, of course, essential that governments are scrutinised and held accountable for their actions by parliament but government must not abdicate its responsibility to act as the national interest requires.
The government lost the Syria vote for two reasons. The first, simply, was that not enough work was done to inform and prepare MPs for the debate. The second was that the prime minister trusted Ed Miliband, whose cynical, partisan and self-serving behaviour was yet further evidence of how unsuited he is to hold the highest office.
The issue at stake over Syria was one of upholding international law. Our credibility in the west was damaged as a consequence of our inaction.
None of this should stand in the way of a tough and thorough response to the current crisis in Iraq. Isis poses a threat to our collective security. (I believe that calling the group by its chosen name, the Islamic State, is a political mistake.) Their twisted, barbaric and brutal behaviour towards the civilian populations that they encounter is tragically visible on a daily basis. Their aim of establishing a caliphate that runs from Syria to the border of Iran threatens a potentially catastrophic destabilisation of the wider region. Not only would such an entity be a global magnet to the psychopathy of jihadis but it would encourage and train those who would commit atrocities such as the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on our own streets.
If this analysis is correct, then we must act in all ways required to defeat the threat, including arming our allies in the region to our sufficient degree and joining the US in taking direct military action to diminish the military capability of our enemy.
It is reported that the prime minister’s instincts are to be more interventionist. If that is correct, then Mr Cameron should follow those instincts. Those who advise that it is dangerous to act counter to public opinion need to be ignored.
The danger of remaining in the political comfort zone is twofold. Firstly, public opinion is fickle and one outrage in full view of the media can quickly prompt angry questions about why nothing has been done. The more worrying outcome, however, is that the predictions about the potential threats become fully realised and irreversible. In that scenario those who failed to act in proportion to the seriousness of the risk would, rightly, be held accountable.
There are already a number of questions that need to be answered by western governments, including our own. It had been apparent for some time that the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, was failing and that this was widening serious ethnic divisions. Sunni jihadis have been progressing through much of Anbar province for months. What were our intelligence services telling us about the increasingly dangerous conditions on the ground? What were our diplomatic services in Iraq and its neighbouring countries telling us? The argument that we did not see this coming, and that the success of Isis has taken the group itself by surprise, are simply not credible when we look at the sophistication of their planning, funding and communications.
All these questions will need to be answered and parliament will want to scrutinise the responses fully, but this should not prevent us from immediately taking whatever action is needed to deal with the threats we face. After Syria, there will be those who wonder what our word is worth, both allies and enemies. We cannot afford to blink twice.