LONDON: Prime Minister David Cameron may have won an unexpectedly decisive election victory in May, but he has yet to convince Britain’s allies he is a globally engaged foreign policy player.
Washington watched with alarm as Cameron presided over a downgrading of Britain’s military and diplomatic muscle during his first term, culminating two years ago with his loss of a crunch parliamentary vote to authorize air strikes on Syria.
“Our concern is a Great shrinking Britain,” one senior U.S. diplomat bemoaned recently.
Stung by such talk, Cameron is banking he can now convince his country’s Parliament to vote to join U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS militants in Syria.
He calculates such a move – not expected until after the summer – should re-establish his international statesman credentials.
After fighting an unusually parochial election campaign, he has begun to talk up his foreign policy ambitions, declaring at a summit of world powers in Germany last month that Britain was “back.”
He then pledged to keep defense spending at NATO’s target of 2 percent of GDP, a policy he had initially resisted committing to because of his desire to cut Britain’s sizeable budget deficit.
But the memory of his humiliating 2013 parliamentary defeat over taking military action against Syrian government forces – seen internationally as a sign Britain was retreating from the world – still rankles.
“The damage it did was far and away greater than any of us expected, and it has hung on this leadership ... he is trying to distance himself from that embarrassment,” Michael Clarke, director general of defense and security think tank the Royal United Services Institute, told Reuters in an interview.
Clarke said the fact that Cameron narrowly avoided presiding over the break-up of the United Kingdom at last year’s Scottish independence referendum, and his demands for changes to Britain’s relations with the European Union ahead of a membership vote, had also damaged his standing.
“His international reputation isn’t that high ... so he has got quite a lot of bouncing back to try to do,” Clarke said, adding that Cameron’s pledge not to seek a third term means he now has an eye on his legacy.
“He wants to personally restore his image as a world leader of some importance, not [be seen as] the coalition prime minister who presided over a retreat on all fronts.”
The political situation has changed since Parliament’s 2013 vote on Syria. Back then, Cameron was seeking approval to target Syrian government forces in retaliation for their suspected use of chemical weapons. U.S. President Barack Obama eventually called off the strikes after Syria promised to give up its chemical arsenal.
This time, the target is ISIS, which has beheaded British hostages and whose followers claimed responsibility for a Tunisia attack in June in which 30 British holidaymakers were killed. The government says it poses a direct threat to Britain.
Britain has sent jets to participate in the bombing raids by a U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, but not in Syria.
The limited role is a big change from Britain’s position as Washington’s main battlefield ally under Cameron’s predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, when tens of thousands of British troops served in Afghanistan and Iraq and more than 600 died.
That heavy cost has made the British public reluctant to back new military action.
But a YouGov poll this month found 57 percent of Britons would back the Royal Air Force joining strikes in Syria, compared to 21 percent who were opposed.
Scarred by the ultimately unsuccessful vote of 2013, Cameron is taking a more cautious approach at building support this time.
Earlier this month, he invited senior opposition Labour Party lawmakers to a national security meeting to be briefed on the ISIS threat. He is not expected to push for a vote until after Labour has elected a new leader on Sept. 12.
“If we lost the vote again it would be game over for Britain. The prime minister won’t do it unless he is sure he can win,” said a senior government aide, describing Labour as “skeptical but persuadable.”
Good will among lawmakers was dented last week, however, when the Defense Ministry disclosed that British pilots embedded with U.S. and Canadian forces had already taken part in airstrikes in Syria without lawmakers’ knowledge.
That prompted some politicians to complain that the will of Parliament had been ignored. Several lawmakers Monday said the government would need to do more to persuade them of the merits of Britain extending military action to Syria.
“You can’t take Parliament with you if you keep Parliament in the dark,” said Labour defense spokesman Vernon Coaker.
Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who said it was illogical to target ISIS in Iraq but not Syria, said the high precision missiles Britain’s Tornado aircraft fire was one of the reasons its allies were keen for it to join the action in Syria.
Yet while bombing Syria may go some way toward resurrecting Britain’s global clout, U.S.-led forces are hardly short of firepower, and the addition of British aircraft is not likely to make a major difference to the mission.
Critics say gains by ISIS in both Iraq and Syria show the limits of the U.S.-led strategy of bombing from the air, and that Western ground forces may be needed.
Cameron and Fallon have repeatedly said there is no question of British “boots on the ground.”
But David Richards, former chief of Britain’s defense staff and commander of international troops in Afghanistan, said the issue of British ground troops would need to be revisited if no progress was made in the next year.
“The current strategy is essentially one of equipping and training others to do the hard stuff for us. I think that could work, but the scale of effort going into it is woefully insufficient,” Richards told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
“If you really want to get rid of them, we need to effectively get on a war footing.”