LONDON, United Kingdom — President Obama must have been giving the British prime minister lessons in leading from behind. The two men spent much of Thursday together on the south coast of Wales, as David Cameron began to articulate the case for Britain joining a U.S. military response to ISIS in an uncharacteristically careful manner.
The last time the two leaders came to a personal agreement over launching joint airstrikes in the Middle East, Cameron’s disastrous handling of the crisis at home resulted in a humiliating defeat in Britain’s parliament, which ultimately stymied Obama’s efforts to win support in Washington.
Cameron had demanded an immediate vote on military strikes in Syria after spending several hours on the phone with Obama, but he forgot to check whether his fellow parliamentarians were going to support him. “Cameron ran out in front of Obama—he was desperate to lead the charge—and he tripped over,” a senior defense official told The Daily Beast.
This time the British prime minister has followed Obama’s more measured approach; Downing Street briefings have cautioned that there will be no action for weeks, that any intervention in Iraq would follow an invitation from the new government, and that no final decision had been taken. Crucially, however, government whips have begun to ask Conservative MPs how they would vote on two separate questions. First, would you support airstrikes in Iraq? And, more contentiously, would you be in favor of striking ISIS in Syria?
In public, Cameron went so far as to make the case that intervention in Syria would be legal under international law even without President Bashar al-Assad’s blessing because his government was illegitimate. He insisted that no options were off the table when it came to putting a “fatal squeeze” on ISIS.
Cameron and Obama held 40 minutes of talks focused on ISIS during a trip to visit a local school, where Obama asked the kids if there were still dragons in Wales. After intensive discussions in the motorcade, a British government source said there was a “clear determination to confront ISIL,” and a White House spokesman described the consensus as a “shared determination to confront this threat.”
Neither side would describe British plans to launch military strikes on the record, but it was clear that Cameron is paving the way for strikes, which are ultimately expected to be approved in Westminster.
The British government is keen to supplement potential airstrikes with increased assistance for the Kurds, who they are willing to arm if the Iraqi government approves, and a renewed mission to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
“Airstrikes on their own—particularly if they are deemed to be airstrikes by the West against the rest—don’t work,” said Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister.
Discussions about targeting ISIS continued at a working dinner hosted inside the imposing Cardiff Castle on Thursday night as the U.S. and Britain attempted to widen the coalition of military support. London and Washington know it is vital to secure backing within the region. Obama showed up late to the NATO session on Ukraine because of talks he was holding with King Abdullah of Jordan about ways to combat ISIS.
Cameron also used the dinner to call on European allies to end their practice of paying ransoms for the release of their citizens when kidnapped by terrorist groups, including ISIS. Britain and the U.S. argue that it can encourage further abductions as well as helping to fund acts of terror.