Peter Oborne is back in his David-Cameron-is-not-Disraeli-he's-mad mode this week. He accuses the Prime Minister of losing the plot over Syria. As always, the ghosts of Iraq stalk this debate even though the two problems are scarcely comparable. For that matter, I'm not sure it is fair on Cameron to suggest that, after Libya, the Prime Minister has become war-crazy.
Yet I was also struck by something the estimable Tim Shipman reports today:
Mr Hammond was recently present when backbenchers suggested that the Tory leadership could do with ‘a small war’ to distract attention from party discontent over Europe and gay marriage. ‘It had better be a very small war,’ the Defence Secretary said.
Needless to say, this is a very silly way of talking. Even in jest. Banish too the unworthy thought that the Defence Secretary can appreciate how an intervention in Syria would burnish his case for resisting further cuts to the already squeezed defence budget.
Mr Shipman reports that the cabinet is divided - but as we shall see, not evenly - on the wisdom of supplying arms to the Syrian opposition. Those in favour of doing something include the Prime Minister, George Osborne, William Hague, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond. In the wait-and-see camp you find Nick Clegg, Sayeeda Warsi, Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve, Justine Greening and Chris Grayling. With all necessary respect to Ken this is a clash between heavyweights and welterweights. It's not difficult to forecast how it ends.
Despite that, those ministers advocating caution at least have the advantage of knowing what they do not know; those pressing for action cannot plausibly make the same claim.
We may, in fact, have passed the point at which western intervention seemed feasible. The argument for action is much the same as it was six months ago; the costs and potential risks of intervention have only increased since then. Escalating a war seems a queer way of ending it.
But if the argument for intervention failed six months ago (and fail it did) it is difficult to see why it should prevail now. The only things to have changed are that we know rather more about the opposition groups than once we did and many more Syrians are dead. The first of these developments should make us cautious; the second implies that there is a mysterious figure of "permissable" deaths beyond which a policy of icy inaction becomes untenable.
Perhaps so, but it behoves those in favour of intervention to explain precisely why this is the case. They have not yet done so. I fancy the Prime Minister believes there is now some moral imperative justifying action and, contra Peter Oborne, I don't think that makes him mad. But if this is what Cameron believes he should make his pitch in a forthright fashion. Again, he has not yet done so. Perhaps because he knows this argument is unpopular and because, again, he cannot be sure his own instincts are correct in this instance. If Syria was not a problem solvable by western intervention last year, what has changed to make it so now?
And so we drift towards intervention without knowing exactly what we can do, why we are doing it, what we hope to achieve from it or what might constitute a successful, or rather, acceptable outcome. None of this is encouraging.