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It was inevitable that any conversation in Britain on foreign intervention would take place in the shadow of the Iraq War. To sell that war to a reluctant public, Tony Blair’s government fabricated a threat, presented it as imminent and prescribed urgent action. Humanitarian rationales were added afterward. The threat, as many had suspected, proved false, and the war, as everyone feared, created a human catastrophe. The British public, which had opposed the war, felt betrayed. A lesson was learned.
Both sides invoked Iraq in last week’s parliamentary debate. But the only lessons that were drawn were politically serviceable ones. In insisting that Britain must not get involved in “another Middle Eastern war,” the Labour Party implied that Iraq was a disaster due less to Labour’s mistakes than to the intractability of the Middle East. In blaming Blair’s “dodgy dossier,” the Conservatives ignored their own party’s complicity in sanctioning an unnecessary war. Both overlooked the fact that just two years ago, with near unanimity, the House of Commons approved the use of force against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The lessons of Iraq were no less valid then and the current situation in Syria is direr.
With the exception of some fringe figures, neither side in the debate denies that the regime’s atrocities are ongoing. This wasn’t the case in Iraq: in 2003, Saddam Hussein’s worst atrocities were more than a decade behind him. But last week’s debate in parliament wasn’t concerned with human rights — it couldn’t have been, since the British government was selling chemical agents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as late as January 2012. The focus was narrower: on the use of chemical weapons in defiance of the “red line” that President Obama claimed the Assad regime could not cross. The evidence for their use, past and present, is substantial, but parliament showed greater caution than it had in the case of Iraq, where only possession was alleged. Because of “Blair's trickery,” writes journalist Brian Whitaker, “the level of proof required for military intervention is not merely high (as it should be) but unrealistically high.” Even though the Joint Intelligence Committee ruled out the possibility that anyone other than the regime might have carried out the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, the parliamentary opposition insisted on a smoking gun.
For the British public, the lessons of Iraq have congealed into dogma. Skepticism has hardened into cynicism. Governments have changed, but public expectations of chicanery remain — not entirely without reason. The different reality on the ground in Syria has done little to shake the conviction that a government calling for a foreign intervention must be distrusted. But many have extended this skepticism to include the supposed objects of the government’s humanitarian concern. Even as they reel from the serial atrocities inflicted upon them, Assad’s victims have been routinely demonized by Britain’s leading antiwar groups. For over two years, Britain’s Stop the War Coalition has sedulously cataloged each of the opposition’s crimes while carefully eliding the regime’s serial atrocities. Even in the case of the May 2012 Houla massacre, it unsuccessfully tried to blame the tragedy on its victims. Some of its stalwarts have gone so far as to call on Russia and China to veto any U.N. sanctions against the regime and to praise Moscow, the regime’s main arms supplier, as the sole bulwark thwarting imperialist neo-colonization.
The British public is horrified by the atrocities it witnesses on television. But it is willing to dispense sympathy only on pure victims. Ordinary people with common flaws who haven't turned the other cheek find less sympathy. Iraq’s “lessons” have combined with oppositional propaganda to render both Syrian suffering and motivation suspect.
An ideological barrier
The “Lessons of Iraq” — as opposed to the war’s actual lessons — have become an ideological barrier to thinking. Of the many lessons Iraq taught, only two are fundamental: one must not hype threats that don’t exist, and one must not introduce war where there is none. The former diminishes public trust; the latter creates human suffering it is supposed to prevent. Neither is applicable to Syria. The regime has shown both the capability and the willingness to deploy proscribed weapons, and Syria is already at war. There are legitimate reasons for being skeptical of interventions; they nearly always have humanitarian conceits. All actions have unforeseen consequences — and where they involve military force, the Hippocratic wisdom of “first, do no harm” remains valid. But inaction too has consequences. If Assad suffers no sanction for using chemical weapons, it can only embolden him and encourage greater ruthlessness. Which particular agency acts is irrelevant so long as a forceful response is delivered. The "imposition of a sustained cease-fire" that the International Crisis Group recommends is of course preferable. But absent an enforcement mechanism, it is little more than an empty platitude.
British commentary on Syria's use of chemical weapons has been remarkably blithe.
Force is not the only solution to the Syrian crisis. But without the credible threat of force, it is unlikely that the side that enjoys a military advantage would commit to serious negotiations. The Obama administration and American commentators have stressed the importance of military action for restoring U.S. “credibility.” But in this instance, U.S. credibility is also bound up with an international norm against the use of poison gas. It has been nearly a century since the Germans first deployed chemical weapons in the Battle of Bolimov. Other warring parties also embraced the practice during the course of World War I. The results were catastrophic. After the war, the international community proscribed their use. The taboo proved strong enough to survive even the greater ruthlessness of World War II. The Iran-Iraq War and Saddam Hussein’s 1988 gassing of the Kurds were anomalies; the prohibition has largely held. It would be a tragedy if Assad were allowed to establish a new norm and the Lessons of Iraq overturned the hard-learned moral of the Great War.
The implications of the vote in the British parliament go beyond the question of intervention. The United Kingdom has forfeited its capacity to influence the international debate. The setback has also sent a dithering President Obama into an embarrassing retreat.
Deferring military action to congressional vote might look like a gain for democracy — especially given the routine abuse of executive authority on other occasions — but it spells disaster for Syria. Obama had drawn his “red line” with the seeming conviction that it would not be crossed. But his bluff has been called. He now hopes Congress will help him save face. If Congress votes no — as seems likely — the U.S. will lose diplomatic leverage as well.
Meanwhile, Assad retains the balance of military power on the ground, and Russia holds the Security Council hostage with a veto. In Britain, the concern over Syria was quickly eclipsed by debates about the domestic political consequences of the vote and its implications for the country’s “special relationship” with America. Prime Minister David Cameron’s overconfidence cost him dearly; opposition leader Ed Miliband was presented with an opportunity, and he eagerly seized it. Days before the vote, an ICM Research poll had found Miliband’s approval rating at 21 percent. A political mediocrity, he had ended up as leader of the Labour Party by default, as a result of a belated anti-Blairite backlash. But by failing to effectively challenge Cameron on the economy and by picking an unnecessary fight with the unions — Labour’s traditional support base — Miliband appeared to be on a well-deserved path to obscurity. The vote seems to have resuscitated his career. He was even treated to an editorial encomium by The Guardian.
Miliband has offered no principled opposition to war. He was responding entirely to domestic political considerations. He voted against war but at the same time stated his readiness for it. He dabbled briefly in populist posturing, claiming to be standing up to the U.S., but was quick to reiterate his commitment to the “special relationship.” The response from Washington, however, was unenthusiastic. The vote occasioned a symbolic demotion in Britain’s status. In his speech laying out the case against Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry made no reference to the United Kingdom. His elevation of France as “our oldest ally” rankled all those for whom the “special relationship” had been a pillar of British foreign policy. Some commentators mourned its demise.
These obituaries are overblown. Winston Churchill, the man who coined the phrase “special relationship,” always knew it was an aspiration more than a reality. "No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” said Churchill of his efforts to gain U.S. support on behalf of a country beset by Nazi Germany. Britain will doubtless woo again, and the U.S. will let it run political errands when needed. The relationship will recover its specialness; but both states will come out of the Syria crisis diminished.
Opponents of intervention have rejoiced the outcome of the British debate. But in celebrating their domestic triumph, the implications for Syria have been forgotten. Commentary on the use of chemical weapons has been remarkably blithe. Those who oppose intervention claim that they do so because of its potential for escalating the ongoing civil war (a euphemism for state repression). But if the U.S. follows Britain’s lead, Assad can only take it as license for further escalation. In turn, the Gulf states will certainly redouble their support for the opposition. The consequences will be more sectarian violence and an expansion of the conflict. State authority will be harder to re-establish in Syria; the fragmentation of the country will become likelier. An externally imposed solution is less egregious than dooming Syria to prolonged war.
Iraq taught many useful lessons that should not be forgotten. But as Rory Stewart, one of the more astute observers of British foreign policy, notes: “The alternative to grand interventions should not be simply inaction.” The analogy that is relevant is not Iraq in 2003 but in 1988. The lesson that matters is Bosnia.