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Syria - not quite like the run-up to Iraq... but not that different either

The contrast ceases when it comes to the evasive justifications for military intervention

In Britain, the trauma of the calamitous war in Iraq has changed everything and nothing. The interplay between party leaders is incomparably different as they consider intervention in Syria. In the Commons today, once more recalled early to contemplate military action, leaders will be determined to show that they have learnt the lessons from recent history. Although often seeking to be Blair-like to the point of inauthenticity, David Cameron will deliberately avoid his predecessor’s evangelical tone, emphasising instead the narrow limits of the planned military involvement. Ed Miliband, who opposed the war in Iraq, will be cautious rather than gung-ho, in contrast to Blair’s opponent, Iain Duncan Smith, who was even keener to support President Bush than the then prime minister was.

Yet the imprecision of the language en route to war remains depressingly the same. The vaguely made assertions come down to the following claim: not acting is worse than acting. Yes, but acting in what form and to what end? What is the exact purpose of the proposed “strike”? What happens afterwards? Once more, Britain follows the US and, with big questions being posed, no clear answers are so far given.

But the domestic political calculations are transformed in the light of the past decade. Then, a wildly divided US administration responded irrationally to the September 11 attacks by seeking to invade Iraq. An insecure British prime minister calculated, in an unquestionably difficult situation, that he would be better placed supporting the US than opposing it. One domestic factor in his calculations was the indiscriminate support from Duncan Smith and the country’s most powerful newspapers. After Saddam was toppled Blair, famously hoped for a “Baghdad bounce” in the polls. He did not get one; and ever since, he has rationalised that, although he took boldly unpopular decisions, he hoped at the time – understandably – that they would prove, if not popular, then the least unpopular option.

Now, leaders are more aware that Britain has ceased to be a nation that instinctively supports wars. After the Falklands conflict, parts of the country appeared to admire Margaret Thatcher more for her being a war leader. In contrast, Cameron knows that he acts with most voters and some powerful newspapers against him. Even The Sun is wary. He will also know that there is no obvious moment of “victory” in this situation that might help him win a subsequent election. His case therefore deserves a hearing when he speaks in detail for the first time in the House of Commons today. With no obvious political benefits that might have swayed him, he must be advocating action because he is genuinely convinced that it is the best course.

The same applies to Nick Clegg, who has made a big move in offering his qualified support for Cameron’s plan. Perhaps the Liberal Democrat leader calculates that he has already lost the support of those voters who turned to his party because of its opposition to the war in Iraq. Nonetheless, this was the Lib Dems’ most distinctive stand in recent decades. If Clegg supports action in Syria, he must have some cause to do so, and he must also be convinced that the action has been clearly thought through. We cannot be certain that he has made the right judgement; he has proved gullible in his dealings with Cameron in the past. But it is not without significance that the leader of the Libl Dems sees some merit in intervention. There is nothing in it for him so he must believe it – although his predecessor, Sir Ming Campbell, has forensically and powerfully argued against action.

Meanwhile, the Labour leadership is predictably agonised, leaving itself the space to support or oppose. Even so, his qualified endorsement puts Miliband in a very different  place to that occupied by the Conservative front bench in the run-up to Iraq, when enthusiasm for military action was such that Duncan Smith made clear that he supported President Bush whether he went to the UN or not.

Blair – brought up in the 1980s, when Labour had been perceived as anti-American – was neurotically worried that Duncan Smith was close to leading Republicans and was determined not to give him the opportunity to be more pro-US than he was. In contrast, Miliband was openly against the invasion of Iraq. Now, he will be making a thousand calculations about where this whole issue will leave him as a potential prime minister. But in spite of the doubts about how Labour will vote tonight, that there has been any hesitation at all suggests Miliband recognises at least part of the case for intervention.

In opposition, Miliband faces even more dilemmas than Clegg does. The Tories, and the newspapers that support them, seek to portray the Labour leader as a vote-losing, 1980s-style lefty. Will opposing a strike provoked by last week’s horrors in Syria reinforce this image? Will qualified support seem more prime ministerial? Whatever the final outcome of the agonising, there will be none of the overtly hawkish proclamations from the Opposition that there were from IDS in advance of Iraq.

There is also another fundamental difference here. This drama is being played out, in the US and UK both, partly by figures who opposed Iraq. President Obama, the reluctant interventionist, takes the lead. The contrast with the expedient, simplistic evangelism of Blair and Bush is marked.

The contrast ceases, however, when it comes to the evasive justifications for military intervention and the all-too familiar unanswered questions. Post-Iraq, there may be more caution in British domestic politics. But still the “something must be done” tendency prevails, even if that “something” is ill-defined. Is the strike aimed solely at destroying Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons? What happens if and when Assad retaliates – do we strike again? Who are we supporting, given that the rebels include al-Qa’ida? What constitutes a successful military intervention? How long might it last? What happens if other countries in the region get involved?

The Government is characteristically hyperactive at the UN, but proposes a resolution that is as evasive as the one that was justifiably rejected by France and others weeks before the invasion of Iraq. The proposed text seeks authority for all “necessary” measures to “protect civilians from chemical weapons”. Once more, the questions are clearer than the answers. What constitutes “necessary” actions? The implication is clear that the military aim is limited to annihilating Assad’s chemical weaponry, but why is this the sole criterion for attack? What will the US, and therefore the UK, do if Assad uses other forms of slaughter – as he has done in the past and has indicated he will do again? Is murder with chemical weapons unacceptable but death by other means unworthy of the world’s attention?

Decisions about military intervention in the face of a murderous tyrant are always complex. In the UK they are complicated further because leaders face a secondary theme: do they dare oppose the US? But unless the answers to all the obvious questions are clear, then the dilemma resolves itself. While the risks of doing nothing are high, the risks of acting without knowing what will follow are higher still. In tone and in the publicly declared modesty of military ambition, British leaders have learnt some of the lessons from Iraq. But not, it seems, the most important one.