‘Showing leadership’ over Iraq is fraught with dangers for David Cameron

The public and parliament will no longer blindly support gung-ho action

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The pressure grows on David Cameron to show “strong leadership” in relation to Iraq. Former army leaders call for military action that goes beyond humanitarian aid. Some Conservative MPs do so as well. Parts of the media frame Cameron’s response to the unfolding horrors as the ultimate test of his authority. Events raise the temperature. When a likely British national is linked to the gruesome killing of an American journalist the crisis in Iraq moves closer to the UK.

Ed Miliband has been wondering whether this crisis, in all its various dark manifestations, would be the overwhelming theme and challenge of his period in power if he were to become Prime Minister. More immediately, the calamity in Iraq will top Cameron’s agenda when MPs return to parliament next month.

The prospect of military intervention highlights more vividly than any other the degree to which Cameron leads in a hung parliament. Given that his party did not win an overall majority, Cameron’s will has prevailed on a remarkable range of domestic issues, implementing changes on the radical right that Margaret Thatcher would not have dared to even contemplate. It is easy to forget he is a Prime Minister without an overall majority. But after the calamitous 2003 war in Iraq, Cameron is unavoidably constrained.

The pressures on a Prime Minister now are almost precisely the opposite of those that Tony Blair felt he was under as a Labour leader. Then Blair assumed he would appear weak if he could not show he was ready for war - a Labour Prime Minister capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with a US President. Now a Prime Minister must have a much stronger case for intervention in alliance with the US, or with any other country.

The assumption that voters or Parliament would support a seemingly ‘strong’ Prime Minister at times of conflict no longer applies. Blair might have looked under terrible pressure in the build-up to the 2003 war, but he knew that Parliament would back him because the Conservative leadership was more gung-ho than he was and he hoped that once the war got under way the voters would also support him, as they did for a time. Cameron and future Prime Ministers cannot work on such assumptions.

As I argued a fortnight ago, the vote in the Commons against military action in Syria made it improbable that Cameron would seek to recall parliament this summer. The vote followed the interruption of the recess exactly a year ago. Since writing that column I note quite a lot of revisionism from those who are still furious with Labour and Conservative MPs who dared to vote against military action. The revisionists argue that the failure to support military intervention in Syria has led to the rise of ISIS. Last summer ISIS detected weakness in the UK, with the vote in the Commons, and then the US. In effect the revisionists blame Ed Miliband for the rise of ISIS in Iraq because he voted against military action.

Miliband might have been in a state of agonised indecision in the build-up to last year’s vote on Syria, and is perhaps similarly tormented now about what to say in relation to Iraq. But in stopping hasty, vaguely planned missile attacks on Syria, Miliband and the dissenting Conservative MPs were learning the lessons of recent history rather than ignoring them.

The debate from a year ago is worth revisiting. Opponents of military action were precise in their concerns. None were opposed to intervention in any circumstances, but they sought a degree of clarity about the purpose of this particular proposed action and suggested that more time should be given to explore options. There would be no rush to war as there was in Iraq when the military action began while the weapons’ inspectors were pleading for more time and diplomatic options had been far from exhausted. The dissenters in the Syrian debate were not insular or weak. Rightly, they were setting a higher bar before Britain went to war again.

Rather than exposing the recklessness of the Commons vote, the nightmare in Iraq reinforces the case for considered, forensic caution. ISIS was part of the opposition seeking the removal of Assad in Syria. Almost certainly ISIS acquired arms from Assad’s opponents, including the US. Now I hear some former army leaders and diplomats argue that the US in particular must engage with Assad in order to defeat ISIS in Iraq. Such a prospect could not have been contemplated if the US and UK were currently at war in Syria. None of the dissenters in the Syrian debate were claiming that they expected the world to be suddenly a safer place. They are not daft and know that not intervening also has consequences. Quite simply they were not convinced by the specifics of the planned intervention and voted accordingly.

Cameron still has some space to act. The case for limited military action is unrecognisably different from the invasion in 2003. Then a war was instigated to remove Saddam, although for some time President Bush and Tony Blair argued that their crusade was aimed at removing Saddam’s weapons and not the tyrant. Now there is no interest in removing a regime in Baghdad. On the contrary, there is hope that at some point an elected leader will show the capacity to work with all the factions in the divided country, but also a fear that no such leader will have the appetite or the means for such a unifying mission.

Any military action would be aimed solely at weakening militants who carry out acts of extreme violence. Polls suggest that opposition to intervention is nowhere near as great as it was in the build-up to the 2003 war. Formidable opponents then such as the Liberal Democrats’ Sir Menzies Campbell have not ruled out support for limited military intervention. Cameron has yet to make a compelling case and he may never be in a position to do so, but it is not impossible that he could win support for military action in certain circumstances.

This has been the summer of appalling images and terrifying conflict, but the context in which a Prime Minister takes decisions about going to war is much healthier. The burden of proof is on those that want to intervene as much as those who are opposed. Strong leadership no longer means sending our boys to war with fingers crossed and without reflecting deeply on what might follow.

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