Tonight in the Westminster village feelings must still be running high, less than twenty four hours after David Cameron’s failed attempt to bring the UK into the burgeoning civil war in Syria. Political commentators have, with a little callousness regarding the human side of the intervention debate, already begun discussing the permutations of Parliament’s decision. Both for Cameron and Ed Miliband, the vote has had unexpected consequences.
British policy towards Syria has entered a phase of limbo. With the strategy of intervention shot through the sails and listing badly, Cameron and Hague must find a way to save face with their allies in the wider international community without alienating domestic voters – polling show the British public is largely against any intervention – or further weakening their power at Westminster by overriding MPs. Miliband on the other hand escaped relatively lightly, for if the vote had passed he would either had to back intervention having seen his move to delay such an event defeated or continued along the line of opposing any British military action, to the detriment of his already low international standing. What is clear however, from the perspective of both main parties, is that the shadow of Iraq and Tony Blair has once again fallen over British politics.
It is surprising, given his role as a UN Middle East ‘Peace Envoy’ that Blair had, prior to yesterday’s vote, not featured majorly in discussions concerning Syria. Yet perhaps, given the increasingly stark similarities between the lead up to the Iraq war and the current crisis, he has chosen to avoid the limelight. Once the widespread use of chemical weapons was confirmed however he was, albeit unwillingly and with no new action on his account, going to influence the politics of this intervention, a decade since the death of liberal imperialism in Iraq.
For Ed Miliband, who served his political apprenticeship under Blair and will never shake his association with New Labour through his Blairite older brother, it has been imperative to avoid looking like the former Prime Minister. Labour has gone to great lengths since the 2010 election to distance itself from New Labour, the election of a new leader based on Trade Union support and at the expense of his arguably more qualified sibling is testament to this. To stand firmly behind a military solution would be to undo all of this work. However unlike in Iraq where, despite literally dozens of previous UN resolutions against the House of Hussein, the potential use of chemical and biological weapons was the main argument for war in Syria such weapons have already been used. Therefore to stand in unmoving opposition against intervention would not only give Miliband the appearance, in the words of one Syria refugee talking to Channel 4’s Lindsey Hillsum of ‘a heart of stone’, but may also alienate him from the international community. Unlike in 2002/2003, there is a wider European consensus supporting some form of action, with the alliances between the Assad regime and Russia and China driving the only opposition on the UN Security Council.
Ironically, having to dance between these two dangers has lead Miliband to play Chirac to Cameron’s Blair, tabling a motion to block military action by asking for more time and evidence to decide. Much like the French government did at the UN in the run up to the Iraq war. The irony doubles when it is considered that the current French government is firmly behind military action and US Secretary of State John Kerry called France ‘our oldest ally’ today without mentioning the presumably now damaged special relationship.
For Cameron the legacy of Iraq has resulted in a different set of political risks. Having privately given President Obama his support, losing the vote will only serve to further undermine the Obama/Cameron relationship which, at its best, is certainly no Blair/Bush or Thatcher/Reagan affair. However, since Iraq both public and political opinion has been firmly against foreign intervention in the Middle East. While the international backing the Anglo-French intervention in Libya received help surpass this opposition, the split of the UN Security Council over Syria made the job of the coalition’s top brass much harder. Unfortunately for Cameron, the similarities between Iraq and Syria appear to have been too great. Faced with another open-ended intervention, a regime accused of terrible crimes against its own people and a known breeding ground for terrorists, Parliament still said no.
Yet the Blair legacy may have a more insidious and longer lasting impact upon Cameron. In the words of journalist George Eaton, ‘somewhere Tony Blair is thinking ‘If I was still Prime Minister, I would have won that vote’. Cameron’s failure to sell involvement in what is arguably a more justified conflict than Iraq puts him in the shade compared to Blair. Despite having (marginally) greater international support for intervention in Syria, hard evidence of the use of chemical weapons upon innocent civilians and a tepid anti-war movement compared to the multitude that flooded the streets of London the day of the Iraq war vote Cameron failed to make his case. What is worse is that the vote was lost despite a three line whip, with Tory rebels tipping the balance rather than an effort from Labour to win over Liberals. Perhaps the pace of the vote, calling Parliament back from recess before John Kerry’s statement today or the formal report of the UN weapons inspectors, played a part. Blair, by comparison, rose to the occasion, delivering one of his finest moments of political tradecraft in the face of much greater opposition and with less concrete foundations for his argument. Even at the time aspersions were being cast over Saddam’s WMDs. On the international stage in particular, Cameron might well end up becoming the man who couldn’t do what he wished and who let his allies down. Again, this is a charge that cannot be levelled at Blair. Certainly as the first Prime Minister to be defeated on a vote regarding foreign policy in living memory, Cameron can hardly be regarded as a masterly political operator.
History may tell us, as some commentators have already suggested, that in invading Iraq the UK fought the ‘wrong war’. There is also no certainty that intervention in Syria from the air, with the chilling prospect of a direct standoff between American and Russian military hardware in the Mediterranean, will have a lasting effect on the civil war. With no desire for all out regime change in Washington, a limited set of air strikes to drive Assad to the negotiating table is the best case scenario. However, as the crisis plays out there is at least one certainty. There will be no direct British involvement in whatever happens in the coming days and weeks.