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Why the war in Syria will not be David Cameron’s Iraq

The Prime Minister has not learned the lessons of his predecessors

By John McTernan  

Protesters hold a CND flag in Parliament Square in London, during a demonstration against the proposed bombing of the Islamic State in Syria.

It is increasingly clear that the most influential political slogan of the last two decades was “Not in my name.” Made famous in the marches against the Iraq War, in its relentless solipsism it is the definition of politics in our consumeristic age. It’s long march through the institutions may have culminated in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. He was the choice of members so scared that Labour might do something in government that they disagreed with—electing Corbyn meant that there was no fear of gaining power, preventing betrayal in the most decisive way possible.

But the marginalisation of Labour as a mainstream party by its own members should not blind us to the fact that David Cameron is the most successful exponent of “Not in my name” politics. Starting with the first Syria vote in 2013, the Prime Minister has outsourced his policy in the Middle East. Initially to Ed Miliband who was blamed/credited for preventing action in Syria. The truth was that the Commons was for action—just not in the precise terms set out by Cameron at that time. Eventually, the Prime Minister put the issue in the hands of the House of Commons where—despite his own parliamentary majority—he asked for a promise of a clear majority in advance of even tabling a motion.

In the event the PM got his majority. Courtesy of the worst and the best of Labour. The worst was Jeremy Corbyn’s shambolic and contemptuous treatment of the Shadow Cabinet, the Parliamentary Labour Party and party conference. The best was the sheer nobility of Hilary Benn, proving that he can channel his father’s rhetorical skills if not the content of his rhetoric. The speech of a lifetime—and of a generation in the Commons. One that may well have saved Oldham West and Royston in the by-election. One that certainly saved David Cameron. For the Prime Minister could not find a voice in this debate. Could not explain, let alone inspire.

For those who see rhymes in history this was a rerun of Iraq and, in particular, the vote to go to war. If it was repetition, it was surely in a Marxist vein. The Marx of The Eighteenth Brumaire: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” We have had the tragedy. That was, and still is, Libya. Remember that? British bombs helped overthrow Gaddaffi, but the misinterpreted and self-imposed lesson Cameron took from Iraq was not to put British “boots on the ground.” Unable to resist his own Bush-like “mission accomplished” moment, Cameron did visit Libya for a victory lap. But he has never mentioned it ever since. Libya’s collapse into chaos and the exploitation of its ungoverned space by Islamic State shows that the true lesson of Iraq was—not enough boots on the ground for the patient and painstaking work of post-war reconstruction. (Think, in contrast, how long there was a British Army on the Rhine). But Cameron never mentions it. Think about the difference with Blair—not only does he still defend his decision on Iraq, he still sees the forthcoming Chilcot Report as a chance to make the case for what he chose to do. Not for him the backflip, revisionism or just plain silence of Cameron.

The fight against IS will be a slow grind. It requires informers and infiltration—which given the hundreds of British jihadis, should not be beyond the wit of the security services. It needs physical force too. Bombing is obviously part of that but secure areas cannot be kept secure only from the air. Ground troops are essential—Kurdish peshmerga were needed to clear and hold land. And the reconstruction needed in Syria demands, at the very least, a much more muscular aid response than Britain normally musters. Ten million Syrians have to be rehoused and rehomed—and a pathway to rebuilding social, civil and economic life has to be found. None of this, though, is at the forefront of David Cameron’s mind. He just doesn’t want to be responsible—not in his name.

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