Last Thursday’s historic debate over military action in Syria and the use of chemical weapons was dominated by the debate of ten years previously over military action in Iraq and WMD. In his speech, David Cameron said the “well of public opinion had been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode”.
Cameron’s implicit argument was that because Tony Blair is now seen as having misled the country - deliberately or not - in 2003 when he took it into a disastrous war, the public are now so suspicious on these issues that they wrongly and illogically disbelieve him, Cameron, in 2013.
The fact that parliament voted overwhelmingly to support military action over Libya in 2011 suggests that the Iraq effect can be exaggerated.
It is not that “the well has been well and truly poisoned” but that politicians and the public have, as a result of Iraq, become much more aware of the issues and much less inclined to accept the word of those in authority. So, when Cameron put forward an argument supported by a flimsy intelligence document and a summary of, rather than the complete, legal advice they were not prepared to simply trust his judgement.
“No 10” was guilty of dragging the Syria issue into the gutter around 7pm on Thursday night, when the debate was still continuing and after they must have belatedly realised they could lose. It was reported that “No.10” was saying that Ed Miliband was “giving succour” to the Assad regime. The remark was made by Craig Oliver, Cameron’s director of communications.
The issues at the heart of the debate in the Commons were factual ones. Were chemical weapons used? Who used them? What would our military intervention entail? What did we hope to achieve? What was our back-up plan? And so on.
Oliver’s accusation had no relevance to the matters in issue. It was simply a desperate attempt to smear Miliband and his position.
The position in Syria and the use of chemical weapons is complex and there are no easy answers. The good news is that the experience of Iraq has made more people and politicians able and willing to engage with the issues and so has forced those in authority to provide more evidence to back up what they claim rather than saying “just trust us”. The bad news is that the prime minister’s director of communications felt it appropriate to resort to infantile abuse and has not been asked to apologise by his boss.