Wars leave a profound imprint on the public consciousness and we are always at risk of allowing the experience of our most recent conflict to cloud our judgment about the events of the day. The horrors of the First World War led to the policies of appeasement and disarmament which then contributed to the Second World War. The world did too little, too late in Rwanda and in Bosnia but was then too ambitious in its intervention in Iraq.
Tony Blair has a lot to answer for. He did not behave as a British Prime Minister should and poisoned the well of public trust in their leaders over matters of war. The debate last Thursday in Syria was laced with constant references about the need to “learn the lessons of Iraq.” However, having listened to the debate, rather than learn the lessons of Iraq I think Parliament was repeating the mistakes we made in the Balkans and that is why I voted in support of action.
The military intervention proposed by David Cameron did not compare with Iraq. We would neither be trying to change a regime, nor to impose some Western style democracy. There would be no British troops committed to the region. There would be no risks taken with British pilots. Instead, there would be one clear and modest objective: to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons which have been subject to a worldwide ban since 1925 and the use of which is a war crime. The most likely response would have been delivered through a Cruise missile strike to destroy Syria’s own Scud missile facilities which were being used for the chemical attacks. This would have been a very limited intervention rather like the successful Anglo-French action in Libya two years ago and nothing like our engagements in Iraq which were hugely ambitious.
In the Balkans twenty years ago, the world did too little too late. The diplomatic establishment stood on the sidelines insisting that nothing could be done, reciting the ancient adage that you should not “mess with the Balkans” and fearful that they might upset Russia. As a result around 100,000 people were killed, 8000 men and boys were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995 and an estimated 30,000 women and girls were subjected to systematic rape which was used as a weapon of war. There were lots of “what if?” doubters at the time who cautioned against involvement but when we did finally intervene in Kosovo in 1998, we actually found it was a relatively simple operation that should have been done far sooner.
There are only three countries in the world that have the military capability to stop the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria: Britain, America and France. As Britain votes to sit on its hands, it now falls to France and the United States to do the right thing.