The British public no longer trusts its politicians on foreign wars since being led to war by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Tony Blair staked the reputation of British politics, British intelligence services and the Special Relationship on his assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the British public has not forgotten. When no weapons were discovered, he was left looking like a charlatan who had taken the country to war on false pretences. Thousands died, the region was destabilised and the dark forces of Islamic extremism were able to manipulate events for propaganda purposes against the West and to influence the weak-minded.
There are many reasons why David Cameron should fear being regarded as the “Heir to Blair”, but no more so than in his need to gain public support for military action in Syria. David Cameron is of course a very different man from Tony Blair, to start with he is a member of a different political party. His reasons for wishing to launch air strikes in Syria are not because of uncertain intelligence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction that are alleged to be an imminent threat to the U.K. No, his reasons are humanitarian and are because chemical weapons have already been used.
David Cameron is however faced with very similar problems to Tony Blair – a close vote in Parliament, unpopularity of military action in the country and Security Council members opposed to action (with poor human-rights records of their own). The UK, the US and France are relying on the duty to protect that falls to the UN since the Rwandan genocide and the UK government has legal advice to the effect that to intervene for humanitarian reasons is legal even without a UN resolution.
It is not clear whether Assad’s regime at the highest level was responsible for using chemical weapons while UN weapons inspectors were in the country and near to the site of the attack. It is of course possible a rogue commander on the ground acted unilaterally. It has also been alleged that some rebel groups are trying to get hold of chemical weapons. It is not at all predictable what the fallout would be of Western air strikes and whether retaliation would result in a strike on Israel and then a conflagration across the region (Lebanon is already being pulled into Syria’s War).
What is clear is that the British public has lost its faith in the political class when it comes to going to war. Politically it is not feasible that David Cameron would act as he can legally in British law and simply launch strikes by use of the Royal Prerogative. Since Blair held the vote on Iraq, Parliament will now always be consulted. That may not be enough to reassure the British public.
You do not have to be an expert in Middle Eastern politics to understand that removing that hideous tyrant Saddam Hussein destabilised Iraq and the region, giving a foothold to Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda-in-Iraq in rebellion against the new pro-Iranian Shi’ite government. Many voters will feel we are again heading down the same road. It is clear even to the most casual observer that the removal of secular military tyrants in the Middle East does not mean an alternative of liberally-democratic parties taking power, rather political Islam is moving in, whether in Egypt or Tunisia. In Syria minorities, including Christians, depend upon the Ba’athist regime to protect them from Islamism.
Of course, there is a case to be made that the purpose of military action is to send a message that the use of chemical weapons is a moral Rubicon that should not be crossed. The Government is proposing joining air-strikes as a punitive response to the chemical attack, not as the beginning of a process towards regime change. The British public though will be very hard to convince. If air strikes lead to a worsening of the situation and a chain reaction, ending in the replacement of Bashar al-Assad’s regime with an Islamist government with control of chemical weapons, then the British public will not forgive the political class and the level of distance between the nation’s politicians and the nation will become even more of a chasm.