The Ghost of Iraq haunts Obama on Syria as British Parliament Defects

The heavy propaganda for an Iraq War waged by the Bush administration and the Blair government in 2002-2003 came back to haunt the Anglo-American alliance on Thursday when the British parliament voted 285 to 272 not to authorize a military strike on Syria. While the government of Prime Minister David Cameron could theoretically have proceeded nevertheless, Cameron pledged that he would abide by the will of the British people as expressed through their elected legislature.

In 2002-2003, then PM Tony Blair alleged that Iraq had weapons that could menace Europe and could be deployed in 45 minutes. To this day, I have no idea what he was talking about. The head of MI6 came back from a meeting in Washington and alleged that the intelligence was being fixed around the policy (of seeking a war). There were allegations of a “dodgy dossier,” a government file of bad intel presented to parliament. Bush’s chief of staff Andy Card said of the deceptively quiet August of 2002 that you don’t launch a major new product in August. In September, the Bush administration tried to scare the world into thinking that Saddam Hussein was on the brink of having a nuclear bomb. Breathless allegations were made. Iraq was training al-Qaeda in use of chemical weapons. Iraq had VX poison gas. All lies. It came out that Blair and Bush discussed the possibility of trying to get Saddam to shoot down a UN-flagged aircraft as a provocation justifying military action.

It is the classic story of the boy who cried wolf.

The British members of parliament who debated whether to take action against Syria were obviously haunted by the mistakes of the Iraq War and determined not to repeat them.

The case of Obama and Cameron against the Syrian government has some holes, but it isn’t a bad case. But it involves murky allegations of weapons of mass destruction use by an Arab regime, and a unilateral Anglo-American shock and awe aerial attack. It looks way too much like Iraq, and there is no telling where it might lead. Britain is not very far from Syria and the repercussions of an attack could be significant. Britain also has a significant Muslim minority population that is die hard set against an attack on Syria.

The vote puts President Obama between a rock and a hard place. The formerly solid Anglo-American solidarity has been broken. Obama does not have the Arab League and he does not have the UN Security Council. He does not even have a consensus on the European continent.

Obama should pivot now and choose vigorous diplomacy over a military strike. The latter will now have no legitimacy in international law, and would not be supported even by the British parliament.

The duplicity of Bush and Blair has deeply injured faith in government, even on the part of members of government. Their use of the high-flown rhetoric of protecting helpless populations from tyrants and deflecting dire threats of WMD cheapened those endeavors and trivialized them They bent the sword of state and rendered it useless in any similar situation.

47 Responses

  1. Hooray for Parliament, and my own MP, Speaker John Bercow, who chaired the debate with his customary skill.

    I note that John Kerry’s reaction, without a trace of irony, was that the USA could not be held to the foreign policies of other countries.

  2. Aware of CIA instigation of the violence in Syria 2 years ago, through the likes of Eric Prince, I doubt that there is any good case to be made by any of the perpetrators – Obama, Donlin, Panetta or Clinton – for making war on Asad.

    Assad is bad; having been point man on an overture in 2003 to loosen up Syrian civil society, I appreciate that more than most. In 2000, he could have been a bold leader and established a new order; instead, he let his father’s henchmen like al-Sharaa run the show.

    But in these last 2 years, the USA has done more harm to the Syrian people than the al-Assad government, and they know it. The FSA, a non-Syrian Mercenary force of salafist takfiris, is our Frankenstein.

    The Chem Weapons meme is as phony as that “intercepted” phone call. Obama should drop it.

    If Obama wants Syrian society and culture destroyed, he should find someone else to lead the effort. Greece and Portugal might be suceptible to bribes.

  3. I suspect that the UN General Assembly is more concerned about the US flouting international conventions on land mines, small arms and cluster bombs, than they are about Syria’s 40-year-old inventory of poison gases.

    It would be unwise for Obama to take his shaky case to them, to the US Congress, or to any other bellweather of public sentiment, unless he wants to be reined in so he has an excuse for not acting unwisely.

    This rejection of US hegemony by the British people could be a watershed moment.

  4. About 90% are against intervention in the UK. Conservative MPs in marginal seats had to choose between being kicked out by the voters in the next election or defying their leaders. The people do not want another war, not in the UK, not in the US, not even in Israel.

  5. Thank you once again, Juan, for an excellent analysis.

    You say “Obama should pivot now,” and lay out a wise course to follow.

    The next few days and weeks will answer the question of whether the highly-institutionalized and centralized organs of the modern American national security state still have any ability at all to consider a different course of action than bombing and dissembling — the preferred courses of action that their ideological postulates have led them to again and again in the recent history of America’s involvement/hegemony in the Middle East.

  6. “The duplicity of Bush and Blair has deeply injured faith in government, even on the part of members of government. Their use of the high-flown rhetoric of protecting helpless populations from tyrants and deflecting dire threats of WMD cheapened those endeavors and trivialized them They bent the sword of state and rendered it useless in any similar situation.”
    Yes, indeed. They happen to face the same people now as back then who´ve learned a lesson or two about shameless lies in the meantime. Even when you´ve studied history and know how well even much worse lies like “Poland invaded Germany” and its likes worked, it was still hard to believe something like that could happen in your time, before your eyes, and your oh so independent press was powerless against it. It really did happen, though. But hey, people might be indifferent if the imposed suffering takes place far away from their homes, but they are not endlessly naive and stupid in terms of what´s right and what´s wrong. Gives me hope.

  7. I watched several hours of the debate over here in Britain and was surprised that the government lost the vote. I have been watching our debates for over half a century and I can honestly say there have been less than ten occasions when the government actually lost a vote. It was close this time with a majority of just thirteen. Cameron was visibly furious and William Hague, our foreign minister, was practically crying in his porridge. I believe he and Cameron enjoyed their march of triumph into Libya so much, that they wanted to do it again in Syria.

  8. Although little has been said or made of it, it is a fact the British people were very unhappy about the dirty trick played by Cameron and is side kick Hague FM, when they ordered an all out attack on Libya. As you know, the original intervention in Libya was to be just a no fly zone. The appalling way Gadaffi died and the sheer lack of concern by our government about this event also stuck in the throats of much of the electorate over here. This time at least 85% of the British population are against any intervention by us in Syria. So it wasn’t just the ghost of Iraq, although this was much quoted in parliament . There was a feeling here that Cameron and Hague were looking to grandstand again to get that feeling of greatness, power, and elation they had when they went on their march of triumph into Libya. At least some of our members of parliament have got some balls and told Cameron where to go. Pity you folks in America don’t have a similar mechanism to do the same !!

    • Well said, John Wilson. It is Libya which is the hovering issue, which politicians would rather not mention.

  9. I left the U.S. (as I swore I would) 6 weeks after Bush pulled the trigger.
    I knew it was all a lie; Scot Ritter laid out the whole thing, along with many whose names I can’t remember.
    Only an idiot or a brainwashed individual could deny the facts that were and were not there.
    From that point on; I have never trusted (or believed) a thing from the U.S. government.
    I’m goddamn 68 years old and was brought up on honesty, integrity, and the U.S. constitution. I was also educated in the biggest propaganda machine in the free world; the U.S. school system.
    But I was very fortunate; my parents were “free thinkers” and taught me and my siblings critical thinking.
    Hammer to nail; the U.S. is failing on all fronts and I see no way it’s not going down: Not from outside threats but from internal rot!

  10. What if recent history had played out differently? If Al Gore would have won the presidency instead of GW Bush I doubt seriously he would have invaded Iraq or Afghanistan. The first World Trade Center bombing was handled correctly as case for the police/ FBI to bring the perpetrators to justice, without launching a war.

    What if McCain and Palin had won instead of Obama? I fear he would have already bombed Iran, creating a depression due to skyrocketing oil prices, and the debate to bomb Syria would only be to what degree. As a former pilot shot down over Viet Nam he would have no reservation about sending pilots into hostile territory.

    • “If Al Gore would have won the presidency instead of GW Bush I doubt seriously he would have invaded Iraq or Afghanistan.”

      Al Gore would have done whatever was in Al Gore’s interest, and with Senator Joe Lieberman (Likudnik-CT) transitioned to VP a war on Iraq under Al Gore would have been possible. Al Gore showed his true colors when he was prepared to sell little Elian Gonzales down the Miami River to get the Cuban vote instead of reuniting this little boy with his father.

    • Gore would not have gone to Iraq and/or Afghanistan? Has Nader ever conceded that? If not, I certainly don’t.
      Neolibs like Hillary and Pelosi have proven time and again they are alsmost as hawkish as neocons. The ONLY candidate a Democratic antiwar activist, and left-liberal on other issues could have trusted and voted for is Dennis Kucinich. Dean? No, not even Dean.

      • Gore probably would have attacked Afghanistan. That’s where the actual 9/11 attackers were based, and that makes some sense even to a liberal like me. But he, unlike the neocons, had no agenda about attacking Iraq. Big difference.

  11. Maybe less the boy who cried wolf, who per the fable at least the last time was not lying, and in most versions paid a penalty for his idiocy.

    Maybe more “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.”

    Considering what a “muscular foreign policy” has cost us and the rest of the world, a quarter of our wealth and more and millions dead, displaced and demoralized, with zero promise of any improvements to the General Welfare, maybe it’s time the “sword of state” gets at least half beaten into plowshares, and reduced to more of a Bowie or even Swiss Army Knife…

    link to nytimes.com;

    and also

    link to theatlantic.com

    • Thank you JTM McPhee, that is exactly the comment I was going to make. Mr. Bush is the litte boy who lied wolf.

      The fact that neither he nor any of his fellow conspirators have never been brought to account for the war crimes they committed prohibits the USG from playing the “moral conscience” card.

  12. “The head of MI6 came back from a meeting in Washington and alleged that the intelligence was being fixed around the policy (of seeking a war)”
    All knew that Iraq was exhausted and not a treat except to her own people. Saddam knew that all knew this. That was why he hesitated to give in and leave. They wanted to take out Saddam and build a new nation for Iraq. The excuses were transparently dishonest.
    The nation building in Iraq failed and that is because nation building was already obsolete and the Iraq experience proved it.

    Now Obama is going alone. This will prove that things will be done like this in the future.

  13. “It is the classic story of the boy who cried wolf”
    That story ends with the boy being eaten by a wolf because no one comes to his aid when a wolf does attack, right? Do you want to raise that as an additional concern? What menace does this make us — whoever that entails — potentially vulnerable to?

  14. C-Span callers have swung violently against Obama this morning. Even Donald Rumsfeld thinks this is a dumb idea!

    I’m waiting to hear that the guns of August have gone silent.

  15. I’d like Obama to have congressional approval for military action in Syria. I’m not sure what limited military action against Syria might have, in terms of limiting its use of chemical weapons. I would favor action to bring about an embargo on military weapons for Syria. All of that said, the longer this mess in Syria continues, the worse things will get for the Middle East and the U.S. I wish NATO would come up with a serious plan to force the warring parties to come to a cease fire. Realistically, the Syrian regime has little incentive to negotiate given the current situation, and that is deeply frustrating.

    • when you suggest an arms embargo,
      are you thinking of applying it to all sides of the conflict, or just the one being caricatured by the Obama Administration ?

    • You’re way off, Mario. Why not an embargo on Saudi and others sending takfiris to Syria? Nato? It shouldn’t even exist; it should have been disbanded when the Warsaw Pact collapsed. I guess you’re in favor of the embargo on Iran too. It seems you are more concerned about the Moscow-Hezbollah-Damascus-Iran bloc than anything else. Israel likes your attitude.

    • “I’d like Obama to have congressional approval for military action in Syria.”

      That might make the attack on Syria Constitutional, but it would still be immoral and illegal attacking a country that is not attacking us. But I suppose with all the protagonists on both sides morally bankrupt anything goes.

  16. Usually, bad presidents manage to damage their country only for their terms, perhaps will a litter spillover into the next term.

    The US, and the world, are going to be recovering from the Bush presidency for decades.

    • Would Reagan be among the exceptions to that rule that I don’t think many here would agree with anyway?

      • I was talking more about bungling than pursuing (successfully) a policy direction I don’t like.

        Reagan certainly wasn’t my cup of tea, but he wasn’t, for the most part, a screw-up.

        Bush screwed up the case for Iraq, the occupation of Iraq, the handling of Katrina, the federal budget, the financial system…it just goes on and on. He didn’t get the outcomes he wanted, which I didn’t want. He set to accomplish certain things, and completely fell on his face.

  17. Dear Professor Cole

    1 Chemical Weapons are of no military use against a modern army which is equipped and trained to operate in an NBC environment.
    2 Use of Chemical Weapons by anyone against civilians or insurgents or other forces is a war crime, or a crime against humanity
    3 The lack of progress on, or obstruction of, establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East is an affront to humanity.

  18. “The [British] vote puts President Obama between a rock and a hard place.”

    This may have been Cameron’s plan – make Obama look like a dupe.

    Britain is a country that tells it citizens that basic domestic social programs were not affordable for the last five years, but that there is now money for another useless war.

    Britain’s entire military is about the size of the US Marine Corps – it is too small to project military might around the world. British jets could not reach Libya without the American tanker fleet operating out of Moran AB, Spain. Even with this assistance, Britain ran out of bombs after two weeks.

    For every cruise missile the US fires at Syria, 30 Americans will not be able to afford college. Just think what the $6 trillion wasted in Afghanistan & Iraq could have done if spent domestically.

  19. “Obama should pivot now and choose vigorous diplomacy over a military strike.”

    Sounds great. So what exactly is “vigorous diplomacy” Juan? What additional steps would you take that have not already been tried and self-evidently found wanting?

    Maybe you are thinking of “coercive diplomacy”, diplomacy coupled with the threat or actual use of force?

    • This was what I wanted to address as well. I’m having a tough time even imaging what kind of ‘vigorous diplomacy’ is going to prevent people from being gassed in the near future, but I’m certainly open to hearing a realistic scenario.

  20. A ‘do nothing’ approach is license for Assad to continue using chemical weapons, maybe with some frequency, and possibly with greater potency.

    Most people are at a loss for a diplomatic approach that has not already been tried and ahs failed.

  21. Did Cameron asked to have his resolution defeated ?

    Did Obama ask Cameron to have the resolution defeated ?

    Both options strike me as politically desirable and appealing because they allow our leaders to practice their subterfuge skills.

  22. “Obama should pivot now and choose vigorous diplomacy over a military strike. The latter will now have no legitimacy in international law,…”

    When was the last time “international law” dissuaded the United States government from any aggression it had in mind?

  23. You argue for humanitarian aid in Syria, but that would seem to argue for a Somalia-type outcome. There is substantial less risk to American personnel from an Operation Desert Fox type strike than from creating no-fire zones and refugee enclaves.

  24. Professor Cole,
    Having served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam (31 May 1967 – 31 May 1968), I saw the human face of war on the wounded grunts and, just as importantly, the wounded Vietnamese civilians at the base hospital. So Vietnam was the crucible which stamped me for the rest of my life, and it is the prism through which I view our foreign policy decisions.
    I totally agree with your astute analysis that the Syrian civil war eerily reminds one of the civil war in Vietnam. It was undoubtedly the worst foreign policy debacle in our nation’s history and deeply scarred even now the body politic’s consensus on foreign policy decisions in our country.
    Somehow, despite two military misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, our country had been blessed that it has avoided igniting the tinderbox in the Middle East. Perhaps, our country is historically approaching a tragic reckoning with history. That is what really worries me as a Vietnam veteran.
    As the diplomat George Ball, the lone dove in LBJ’s cabinet, warned that president over and over again as he contemplated an escalation in the civil war in Vietnam, Events are in the saddle and ride mankind. He told LBJ it would be quite easy to jump on the back of that tiger. But he asked LBJ rhetorically, when and how do you dismount that tiger?

  25. The boy who cried wolf is the most powerful factor here. Having so thoroughly incorporated lies and aggressive misinformation into their personal and governmental platforms, no one is believable. Assad, Obama, Bush, “The Wolf” Wolfowitz, Netenyahoo, NSA, the list goes on and the after affects, just like long term radiation, just won’t go away. Shouting boys or wolves all around and enthusiastic media attention to both. The American ideal shows itself as tattered and tawdry when Putin’s high ground position and cojones are top international news, and China’s economic and business outreach shows itself to be more effective than US military outreach, while Obama continues to row the boat of imaginary middle ground compromise behind the scenes. What is it that so reliably makes the protective DC bubble a cage? What voter sector is Obama hoping to placate by attacking Syria? I can’t think of any humans, only artificial humans, the ones that eat dollars and don’t need food, water, or air.

    I see the NSA has started paying networks for surveillence access, pulling from the imaginary bank of American childrens’ debt, and the networks have grudgingly accepted. Another closed circle income stream with unlimited growth potential and no oversight, a pyramid lover’s wet dream: unapproved human debt of future generations to secret accounts to other secret organizations with profit as rule one, all supervising each other secretly. Or not. What kind of regulatory hoops did the NSA have to jump through to construct that kind of dollar geyser? Can I have one too? I could use some spare cash. Could everyone have one? How about just the poorest American families, out of a house and a job gone offshore and living in their car, who need the most help? Or is the access boundary human vs artificial human? Better idea: a VAT on all surveillence. Proceeds to national debt reduction of course. I can feel a laugh coming on.

    link to theatlanticwire.com

  26. Everything has context. Bush’s war and its aftermath has forever set the intelligence bar higher. Cameron, a mindless tool, overshot and got outmaneuvered. Hopefully, it won’t be long before the electorate dumps him. Now Obama has to get Congressional approval. If he can’t get the UN’s backing – Russia and China remain obdurate — it’s up to him to enlist as many allies as possible. Even then, any attack will be viewed as illegitimate unless the Arab League switches gears.

    Which means we’re back to square one. More diplomacy? Sure. Whatever. I’m all in favor of diplomatic ways to resolve the crisis but good luck with that. Edward Luttwak’s piece the other day probably sums up the likely scenario for the foreseable future: More fighting ahead.

    Side comment: I don’t know the right course but allowing a scummy tyrant to drop gas on people he doesn’t like to get away with it is a scary harbinger.

  27. I thought the parliament vote was only to wait to hear the UN Inspectors’ report. How can they vote to not take action AT ALL, even regardless of the report?

  28. Professor Cole,
    There are approximately 85 banks in Syria that are connected to the SWIFT system. It would not be difficult to disable global interbank transactions between companies and banks in Syria and elsewhere. An action of this sort would be a clear signal to the regime in Syria re it’s trajectory toward CW.

  29. I gave the “evidence”, or rather ‘assertions’, of John Kerry a good faith reading. Another scenario has to be considered based on that telling of the tale: a conventional artillery barrage hit a chemical cache, perhaps even of munitions of the govt’ or rebels ACCIDENTALLY.

    Bottom line? No direct link to Assad was even attempted by Kerry.

  30. The personification of evil, Tony Blair’s legacy will live long. Shame that no-one told him the story of Peter and the wolf when he was young and less evil. For him, as long as wars are for Christianity, they are just.

  31. Interesting trivia: An American-French operation would be the first bilateral military action by those two countries since the Battle of Yorktown in the American War of Independence.

  32. Here is a foreign policy to try in this situation: bring up the issue of Russia and Iran supplying weapons to a country that has used chemical weapons. Initiate a debate in the UN security council on this subject. Push for a weapons embargo or even a blockade.

    This would put us on the right side of the issue. It would shame the Russians and Iranians on topic where there is wide acceptance; the non-us of chemical weapons. Most importantly, we would be using diplomacy and not bombing anyone.

  33. Research the American and British responses to the Iraq nerve gas attack in Halabja against Kurds in March of 1988. 3,200 to 5,000 Kurds were killed and many suffered permanent injuries.

    It was virtually non-existent. The British expressly felt that any action against the Saddam Hussein regime would only harm its own interests; and the U.S. felt basically the same way.

    The U.N. Goldstone Commission Report found credible proof that the Israel Defense Forces committed war crimes during Operation Cast Lead against Gazans by its indiscriminate use of white phosphorus, a toxic chemical agent; similar findings were made by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International after diligent investigation. Yet the U.S. cast the lone deciding vote in the Security Council against taking further action against Israel. Same rationale – let us not critcize an ally or a state whose interests are aligned with ours.

    Iraq and Israel got off scot-free basically for probable war crimes. Why take military action against Syria?

  34. One thing not really pressed; ever since the UN was founded there have been/are presently factions of U.S. political scene who strive to disengage from the UN altogether.
    I seem to recall the Bircher’s were adamantly opposed to U.S. membership and historically there have been calls to break away from the UN; always radically right wing in nature.
    It seems they have finally won and it’s a bloody democrat who is handing them this victory.
    We’re just going to ignore the UN and do whatever the hell we please; who the hell will stop us?
    The rest of the world could, but seem timid to act…

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