Sunday 1 September 2013
The discredited justifications that preceded the invasion of Iraq still dominate British and American perception of military intervention in Syria. In a similar way in the 1930s, popular revulsion at the lies and exaggerations of First World War propaganda meant that the first accounts of Nazi atrocities were treated with scepticism.
Unsurprisingly, people who feel they were swindled into war 10 years ago by bloodcurdling accounts of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction are dubious about their government’s claim that President Bashar al-Assad’s army used poison gas on a mass scale on 21 August. All the questions that should have been asked in 2003 about Iraq are being asked about Syria: what is the evidence for chemical weapons? How partial are the sources of information? Why should Assad do something so much against his own interests? Would a limited air assault on Syrian military bases deter him from using chemical weapons again, supposing he used them this time, or would it be the first step towards ever-deeper British and American involvement in the war?
All these are reasonable questions and many of them have reasonable answers. Unlike Iraq, it is known that the Syrian army has large supplies of chemical weapons such as sarin and that a mass attack took place. A hundred videos show the dead and dying. Doctors diagnosed the symptoms of gas poisoning. It is highly unlikely that the opposition had enough chemical weapons to simulate a government attack in order to provoke foreign intervention.
Of course, the use of poison gas was always likely to provoke the United States into action, something Damascus has been desperate to avoid for two years. But this does not mean they did not do it. Stupidity and miscalculation have shaped many wars. Recall that General Reginald Dyer believed he could quell Indian nationalists and strengthen British rule in India by ordering his soldiers to open fire at a demonstration in Amritsar in 1919, killing 379 people (other figures suggest 1,000 died). Whose bright idea was it to police a protest march in Derry with British paratroopers in 1972 on what became known as Bloody Sunday?
What is curious about the past week is the extent to which so many, especially the media and the British Government, misjudged the continuing rawness of the wounds inflicted by the Iraq war. I was in Baghdad for much of the conflict but I was always struck on returning to Britain by the lasting sense of outrage over the decision to go to war expressed even by the most conservative and non-political. As with the Munich Agreement in 1938, it has entered a deep layer of British historic memory, perhaps because people feel they were not only misled but lied to by their own government.
The parliamentary vote and opinion polls show that British governments have exhausted whatever capital of public trust they possessed when it comes to military ventures in the Middle East. Intelligence reports confirming that Assad used chemical weapons simply jog memories of past deceptions such as the “dodgy dossier” of 2003. Credibility lost then has never been regained. The government is like the little girl Matilda in Hilaire Belloc’s poem of that name who, having previously called the fire brigade falsely claiming her house was ablaze, burns to death when it does indeed catch fire:
Every time she shouted ‘fire!’
They only answered ‘little liar!’