The drama over whether Britain should join the bombing campaign in Syria irresistibly recalls the feverish climate in February and March 2003, in the lead-up to the Anglo-American assault on Iraq.
A main difference is, of course, that then it was Labour in office, driving towards war under Tony Blair. Now it is his Tory admirer David Cameron who’s in the saddle, facing Jeremy Corbyn standing against war now as he did in 2003.
Corbyn should enjoy enormous moral and intellectual authority in these debates. After all, in 2003 he was one of the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition, which warned that invading Iraq would lead to disaster.
Not only was this warning thoroughly vindicated, but the invasion led directly to the rise of Isis, which the bombing supposedly would combat.
Yet despite this Corbyn seems to get a better hearing from some on the right—for example, the deputy editor of the Spectator—than his shadow cabinet.
You would have thought that someone like shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, who voted for war in March 2003, would have the humility to consider that this time he might be wrong and Corbyn right.
No one should imagine that the push within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to support Cameron over Syria has anything to do with a serious evaluation of the case for bombing.
The pro-war MPs have two main motives. One is to weaken Corbyn, or even to drive him out. The second is to prove what “responsible” politicians they are, considering the “national interest” first, putting country before party, as the tired old cliché has it.
In part, this shows the extent to which the PLP (as opposed to the Labour Party membership) is a creature of the Blair era. Asked in 2007 to sum up Blairism, Blair replied without hesitation, “Liberal interventionism”.
The ideology of liberal interventionism—liberal imperialism—continues to imbue the leading ranks of the Labour Party. But one shouldn’t give Blair the sole credit.
Long before him, Labour governments consistently defended the interests of British imperialism.
Echoes of 2003 prompt the question of what these interests are now. Then what Britain decided to do mattered. British participation added a substantial body of troops to the invasion force. And it allowed the administration of George W Bush to claim it was leading a genuine “coalition of the willing”.
This time is very different. The US has been leading a bombing campaign in Syria for over a year. The British army, after being humiliatingly defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been cut to the bone by George Osborne.
British participation this time would be negligible militarily.
After 9/11 Blair talked about “reordering the world”. This hubris was brutally exposed in Iraq. Barack Obama, with his caution and talk of “strategic patience”, expresses the way in which even the mighty US has been chastened by Iraq.
Now Obama has been forced by the successes of Isis and Russian intervention in Syria to step up US involvement in the war there. Western imperialism is on the defensive.
In British ruling class circles the case for joining in seems to have nothing to do with any proper analysis of the impact of bombing but because Britain should always stick close to the US.
Ever since the Second World War, the British state has sought to preserve a global role for itself by shadowing the US. So there’s a sense in which Cameron is following in his predecessors’ footsteps.
But to insist on doing so now, at a time when the US itself is visibly struggling, and to perpetuate the disastrous cycle of imperialist intervention and terrorist atrocity in the Islamic world is criminal folly.
As Times columnist Matthew Parris puts it, “Britain will join the bombing because it’s the kind of thing Britain does. It will make no serious difference to the Allied campaign, and the whole thing will end up in a bloody mess.”
Why can an ex-Tory MP understand the situation better than those Blairite numbskulls in the shadow cabinet?