The shadow of Vietnam constrained United States foreign policy for decades after the last American soldier left Saigon in 1975. Iraq is now casting a similar shadow over British foreign policy.
YouGov surveys in recent months have shown consistent support for humanitarian aid for the victims of Syria’s civil war, but strong opposition to any form of military involvement. Last week’s survey for the Sunday Times, conducted after the first reports of a chemical attack on people in a suburb of Damascus, found that opinion had hardened since the spring against any military action.
In our latest poll, for The Sun, we have repeated two of the options we tested last week and added two new options: enforcing a no-fly zone, and a missile strike against military targets. These were the main results:
Attitudes to British options for military action
Sending defensive military supplies, such as anti-aircraft guns,
Sending full-scale military supplies such as tanks and heavy artillery to the Anti-Assad troops
Using British aircraft and missiles to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria and, if necessary, use them against aircraft and airports operated by the Assad regime
Using British missiles, fired from ships off the coast of Syria, against military sites inside Syria
These are bad figures for David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The public oppose a missile attack by two-to-one. The Prime Minister and his deputy cannot count on the supporters of their own parties: Conservative voters divide 45-33% against, while Liberal democrats divide 47-27% against.
Nor do our figures make life easy for Ed Miliband. Main opposition parties are generally loath to attack governments that order military action. The reasons for this reluctance are both principled and tactical. The principled reason is that opposition leaders see the merits in cross-party support for troops who have to take lives or risk their own. The tactical reason is that oppositions fear being tagged as weak and unpatriotic. In recent years military action has been conducted on a broadly bipartisan basis. Miliband must now choose between sustaining that record or siding with Labour voters, who oppose a missile strike by 54-26%.
The three party leaders face another quandary. Public opinion may not be settled. One person in four says the chemical attacks have made them more favourable to military action; and, indeed, our figures for military aid show a small shift since last week in favour of supplying weapons to Assad’s opponents. But the impact so far has been to reduce slightly the large majority against military aid, not to overturn it.
Could opinion change more rapidly in the days to come? The week before the Iraq war ten years ago, we found that only 32% wanted Britain to send troops to Iraq if the United Nations failed to authorise military action. Yet when we did take part in the invasion without UN approval, support rose instantly to 50% – and peaked at 66% when Baghdad fell to American troops.
Then, of course, support ebbed as weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise and Iraq remained mired in violence.
My guess – and YouGov polls in the days ahead will prove me right or wrong – is that if Cameron does order a limited missile attack, then more people than today, and possibly a majority, would then back it. For one thing, a quarter of the public currently say “don’t know”; I suspect that many of them would back “our troops” once they are in action.
A guess, though, is not a guarantee. If the Prime Minister misjudges the military or diplomatic consequences of his decision; if some missiles go astray and kill innocent civilians; if British public opinion remains hostile to any involvement of British troops and weapons – then the repercussions could be extremely serious.
So a great deal rides on the Prime Minister getting this right: that is, being seen in time to take decisions that have the desired effect. If he gets it wrong, then the question that will haunt him is: haven’t you learned from the mistakes of the past ten years?
This is the real point about the precedent of Iraq. At the start of 2003, Britain’s recent record of overseas engagements was one of success – in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and, going back further, the Falklands. Rightly or wrongly, Blair could express confidence in the beneficial impact of British troops in distant lands.
No such confidence is credible today. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is the peaceful society we hoped to create. Our intervention in Libya was a partial success, but not the triumph for civic contentment for which we hoped. Were Cameron to come to Parliament and propose sending British troops to Syria, many MPs and voters would wonder whether he had gone mad.
It won’t happen. There is no public appetite for anything that risks dragging our armed forces into another quagmire. A short-sharp, remote-launched missile attack, and possibly the enforcement of a no-fly zone, represent the outer limits of what might be acceptable, and our latest poll shows that even that isn’t certain.
That is part of the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan going wrong. The two million people who marched through London in February 2003 failed to prevent the Iraq war; but I doubt that they will need to reassemble any time soon to protest against any similar venture.
See the full YouGov / Sunday Times survey results (26 – 27 August 2013)
See the full YouGov / Sun survey results (26 – 27 August 2013)
See the full YouGov / Sun survey results (27 August 2013)
See the full YouGov / Sunday Times survey results (30 – 31 May 2013)
See YouGov’s Iraq results archive