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After Parliament’s vote to stay out of Syria, soul-searching stirs Britain

Demonstrators protested this week outside the Houses of Parliament in London against potential British military involvement in Syria.

Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators protested this week outside the Houses of Parliament in London against potential British military involvement in Syria.

LONDON — Lap dogs no more!

After the British Parliament’s decision to reject taking part in any US-led strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that victory cry rang out Friday from many parts of this nation. For those who smarted at the memory of former prime minister Tony Blair — lampooned in the British press as President George W. Bush’s ‘‘poodle’’ — Friday marked the first day of a sweet new independence.

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But Britons of another stripe awoke in a daze.

How had the Churchillian spirit of a nation suddenly turned into a Chamberlain moment, appeasing a tyrant? At great risk, they argued, was Britain’s outsize role in the world, a role it has earned since World War II by playing global deputy to Washington’s sheriff.

Despite official assurances on both sides of the Atlantic that the ‘‘special relationship’’ remained intact, these Yankophiles sensed that a bellwether moment had arrived.

‘‘In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed,’’ tweeted veteran British politician and diplomat Paddy Ashdown. ‘‘Britain’s answer to the Syrian horrors? none of our business!’’

In Britain, prime ministers, and not Parliament, have traditionally been the deciders on military intervention. But the extraordinary events Thursday night appeared to signal a change.

It left Britons engaged in a bout of national soul-searching, with top officials saying the political earthquake in Parliament had raised a fundamental question about what kind of nation Britain ought to be. Would it remain a global force or begin to drift, as some suggested Friday, into a diminished state of splendid isolation?

Britain, the US ally in the war in Iraq, might watch from the sidelines if Washington launches a Syrian strike and turns to France for a European stamp of approval. (Could we see the debut of ‘‘liberty muffins’’ a decade after the derisory ‘‘freedom fries?”)

For the United States, a less reliable Britain would be undeniably damaging. British military involvement was key to US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, with troops from these isles making up the single largest foreign force on the ground after the United States. In addition, Britain’s decision to sign up to US operations lent them international legitimacy.

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