Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Never before in the annals of human history have so many videos been taken down by so few. I refer, of course, to the determined and decisive action that the Prime Minister has ordered to meet the “generational threat” of Islamic extremism.
Terrorists from the Islamic State (formerly known as Prince?), swaggering in captured Humvees, blaring Maida Vale rapper Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary’s latest track, swarm across Iraq’s deserts, chopping off heads and capturing Yezidi women. “Convert or Die!” they demand, as though they got their lines from an ill-advised BNP leaflet posted through the letterbox on Sutherland Avenue, W9.
Cartoon villainy that makes Martin Freeman’s interpretation of Richard III a study in ambiguity serves them well. It is held to have terrified the Iraqi army into giving up Mosul (well deployed money, and threats to people’s brothers and fathers will have helped too) while serving in the West as the inverse of Goebbels’s big lie: the more extremely they act, the less plausible they seem.
But plausibility is not the same as reality. Someone in No. 10 must have thought that removing 46 ISIS videos from the more obvious parts of the internet, dropping a few pallets of aid and sending a single spy plane to fly over Northern Iraq constituted a plausible response to the fanaticism of ISIS’s barbaric horde.
The Prime Minister’s defenders hoped that his article in the Telegraph was a trial balloon, intended to prepare public opinion for action. It was not. Yesterday morning he took to the venue from which, according to the British Constitution, all serious foreign policy discussion must take place, the BBC Breakfast sofa, and announced:
“I want to be absolutely clear to you and to families watching that Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq, we are not going to be putting boots on the ground, we are not going to be sending in the British army. Yes, we should use all the assets that we have – our diplomacy, our political relationships, our aid, the military prowess and expertise that we have – to help others. We should use these things as part of a strategy to put pressure on Islamic State and to make sure this terrorist organisation is properly addressed and it cannot cause mayhem on our own streets.”
Polling might explain the clumsy attempts to relate the chaos in Iraq to “our streets.” It is the foreign policy equivalent of explaining to Scots how many deep fried mars bars independence would cost them each week.
Never mind the thousands of Yezidis at risk of slavery and extermination, or Iraq’s last Christians, driven to flee, or the Kurds, short of arms and ammunition while fighting for their lives. Mr Cameron has evidently been told that the British people will only tolerate these minor military deployments if it is justified if only about protecting us here, including from the Londoners who have chosen to sever heads over there.
This condescension might be forgiven – though the link with “our streets” might be rather weaker than Mr Cameron claims it is – if it could be used to jolt a timorous or selfish public into arming the Peshmerga and launching air strikes against ISIS. A little rhetoric is justified to save a people from extermination.
But flying a single spy plane and putting a man on the phone to YouTube for half an hour will not do. David Cameron is not the premier of San Marino. He is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He has at his disposal armed forces supplied with what is still the fifth-largest defence budget in the world. He leads one of three nations capable of projecting power at a distance. His state remains in possession of a permanent UN Security Council seat. That we are a far away country is no excuse to do nothing.
The entire plan seems to be the reverse of Putin’s in Crimea. Where he sought to give the world excuses to disbelieve that the “little green men” were really Russian soldiers, when they obviously were, the government wants to create the appearance of fighting ISIS without risking the parliamentary vote it now needs to do so openly.
This is, quite obviously, not the way to win public support for a return of armed forces to Iraq. When something goes wrong, for in war something always does, how is it to be explained? If, for instance, a pilot is shot down while escorting the unarmed spy plane (a reasonable guess as to the Tornados’ real mission), the media will be apt to resurrect its obsession with the manipulation of the press, which it understands, in preference to serious discussion of strategy, which it does not.
A realistic mission for Iraq is to assist the Kurds, protect people from imminent massacre, and secure Jordan from an ISIS invasion. Far more than the Prime Minister wants to do, yet far less than what is needed to meet the generational threat he says ISIS presents.
This is not the first time the Prime Minister has deemed Islamic fundamentalism a generational threat. He described it in similar terms in Munich three years ago. These words are his way of reminding us he takes it seriously. At home, there is evidence that he does: Muslim Brotherhood front groups, for instance, no longer have ready access to “preventing extremism” money. But he just doesn’t seem to understand the world beyond the water’s edge.
Confronting ISIS in a manner required to deal with this generational threat, and preventing them using the territory they hold as a base for training terrorists or attacking Britain, is currently beyond the immediate capability of the UK. But if it really is this central to our security, we should go about acquiring that capability – not only to provide effective military support to the Kurds, but also to begin to undermine ISIS’s hold on Sunni Iraq through a combination of external military pressure and internal subversion.
This will require money: quite probably it would need an expansion of the RAF if commitments to NATO in Eastern Europe are not to be broken, and the training of a corps of men to win the support of Sunni tribesmen and plot insurgency against ISIS, some of whom will die painfully and in secret, their sacrifice unrecognised. It will require an expansion of our diplomatic capability to support the allies needed to make the mission succeed. And it will require an explanation to the public that certain domestic programmes are to be put on hold because the money is needed to fight this generational threat.
This won’t happen, of course, because this Prime Minister does not go in for matching the ends he espouses with the means to achieve them. The ends come and go with the news cycle. This week it is ISIS, next week it might be immigration, the “global race”, or the NHS. All will briefly be lit up, policies will be announced and forgotten, until actions undone force them back onto the front pages. Then another official will be summoned: “Get on the phone to YouTube, there are some terrorist videos that need to be taken down.”