Dryden: “Well, now…Mr. Sykes is an English civil servant. Monsieur Picot is a French civil servant. Mr. Sykes and Monsieur Picot met, and they agreed that after the war France and England should share the Turkish Empire. Including Arabia. They signed an agreement, not a treaty, sir. An agreement to that effect.”
Lawrence: “There may be honour among thieves, but there’s none in politicians.”
Lines on the map have been rubbed out and redrawn before, and will be again. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarous and – to strike a topical note – Ukraine: none of these were on the map in 1988, just before communism fell. Syria and Iraq are still there. But cartography is lagging behind reality.
As Patrick Cockburn notes in the London Review of Books: “The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by Isis on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people, a population larger than that of Denmark, Finland or Ireland.”
In Iraq, he reports, Isis has taken most of Anbar, “the vast Sunni province that sprawls across western Iraq on either side of the Euphrates”. In Syria, it has established itself as the dominant force in the Syrian opposition, and “now controls most of Syria’s oil and gas production”.
Isis could vanish as swiftly as it has appeared, but there’s no reason to presume that it will. Assad’s forces “will have real difficulties stopping the forces of the Caliphate advancing west”. The Iraq’s Government’s “show no signs of recovering from its earlier defeats…the opponents of Isis [are] becoming weaker and less capable of resistance.”
In Robert Bolt’s peerless screenplay from Lawrence of Arabia above, the cynical Dryden explains the plan to form Syria and Iraq to a protesting T.E.Lawrence. Both men have their successors today. The Drydens stand for realpolitik; the Lawrences for idealism.
The latter don’t necessarily put it that way, of course. They usually argue that it is in our hard-headed interest to intervene, as well as suggesting that we have a moral obligation to do so. If that means joining the Americans in bombing ISIS, they may be right, and if if means arming the Kurds, they certainly are. As Garvan Walshe wrote on this site yesterday, we cannot for long continue to behave as though the Sykes-Picot borders still exist – at least, not without abandoning a force for moderation in the region and thereby abetting the forces of barbarism.
But today’s Lawrences wish to go further. They want ground troops to join the S.A.S, first to carve out a safe haven for the Yazidis and then to carry out wider re-intervention in Iraq. In some cases, they are joining Tony Blair to re-fight the Iraq War, insisting that its legacy would have been secured had Obama continued where George W.Bush’s surge left off – thereby also seeking to revive the neo-conservative project of attempting to make liberal democracy bloom amidst the deserts of Mesopotamia. This is at heart an idealistic vision. They also argue that we have a moral obligation to put right the wrongs of Iraq.
By contrast, the Drydens are cautious. Some are willing to see the Kurds armed and British plans deployed, as Liam Fox urged yesterday. But others ask the inevitable question: what is Plan B? If the strikes fail to halt ISIS, what then? Do British boots hit the ground? If so, do they play a part in a project of putting Sykes-Picot back together again, or accept the facts on the ground? Would they get drawn into Syria, as we reflexively still call it? How likely is it that Maliki, with his sectarianism and corruption, is the exception rather than the rule in a country that is disintegrating before our eyes? Would not pouring yet more blood and treasure into Iraq be to reinforce failure?
I believe that Britain should arm the Kurds and support them with air strikes if necessary – however badly this may go down with Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist-leaning government in Turkey. But I am none the less a Dryden, believing that backing allies with weapons and training is in the realist tradition of Thatcher and Reagan, rather than the idealist one of Bush and Blair. Some of those calling for ground troops in Iraq, claiming that we have a special responsibility for it, were also calling for intervention in Syria last summer, where we certainly don’t. If they had got their way, the stock of western-supplied weapons at ISIS’s disposal would now be even bigger.
Furthermore, they were arguing then for intervention against Assad. Military action against ISIS now would effectively help him – however reluctant they may be to square up to this fact. This is a cautionary tale. Our greater interest has always been in protecting Britain from Sunni Islamist extremism. That means shifting some defence resources to internal security, and other parts to prepare against the main external threat – namely that Russia acts directly or indirectly against NATO allies who we have sworn to help. We cannot afford to invest in helping to secure Eastern Europe while squandering more men and money in the Middle East.
But after last summer’s events, David Cameron, who returns to Downing Street today, isn’t free to urge the same course. First a Dryden in opposition and then a Lawrence in government – as he proved with Libya – the force of events have made him a Dryden once again. The legislature, not the executive, now holds the key to the use of British troops abroad. The polls may show voters outraged by the wickedness of Isis (an anger swollen by a deep anger among many about the broader treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries) but polls can say one thing today and quite another tomorrow, as the Prime Minister well knows.
One thing is certain. If we intervene further in Iraq – air strikes, ground troops, what have you – let’s face up to what it would mean: not a dreamy quest to build a shining city on a hill in the Middle East, but the illusionless protection of our interests against the latest manifestation of Islamist extremism. The Lawrences always believe that right is on their side. But the Drydens can counter that their sardonic worldview cuts to the sad truth of things – and has a claim to morality at least as strong as that of their counterparts. “A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”