Displaced Iraqi children play at the Bahrka camp near Arbil. Photo: Getty
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In the face of the threat from Isis, Britain can no longer just follow America’s lead in the Middle East

There are severe limits to what the UK can do as a middle-ranking power. But it can do better than firefighting every crisis with an emergency meeting of Cobra.

It is just over a year since the Syrian regime lobbed chemical weapons into the suburbs of its own capital city, killing up to 1,500 in just a few hours in the early morning of 21 August. The victims are a small fraction of the estimated 192,000 Syrians (according to the latest UN figures) killed in the conflict since the spring of 2011. (Other estimates suggest the total figure could be well over 300,000.)

It is two years since Barack Obama’s statement on 20 August 2012 that “a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised”. When the Syrian regime openly flouted those red lines 12 months later, it seemed inevitable that the reluctant president would be forced into military action against Bashar al-Assad.

Ironically, it was Secretary of State John Kerry – a stronger advocate of air strikes than Obama – who let the regime off the hook when asked if Assad could do anything to prevent US action. “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” he said, waving his arms exasperatedly. “But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.” The Assad regime – with the assistance of the Russian foreign ministry – had just been handed the script to follow if it wanted to avoid outside intervention. As the chemical weapons were handed over, it escalated its campaign with conventional weaponry.

Another year on, we are in a new phase entirely. The fleet-footed rise of Isis has transformed how the conflict is viewed from the outside. It is said that the pre-eminence of militant jihadists in anti-regime Syria now proves there was no “moderate” opposition to support in the early stages of the uprising. But rather than being major participants in the civil war, Isis benefited from the unchecked strength of Assad’s assault against other rebel groups in the second half of 2013. Its strategy from the start was to establish its own supremacy (in the form of its putative caliphate) in areas where the regime has ceded control, and in areas of Iraq where the Baghdad government had lost all authority.

The idea that rapprochement with Assad is the route to defeating Isis is misleading. Assad has a long history of co-operation with the forebears of Isis, al-Qaeda in Iraq, having giving them complete freedom of movement over the border into Iraq to fight the insurgency against coalition forces there after the invasion in 2003. Those networks are the lifeblood of Isis to this day. In March 2011, as Assad began his clampdown on opposition activists, he also emptied the cells of the infamous Sednaya Prison outside Damascus, which was full of jihadists – many of whom are now playing leading roles in Isis. There are even some claims that the American photographer James Foley had been held by the Syrian regime before he made his way into the hands of Isis. For the moment, Isis and Assad are using each other for mutual benefit.

The murder of Foley and the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq are not only human tragedies but symbols of a loss of gravity in the international arena. What we are witnessing is the steady erosion of the post-cold war international order. The chief reason for this is that the US, which has borne by far the heaviest burden in maintaining this order (with all its flaws), has lost its desire to be the world’s policeman, a view articulated in Obama’s speech at the West Point Military Academy in May this year. It has understandable reasons for doing so, from a decade of bad experiences in the Middle East to internal problems such as immigration, and helped by increasing energy independence (perhaps the biggest “game-changer” of all).

In areas where America is less willing to flex its muscles – eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region – the consequences are apparent. Before the crisis involving the Yazidis in early August, it was not American or British but Syrian, Iranian and Russian fighter planes that were operating in Iraqi airspace at the request of Baghdad. In the past week, without the knowledge of the US, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched air strikes against Islamist militias in Libya. Yet more Russian military operatives have just been picked up in Ukraine.

Horrific as it was, the beheading of James Foley will not change that calculus in Washington. It does have direct implications for British foreign policy, however. That Foley was killed by a jihadi with a London accent puts the problem in stark relief. The presence of hundreds of British citizens within the ranks of Isis is one of the gravest threats to national security for many years. Like it or not, a world in which Syria and Iraq disintegrate is a dangerous one for Britain. The risk is acute in London, from where most of the British fighters hail – as Boris Johnson’s posturing demonstrates.

For the past two centuries, British foreign policy has been predicated on the preservation of international order (one built, of course, for its own ends). It is when that order has collapsed that the gravest threats to British national security have occurred: in the 1910s and 1930s. The US can afford to turn inwards, as it has done periodically throughout the past century, but Britain has more immediate interests at stake in the conflict in Syria, just as it did in Libya (when the US was momentarily willing to “lead from behind”). There are severe limits to what the UK can do as a middle-ranking power. But it can do better than firefighting every crisis with an emergency meeting of Cobra. It needs a grand strategy to reflect two interrelated truths: that Britain has a selfish interest in striving to preserve the international order; and that the task becomes more difficult when its most important ally is less willing to do all the heavy lifting. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder