David Cameron during a press conference at the Foreign Office on June 17, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Cameron’s summer of indecision, who will give Britain a coherent foreign policy again?

The PM is not alone in failing to articulate a clear set of principles for this new era. 

During his recent lecture in London, Tony Blair recalled his time in office and declared with pride: “We led in the world.” The remark was derided by those unable to view the former prime minister as anything other than the plaything of George W Bush, but it was not without justification. It was in 1999, when Bush was still an isolationist opposed to “nation-building”, that Blair delivered his speech in Chicago on the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and identified Saddam Hussein as a continuing enemy. Throughout his premiership, Britain’s foreign policy was defined by a coherent set of values and principles that supporters could applaud and opponents could denounce.

The contrast with the present government is marked. When David Cameron became Tory leader, he told his aides: “Look, this is an area where I need help.” The events of this summer suggest that he still does.

Confronted by the savagery of Isis, he has oscillated between belligerence and caution, alienating almost all sides in the process. His talk of a “generational struggle” against the jihadists, necessitating the use of military power, has disconcerted his party’s isolationists. “How many more failures do we have to endure before we learn to stay out of the Middle East?” one told me. His simultaneous refusal to recall parliament to seek approval for British action dismayed interventionists who believe that the UK’s responsibilities cannot be upheld through humanitarian and quasi-military support alone.

Those close to the Prime Minister reply that he agrees with the latter point – but he is not prepared to risk a repeat of last year’s defeat over Syria, or to run ahead of a war-weary electorate. Yet even if one forgives this refusal to lead, rather than to follow, the facts do not support his assessment.

Of the 30 Tory MPs who voted against possible military action in Syria last year, I know of at least eight prepared to support intervention in Iraq, even before ministers have made the case. Nor is there inconsistency in their approach. As one, Sarah Wollaston, has noted, intervention in Syria was opposed precisely because it carried the risk of arms falling into the hands of such groups as Isis. The public, too, is not composed of Little England isolationists, as it is commonly thought to be. More than a week before the beheading of the US journalist James Foley, opinion polls showed a plurality in favour of air strikes. The government’s defeat last summer, more the product of accident than design, should not have been a turning point in British foreign policy, but the Prime Minister could yet ensure it becomes one. 

If there is any consolation for Cameron, it is that he is not alone in failing to articulate a set of principles for the post-Blair era. Nearly four years after his election as Labour leader, Ed Miliband has yet to make a set-piece speech on foreign policy. As a result of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his success in preventing a “rush to war” in Syria, Westminster has labelled him as a non-interventionist. In response, Labour strategists emphasise that his stance on the latter was “a decision, not a doctrine”. But this only invites the question of what Miliband’s doctrine is.

There is still time for the Labour leader to redress this – Blair did not deliver his first major speech on the subject until 1997 – and he would be wise to do so. His MPs, some of whom (Ben Bradshaw, Mike Gapes, Pat McFadden, John Woodcock) have been making the interventionist case, and the public, increasingly disturbed by images of a war-torn world, are waiting. Tom Watson, one of the party’s most influential backbenchers, told me: “Most countries will be extremely disappointed that Britain seems to have given up on foreign policy for the last five weeks . . . Cameron has given Labour a huge opportunity.”

The opposition has more freedom in this than the Liberal Democrats, who earned such renown for their lone stand against the Iraq war (a decision far riskier than it later appeared). Shackled by coalition, they have struggled to say anything distinctive.

Those who look for enlightenment outside Westminster will similarly find their search is in vain. Boris Johnson, who aspires to become prime minister, has proposed revoking the presumption of innocence for some terrorism suspects. This, despite declaring in 2005: “It must remain an inalienable principle of our law that, if the state has enough evidence to incarcerate someone, then it must have enough evidence to put him on trial.”

Nigel Farage, the other extra-parliamentary star of British politics, offers nothing beyond an anglicised version of the “America First” isolationism espoused by the US conservative Pat Buchanan. Alex Salmond, who hopes soon to lead a state of his own, limits himself to platitudes about the need for an end to “illegal wars” and expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin. Even for those inured to the defects of modern politics, it is a dismal spectacle.

If British politicians no longer feel inclined to “reorder this world”, as Blair phrased it in his pomp, it is not without reason. The west’s recent history of intervention – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – has demonstrated an infinite capacity to make a bad situation worse. There is nothing ignoble in a policy rooted in the principle suggested by Barack Obama: “Don’t do stupid stuff” (a colloquial version of the Hippocratic “First, do no harm”). The further austerity postponed until after the general election may in any case force Britain to adopt a policy better aligned with its reduced military capacity. But Westminster awaits the politician prepared to anatomise this new era and the country’s role in it. The alternative, as Winston Churchill observed in 1936, is that Britain remains “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute” and “adamant for drift”. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue