Cameron and Obama will meet at the Nato summit beginning today. Photo: Getty
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Cameron and Obama pledge to “confront” Islamic State, ahead of Nato summit

The Prime Minister and US President have vowed against isolationism in the face of Islamic militants and the situation in Ukraine; will Cameron finally clarify Britain's stance on air strikes against Islamic State?

A two-day Nato summit will begin today in Newport, Wales, and unsurprisingly the priority subjects are the rise of militant group Islamic State (also known as Isis) in Iraq and Syria, and Russia’s interference in Ukraine.

David Cameron and Barack Obama have both been criticised repeatedly for lack of action on overseas affairs in general, seemingly “paralysed” – a word former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw used on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning – by former foreign policy mistakes, compounded by the chaotic aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

Cameron has been hit by the UK press for appearing not to know how to combat IS, with the Mail accusing him of mouthing “foolish nothings” and “dithering, posturing and waffle”. Obama, similarly, has been criticised for failing to halt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine; a Times leader article over last weekend used the adjective “hapless” to describe the US President, and called for Nato leaders attending the summit to move away from “the reactive politics of the Obama era” towards “credible deterrence”. Scepticism about their approach to the Middle East is summed up in the first line of the Sun's leader this morning: "David Cameron and Barack Obama have a few things in common. One is that they both need to grow a spine."

Now the two leaders – whose strong point in the eyes of the world does not seem to be foreign policy – are meeting at the Nato summit, with other Nato leaders, to address the crises spanning the Middle East and eastern Europe.

Ahead of the summit, they have written a joint editorial in the Times, headlined, “We will not be cowed by barbaric killers”, which not only uses strong, determined language to make clear they will be turning up the pressure on the dangers that face the world today, but also reveals an acknowledgement that many are cynical about their hitherto relatively hands-off approach to overseas crises.

Here are some extracts:

 

Avoiding isolationism

There are some who say that we shouldn’t get involved in addressing these threats. There are others who doubt if Nato can adapt to meet the challenges we face. It is crucial we address these beliefs head on.

First, those who want to adopt an isolationist approach misunderstand the nature of security in the 21st century. Developments in other parts of the world, particularly in Iraq and Syria, threaten our security at home.

And Nato is not just an alliance of friends who come to the aid of each other in times of need. It is also an alliance based on national self-interest. Whether it is regional aggression going unchecked or the prospect that foreign fighters could return from Iraq and Syria to pose a threat in our countries, the problems we face today threaten the security of British and American people, and the wider world.

 

Islamic State

… we will not waver in our determination to confront Isil. If terrorists think we will weaken in the face of their threats they could not be more wrong. Countries like Britain and America will not be cowed by barbaric killers. We will be more forthright in the defence of our values, not least because a world of greater freedom is a fundamental part of how we keep our people safe.

 

Russia

With Russia trying to force a sovereign state to abandon its right to democracy at the barrel of a gun, we should support Ukraine’s right to determine its own democratic future and continue our efforts to enhance Ukrainian capabilities. We must use our military to ensure a persistent presence in eastern Europe, making clear to Russia that we will always uphold our Article 5 commitments to collective self-defence.

And we must back this up with a multinational rapid response force, composed of land, air, maritime and special forces, that could deploy anywhere in the world at very short notice. All this will also require investment from Nato countries in the necessary capabilities.

 

The proof of Cameron and Obama’s more forthright stance will be in their actions, rather than words, however – and the results of this week’s Nato summit will signal how they intend to act, or not to act. Both Cameron and Obama are known to talk a good game – and they’ve written a good game in the Times this morning – but new strategies, rather than words, are what the world will be watching out for.

On the Today programme this morning, the PM in an interview said, “I don’t rule anything out”, when asked about joining the US in air strikes against IS.

“I think we should judge all these things in terms of our own national interest… I absolutely think Islamic State is a direct threat to the United Kingdom. There’s no doubt we face a threat from this organisation… [that’s why we should] work with partners to put a fatal squeeze on this organisation.”

When asked for a second time whether Britain would be taking a more direct offensive role in the situation in the Middle East, he repeated: “we’re not ruling anything out”.

However, he warned that there is “no simple, straightforward, military-led answer to this” and called for a, “tough, long-term, intelligent approach”, cautioning against “Western intervention over the heads of neighbouring states [and people on the ground]”.

Asked whether he would consider working with President Assad in Syria to unite against IS, Cameron replied: “My view is that President Assad is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Part of the answer [to why IS has risen to prominence] is Assad’s brutality in Syria gave credence to this group.” Most notable from this interview was the PM's view that President Assad's "war crimes on his own people" means that he believes there is no legal barrier to attacking Syria, because Assad's government can be judged as "illegitimate".

His view of why a significant number of British nationals are joining the jihadists is that, “I’m very clear about what the nature of the problem is. There is a poisonous narrative of an extremist Islamic worldview… it is a perversion and it needs to be confronted and defeated in all its forms… The core problem is this extremist, medievalist, murderous world view.”

Perhaps the Nato summit will decide whether Cameron takes the UK, alongside the US, into a more militaristic role against IS.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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