So this time Britain does arrive on the international scene, if not quite to the rescue. It makes its entry late in the latest Middle Eastern war, and with significant caveats. The politics of process and the elevation of legality to a form of moral good have affected many aspects of national life in recent times (witness the tendency to respond to every controversy by recourse to an official inquiry); they now exert unprecedented influence over foreign policy.
Both in the House of Commons vote on intervention in Syria in August last year and in this month’s vote on Iraq, it was clear that David Cameron wanted to do much more, and he had his Liberal Democrat coalition partners along with him (if not all of his own party). It is only recently that parliament has insisted on the notion that every military action requires its approval. Ironically, this is an unintended legacy of its own support for Tony Blair over the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is no going back from that, even if the security threats of the future are likely to require more dynamism and agility than the procedure permits. British governments have seldom been so hamstrung in their conduct of foreign policy – but then again, the existence of the United Kingdom was under grave threat just a few weeks ago.
Hand-wringing about Britain’s role in the world is a symptom of a deeper malaise. The broad postwar consensus that “punching above our weight” was a good thing has ruptured, like much else. The various pieces that are left are not much to behold. Whether it is the Blairism-lite of Cameron, the vague “internationalism” of Ed Miliband’s Labour conference speech in Manchester, the neo-isolationism of the new right, weary nationalism, half-baked cynicism, or even the caricature of Gallowayism – nothing seems to offer a serious response to the world as it is. “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait,” said Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, when asked on the BBC for his preferred response to Isis. At the other end of the spectrum, Blair’s latest 3,000-word essay advocating the use of ground troops gathers dust on tonyblairoffice.org – like an expensive piece of art without a home to hang it in.
Last year, at the time of the vote on Syria, Britain was first into the blocks, ahead of a reluctant Obama. But in a moment that might come to define Cameron’s premiership, it fell at the starting pistol. Those ramifications are still being felt.
This year, President Obama has finally wilted under pressure to intervene again in the Middle East – something he wanted to avoid more than anything else. Despite the elaborate rhetorical adornment, historians may come to think of Obama’s strategy as one of “counterpunch” or “whack-a-mole” when threats to US security emerge. Fighter jets are being used instead of drones but there are precedents in his targeting of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, if Obama’s language, full of exhortations about defeating the “evil” of Isis, sounds familiar, that is because it is. In making the case for strikes, he said that the US was not at war with Islam, which is what George W Bush said repeatedly after the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The August 2013 parliamentary vote on Syria caused an odd chain reaction that played into Obama’s lack of surety about the best course of action, combined with the likely opposition of the US Congress to military action (much to the frustration of Secretary of State John Kerry). This time, the president did not wait for the choreography to begin in London. This is a subtle but stark indication of Britain’s diminished role; the Americans have concerns about the robustness of their old ally. They watched the Scottish referendum unfold with more concern than we might assume.
History can move on fast and memories are short. The shared blood sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan was in two wars from which the current president has been keen to disassociate himself. The next president will ask how useful the UK can be to a new panoply of challenges – economic, geopolitical, and terrorism-related. Cuts to UK defence expenditure were made in the hope that Britain would not have to fight a war for at least another ten years. The world is reluctant to grant that wish.
While Britain’s sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq begins to fade into memory, British citizens appear on the television beheading Americans. At a rare session of the UN Security Council attended by heads of state of council members – only the sixth to have taken place in the council’s history – all 15 member states backed a US resolution signalling determination to address the problem of “foreign terrorist fighters” operating in Syria and Iraq, most of whom are embedded with Isis or Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Among the first jihadists targeted by the US strikes are thought to be British citizens training with Jabhat al-Nusra for suicide missions in the west.
There is recognition that Isis is a shared problem. But British policy towards the self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria must also reflect the reality that Isis has particularly long tentacles in the UK.
My colleagues at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London estimate that there are more than 2,500 Europeans fighting for Isis in Syria; roughly 500 of them are from the UK. This is five times the estimated number from the US, which is, to state the obvious, much further away and much less vulnerable. Former heads of intelligence are queuing up to say that air strikes against Isis are likely to increase the prospect of terrorist attacks in the UK. Cameron did not produce any intelligence dossiers for the parliamentary debate. However, he was pretty clear that direct plots against the UK had been discovered within the foreign fighter nexus. In other words, the “leave-it-alone” alternative ignores the danger that is already present.
More conventional forms of jihadist terrorism, linking back to Osama Bin Laden, also seem to have reappeared on the scene. This is reflected in the emergence of the so-called Khorasan group in Syria, which is separate from Isis (though linked to Jabhat al-Nusra) but was the target of one of the first US air strikes. Khorasan, whose alleged leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, may have been killed in the first week of strikes, is a small but dedicated al-Qaeda affiliate, composed of expert bomb-makers whose priority is hitting targets in the west.
Apart from a nod of “thanks” from official channels in the US state department, it is an understatement to say that the Commons vote on 26 September did not cause much of a ripple Stateside, despite Cameron’s touring of US television studios in the days preceding it. Instead, the Americans pushed ahead and acted with less fanfare than characterised their aborted mission last year, though keener monitors have heard the gears creaking into action for months, as aircraft carriers moved into place.
The US acted with the assistance of a group of five Arab states whose support – in this instance, at least – is arguably more useful than the diplomatic cover provided by Britain, even if they are Janus-faced about their own role. These states have realised the dangers of their own “constructive ambiguity” about Salafi-jihadist militarism in Syria. The clustering might better be described as a “coalescence” rather than a coalition. It is based not on a shared vision but on a limited recognition that Isis has been allowed to go too far, too fast. It is, in the immediacy, a more viable approach than the one that was mooted on the basis of a new alliance with Iran.
Despite some speculative suggestions to the contrary, rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad of Syria remains both unlikely and unviable. A glimmer of hope is that the departure of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister seems to have smoothed co-operation with Iraq, though Baghdad’s desperation has probably also changed the calculus. Both Iraq and the other Arab states are, it should be noted, keen to have Britain more involved, as are the Kurds, who still value UK participation.
However, in any scenario, Britain’s leverage is limited. It is also true that others operate with greater freedom of manoeuvre. President François Hollande announced his decision to deploy French Rafale fighter jets against Isis in Iraq on 18 September, and those attacks began almost immediately.
Hollande suggested that attacks should be restricted to Iraqi airspace but the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, made it clear that there was no “legal obstacle” to air strikes in Syria. Fabius raised the possibility that the position might change, so long as it serves France’s strategy (of opposing Assad and Islamic State, and bolstering what remains of the moderate opposition). The Netherlands, too, announced that it would be participating in air strikes but only for missions in Iraq. Denmark and Belgium (which has the biggest foreign fighter problem of all the European states) have agreed to contribute fighter jets, and Britain’s contribution is best classed within this bracket.
One wins no friends by arguing that having more parliamentary control over Britain’s involvement in international affairs is a bad thing. After the First World War it was felt – with some justification – that the disaster had been caused by the Machiavellian conduct of secret diplomacy by aristocratic elites. The US wartime president, Woodrow Wilson, wanted journalists in every room during the peace negotiations in Versailles, only to be put back in his box by David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau. In the interwar years, with Britain coming to terms with the implications of full democracy, public opinion had more sway than at any time over foreign affairs. The result was not, as it turned out, much better. Public opinion was a temperamental mistress, too: defiantly anti-war, but swinging the other way once Hitler embarrassed Chamberlain after Munich.
Opinion polls show substantially more support for bombing Isis than they did for last year’s putative intervention in Syria. This time, the Labour Party was prepared to go along with the Prime Minister, to a limited extent. By the time of the Commons debate, Labour was willing to support air strikes on Iraq without UN sanction, because of the request made for support by the Iraqi government. It refused to support any strikes on Syria without that sanction.
In truth, this is a non-position: a preference is not an approach. Much has been made of how Ed Miliband forgot to mention the deficit and immigration during his party conference speech, but it was also distinguished by the omission of any serious engagement with the outside world. This is doubly important because the two are inseparable. In recent times Labour has been more comfortable with the idea of open borders and extensive immigration than the Tories. It is for that reason, if nothing else, that it is important to contemplate the reality of the new societies that this has brought into being. We live in a country that, more than ever, has familial and ideological ties to communities abroad – whether in the Middle East or in south Asia. We cannot just ignore what happens there.
Much, too, has been made of the inadequacies of the robotic manikins who constitute our political elite. A book published this summer, Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age, by the academics David Martin Jones and M L R Smith, describes how western political elites consistently underestimate the nature of the appeal of political religion and the forms of resistance it legitimates – in the domestic and in the international spheres. Attempts to brush it away with second-order concerns such as the marginalisation of minorities and the need for greater multicultural awareness are insufficient.
The contemporary political condition is one of disenchanted modernity, where science, materialism and technocratic managerialism have left a void into which other forces will move.
Nor can we conduct foreign policy in the manner of some neat fantasy position, whereby we decree Isis to be a threat worth tackling in Iraq but not in Syria, because of some notional commitment to upholding discrete state sovereignty – on the basis of a border that no longer exists. One of the many legacies of the 2003 Iraq war are the soundbites that now asphyxiate our discussion of foreign affairs: “exit strategy”, “boots on the ground” and “shock and awe” are sprinkled liberally into discussions but uncritically. As a frustrated major general put it after the Commons debate, “The danger lies not in the turmoil but in facing it with yesterday’s logic.”
What comes out of the parliamentary compromise is a messy formulation that, in strategic terms, is bordering on the illiterate. Outside parliament, a stream of senior military figures has been less shy in pointing this out. Air Chief Marshal Michael Graydon, the former head of the RAF, described the limitation of operations to Iraqi airspace as “ludicrous”, given that Isis operates fluidly over the border and its power base remains in Syria. The recently retired general Richard Shirreff even complained about the “[no] boots on the ground cliché” to which the Prime Minister resorted in putting strict limits on the operation: “You don’t make strategy by telling your adversary that you are ruling out certain things.”
What we are left with, in essence, is a diplomatic gesture in support of the US.
For the moment, Britain, to satisfy its own scruples, can afford to make a distinction between fighting Isis in Iraq and fighting it in Syria – but only for the reason that the United States is not. For now, too, parliament can afford a vote on every military action; but there may be costs to this down the line. Indeed, Jesse Norman, a backbench Tory MP who has expressed scepticism about Cameron’s interventions, raised concern about the implications of this new convention in our unwritten constitution. “As a large corporate body,” he warned, “we lack the capacity to react quickly and without warning to fast-changing events.”
One recent evening, as I watched the first episode of Long Shadow, David Reynolds’s BBC Television series about the legacy of the Great War, I was reminded again of the distinct echoes between the debates of the 1930s and today. The chief similarity with the 1930s is in the ever-increasing distance between our liberal ideal of international affairs and the zero-sum brutalism that begins to calcify when that international order crumbles.
In the interwar years, most Britons supported the League of Nations and the preservation of a global international order. But in the middle of the 1930s, the League of Nations movement began to split between two wings: those prepared to support the use of force (and intervention) to preserve international order and those who, when it came to the crunch, thought that the horrors of war were not worth the risk. The Labour Party of the 1930s was similarly divided between those two tendencies before its leader, Clement Attlee, about the time of the Spanish civil war, gradually steered it away from a quasi-pacifist stance and came to the reluctant conclusion that force had a crucial role to play in preserving international order.
For the moment, it seems Britain can afford to quibble from behind America’s coat-tails – unlike in the 1930s, when we found ourselves unprepared, alone and exposed.
The great new fear of the 1930s, evoked by H G Wells and others, was the vulnerability of our cities from the air. Today’s threats are less apocalyptic but arguably even more entangled between the domestic and foreign spheres. Already the Paris Métro and the New York subway have been put on high alert following intelligence about possible attacks. London is more vulnerable to Isis-related action than even Paris, certainly more than New York. Neither intervention nor non-intervention is likely to solve that problem. But there is usually a price when bloodlust goes unchecked, even in faraway lands.
John Bew is an award-winning historian and an NS contributing writer