Another troubling aspect of James Foley’s death is that he was captured initially in Syria. Already some academics are noticing the stability the Islamic State is achieving within its territory now affirmed by the logistical feat of moving a Western captive across borders – for most militant groups a journalist like Foley would be as much a burden as an asset.
Whilst we wait for a US response to this provocation, David Cameron has returned from holiday to discuss the role of a British national in the execution. Slightly arbitrary on the face of it but the image of a British IS terrorist ends Cameron’s desperate search for an enemy within. Few news companies noticed the Financial Times report that Sir John Jenkins, current ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had found the Muslim Brotherhood to be ‘not a terrorist organisation’. Supposedly Downing Street’s earlier assertion, that it indeed is, was to appease our allies, and the Brotherhood’s enemies, in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Mail and Russia Today seem to be accusing Whitehall of delaying the report for the same reasons. Never the less Cameron’s promise to tackle the real terrorists in the Islamic State runs in tandem with the new ‘family test’ that all remaining policy must pass – thus cementing the cushy Tory position into next years election. Meanwhile Labour restore their five point lead.
Though recent words are in the correct tone the leadership in Britain stand somewhat apart from their American counterparts – in their ability to act as much as anything. Congressional support for any military action is not required when facing an ‘insurgency’ like the Islamic State, nor is the US hindered by diplomatic wrangling as France, Russia and China all have Islamist enemies personally. However with the legacy of Tony Blair’s dossier forced David Cameron to promise he’ll seek Parliaments support before any escalation of force last year – what’s more is this Governments past attempts to make it unconstitutional for the Army to be deployed without the consent of Parliament.
The most significant contrast between the USA and Britain, however, is the political legacy of liberal interventionism. After Srebrenica, both Clinton and Dole embraced the policy whilst campaigning in 1996, by 2003 a change was evident; Dick Cheney claimed he’d always wanted to pursue Saddam after the Gulf War, having said the opposite in ’91. Today Obama and the Democrats know they cannot go into the next two years having been the ones who ‘lost Iraq’, and it would be remembered that way.
Cameron has different set of cards. Our recent history of interventionism is more the product of an aging clique of politicians and the British military is much less prepared for a large Anglo-American operation. Furthermore NATO’s current occupation with Ukraine means even the most guileless reason for an assault on the Islamic State seems unlikely. So what does Britain do? Given the military success of airstrikes, and their general appeal, arming the Kurds seems like the obvious choice. Perhaps giving them the political support they expected after 2003 as well. This raises a long-term issue of possible Kurdish statehood upsetting America’s oil glut (though stimulating the oil market with fresh producers may be needed as China’s grows as a buyer).
Cengiz Gunes of The Open University and author of The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey: From Protest to Resistance (among others) told me that it was likely the Iraqi-Kurds would join a new Washington-approved unity government; that independence “is a long term goal”. They shall “remain part of Iraq and try to reform Iraq into a less centralised state”.
Encouraging for the West? Of course for some in the US (and probably here as well) the idea of groups like the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan having a say will be repellent. But both countries soon must realise that Iraq might be much more like Afghanistan years from now: in its geography and governance, and in the amount we can control it.
A year ago today General Sisi’s men arrested Mohammed Badie, the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; arrested with over 600 members of his party, he awaits execution in Cario. There’s a real danger that we spend a decade shaking hands with strongmen in a reprise of the Eisenhower doctrine. Yesterday Mr Jenkins’ friends in Riyadh executed four men on a charge of possession. The UK shouldn’t have to find itself, like the US, in an uneasy triumvirate with Egypt and Israel. Iraq is toppling as a nation-state and in the midst of this crisis lays our opportunity to help what could be a true ally.
Though I worry that Philip Hammond’s appointment to the FCO shows the Government’s true intention to sit back and gather votes for another year – now, as their country slides into civil war, I wonder if anyone in Tripoli is asking where Mr Hague went.