Observer view on David Cameron’s Middle East policy: time for leadership, not idle threats

SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – On Iraq, Isis and the much discussed domestic jihadi threat, David Cameron last week managed to – often simultaneously – accelerate, reverse and put his foot on the brake, as he motored to and fro from his holiday home in Cornwall. He left a cloud of confusion in his wake.

The prime minister started the week by warning of an existential threatand promised to use “all the assets we have”, including our “military prowess”. By Thursday, he was suggesting that “patience” and no significant policy changes were required in the aftermath of the barbaric murder of James Foley.

In his TV performances earlier in the week, Cameron looked serious, purposeful and angry. He emoted and enunciated. It seemed as if it was designed to enforce the idea that, mid-holidays, he was switched-on and engaged. But did his words amount to much more than that? For a statesman who had a meaningful and thoughtful analysis of the situation in Iraq and Syria, you had to look elsewhere.

In America, for instance, where Barack Obama, in a lengthy, in-depth interview two weeks ago with the New York Times, had given an unusually coherent account of his current strategy on foreign policy. He offered context, analysis and an understanding of geopolitics, as well as of the limits and effectiveness of his own country’s power.

Many will fault his analysis, but few could fault the clarity and coherence with which he articulated his position.

Previously, Obama’s position on foreign affairs had been characterised as a “Don’t do stupid shit” approach (words the president is said to have used two months ago to White House correspondents when discussing his US foreign policy, a phrase interpreted as being one of limited ambition or, as Foreign Policy magazine characterised it, “defensive minimalism“). In the absence of a more ambitious policy, there is much to commend an approach that chooses not to blunder in, exit and leave a mess behind.

But more recently, in the New York Times, Obama offered coherent organising principles that govern his foreign policy. On Syria, he delivered a sobering retort to those who argue that he should have armed the Syrian rebels.

The notion that arming the rebels (once we’d worked out which ones to arm) would have made a difference has, according to Obama, “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide arms… to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.” Obama is right.

On the broader region, the US president has evidently reflected on the lessons of the past. He points out that there is a disaffected Sunni minority in the case of Iraq and a majority in the case of Syria. Armed intervention – even “military prowess” – is not the answer. What is needed is for the Sunnis to be given “a formula that speaks to the aspirations of that population… Unfortunately, there was a period of time where the Shia majority in Iraq didn’t fully understand that.”

President Obama sounds and speaks like someone who has reflected at length on the lessons of his country’s military involvement in Iraq over the last 10 years. His analysis is sobering and clear headed. It is devoid of the democratic evangelism or aspirations of nation-building that underwrote previous military adventures.

There is a recognition that, ultimately, solutions have to come from within. Obama notes: “We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves… Our military is so capable, that if we put everything we have into it, we can keep a lid on a problem for a time.” So much for “military prowess”.

The reality, though more difficult to accept, and more nuanced and complex than we were led to believe in the past, is that “for a society to function long term, the people themselves have to make decisions about how they are going to live together, how they are going to accommodate each other’s interests, how they are going to compromise. We can help… but we can’t do it for them.

It is not clear from Cameron’s interventions last week what role he had in mind for Britain. It is even less clear that he has learned the lessons of the past – that he has learned what we can’t do. Only then can we work out what we can do.

A foreign policy that avoids “doing stupid shit” is not a bad place to start. A foreign policy that recognises the limits of military engagement and engages with other players in the region to exercise their influence and recognise their responsibilities is more sophisticated still. There is still much more for the US – and the UK – to do in its dealings with Sunni-led states, where much of the money that initially funded Isis came from.

The US and the UK face different challenges but that doesn’t detract from the need for each to articulate a coherent role for their respective countries. Obama has chosen to react, as an article in Foreign Affairsput it, “as a progressive where possible and a pragmatist when necessary“. We need to know what Cameron intends to do.

Before last week, we might have thought we had some clues. In Berlin in 2007, in a lengthy and considered speech, he elaborated on his notion of “liberal conservatism”. Liberal in that it upholds civil rights, democracy, pluralism and the rule of law as “a key component of lasting security”. Conservative because it is sceptical of “grand utopian schemes to remake the world”.

Seven years on and the practice of conservative liberalism is proving difficult. British foreign policy had rested on leadership in Europe and the “special relationship” with the US. In both arenas, Britain is in retreat.

In 2011, Cameron gave a lengthy speech on the impact of global events on domestic life, on radicalisation and Islamic extremism and what he termed “a distortion of Islam“. He called for “less of the passive tolerance of recent years” and more “muscular liberalism”.

Last week, it was revealed that many of the key recommendations handed to Downing Street to tackle radicalisation have yet to be implemented. Drawn up by an anti-extremist task force following the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby last year, they include a proposal to ban groups that “seek to undermine democracy” or use hate speech.

Britain has been drawn directly into events in Syria and Iraq because of the assumption that the murderer of James Foley was the British-sounding extremist heard on an Isis-released video.

We have to hope that, out of the mess and muddle of Britain’s current position on Iraq, the one clear line is not a series of draconian measures aimed at a tiny minority of Muslims. There is already extensive anti-terror legislation in place.

Cameron has options, including increased humanitarian aid, extra logistical and surveillance support for the Kurds and so far unspecified military action lasting “months” against Isis.

What is missing is a narrative from Britain’s political leader that is strong on clarity and firm on logic. He is in a position where he could contribute to – and even lead – a meaningful, nuanced and robust discussion about what current events in Iraq tell us about the delicate tribal, economic and religious issues at play and what part Britain played in that narrative over the last 10 years.

As importantly, he needs to lead the debate in a way that recognises that British Muslims are a rich, vibrant and powerful part of our culture, whose contributions to, and engagement in, our society cannot be stained or curtailed by a tiny minority.

Looking tough, and sounding tough, falls dispiritingly short of what is required.


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