It was clear that things were going wrong for David Cameron when he had to say that his position on Iraq was ‘very, very simple’. To use that phrase was to admit that things had become very, very muddled. They remain so now.
The Prime Minister started the week with a robust line on the bloodshed in Iraq. He declared the start of a ‘generational struggle’ against Islamic extremism that would last for ‘the rest of my political lifetime’. Michael Fallon, his Defence Secretary, gave a Churchillian address to airmen in Cyprus, informing them that the British mission in Iraq was not simply humanitarian and would probably last for months. An order was given for RAF Tornado fighters to leave Norfolk and jet off towards this new theatre of war.
The following morning, the Prime Minister appeared to have plucked out his hawkish feathers. Britain was not, he said, going to war again in Iraq. We have been told what Cameron’s approach to Iraq is not: it’s not Blair’s approach, it’s not ‘boots on the ground’ (unless they are aid workers’ boots). The RAF will discharge bottles of water, not bombs. The ‘generational struggle’ is apparently one of humanitarian aid, advice, counter-terrorism work and vocal support for Haider al-Abadi’s new government in Iraq.
Kind souls say events are moving too quickly for any prime-ministerial position to appear coherent. Less kind souls suggest the Prime Minister is yet again indulging his habit of looking for the news line in a speech (or newspaper article) without thinking about what he’ll need to do afterwards. Some of those unkind observers, incidentally, have drafted the speeches and articles for him in the past. Others are disappointed ministers, who once took him at his word only to find that there was no follow-up.
The Prime Minister seems to be battling two instincts. He believes Britain’s military is a force for good in the world, and his early experiences with Libya (where he helped depose Gaddafi, against the advice even of his own military) encouraged him. But he has since been discouraged by his humiliating parliamentary defeat over Syria. He has told colleagues he would like to go much further, but feels constrained in the aftermath of that Syria vote.
This post-Syria timidity frustrates many of Cameron’s own MPs. Even under the new leadership of Michael Gove, the Tory whips made no efforts to sound out backbenchers on where they stand on a British response to the so-called Islamic State’s brutal campaign in Iraq. If they did, they might find that some of those who spoke out against action last year are far more hawkish now.
One senior Tory familiar with decision-making on these matters also grumbles privately that ‘too much of our foreign policy is being developed for domestic consumption’. He means that opinion polls and Tory rebels weigh more heavily on the Prime Minister’s mind than Britain’s global standing. To have ruled out ‘boots on the ground’ rather than keeping the enemy guessing about Britain’s response certainly suggests that ministers are thinking primarily about public opinion.
The balance of power has also shifted since William Hague left the Foreign Office. ‘No. 10 deferred to William,’ says one senior figure. ‘Philip Hammond is not the same separate senior entity, and so naturally the power lies more with No. 10 now.’ If there is no initial reality check on what many of Cameron’s colleagues describe as his ‘impetuous’ responses, then it’s no wonder that lines later unravel.
Other politicians are prepared to forgive Cameron for a little woolliness — especially seeing as the President of the United States is just as vague. Labour is engaged in its own generational struggle over whether or not it still believes in liberal intervention. Aides insist Ed Miliband’s opposition to intervention in Syria was ‘a decision, not a doctrine’. But it’s difficult for Miliband to demand clarity from the government when his own policy waters run muddy.
For now, the government appears comfortable not having a clear strategy. Last year, the lack of ministerial resignations over the Syria vote suggested to foreign capitals that, in Britain, getting foreign policy right doesn’t matter much any more. This year, the Prime Minister is in no rush to relive the memories of his defeat last year by recalling Parliament — newspapers and his Facebook page seem to serve his purposes admirably. Nor are our holidaying MPs clamouring for a recall. Which is odd, when there are so many questions to ask. Does the British government remain committed to one Iraq when it is assisting the semi-autonomous Kurds? What are the Prime Minister’s plans to enlist other states? And what about the idea that we should rethink relations with the IS’s most committed enemy, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Even those who don’t think Cameron has put a foot wrong so far say he must take a step back and work out the answers. As one MP puts it, ‘In the Middle East, people know what they should die for. Cameron needs to give them something to live for.’
On Wednesday, David Cameron cut off his Cornish holiday to return to Westminster, following the beheading of the American journalist James Foley. He still has a week and a half before MPs return to question him on Iraq, and plenty to reflect upon. If the ‘generational struggle’ against Islamic extremism is going to last the rest of his political lifetime, he needs to return to Westminster with a stronger sense of how he wants to fight.