It is a horrible thing to say, but I suspect that sooner or later we will begin to get irritated by the John Cantlie Show. Mr Cantlie is the British photojournalist who is being held captive somewhere in Syria by the maniacal and barbarous Islamic State. He has delivered two video lectures of a geopolitical nature, and we should assume that he delivers them under not only duress, but out of a very terrible fear too. However, he is fluent and very calm, insisting that the views he espouses are entirely his own. These amount to a castigation of the UK and the USA for refusing to do some sort of deal with Islamic State in order to procure his release; a view which, if you are in Mr Cantlie’s position, seems to me fair enough, even if it is probably wrong.
But there is also a broader analysis from the hostage — a warning that Barack Obama should not become embroiled in another war in Iraq, because this would lead to the sort of ‘mess’ unwitnessed since Vietnam. More video lectures have been promised, and one hopes that they will be forthcoming, because the alternative is that he will get his head chopped off by one of the possibly British-domiciled Muslim savages who abducted him from the Turkish border in the first place.
Clearly, Mr Cantlie has some sympathies with the people of Syria and Iraq, as does another hostage, the Mancunian taxi driver Alan Henning. Mr Henning was apparently on the verge of converting to Islam, for example, while Mr Cantlie has reportedly developed a great interest in Islam and, in particular, in the hundreds of western-based young Muslims who have turned up in Iraq and Syria to be cannon fodder for any of the competing groups of murderous religious zealots now tearing the place apart.
Fascism has always held a fascination for some of the inhabitants of soft, decadent democracies, I suppose. And it would be wrong and callous to argue — as I have heard some do — that Henning and Cantlie made their beds and that our collective sympathy should be tempered a little by this patent fact. We might agree with Cantlie, further, that nothing we have done in that benighted and medieval neck of the woods has benefited either us or them — whether it be government support for the rebels who fought President Assad or our latter position of wishing to bomb Islamic State from the face of the earth.
Because what began as a moderately angry middle-class expression of dissatisfaction with Assad’s unpleasant regime very quickly became a war waged by jihadis. We should have stayed out and kept our mouths shut, an approach we would have done better to follow in all of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings which so excited the gullible and half-witted liberals in the UK (including our then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the Prime Minister).
And of course we should not have invaded Iraq in the first place. I wonder if there are any of those liberals left who still believe that invading was the right course of action? And yet for years those of us who thought it criminal and a path to Islamist chaos were labelled as supporters of Saddam. These people see things in strictly binary terms, I suppose. But nor are the British jihadis of much use, either; they are derided by the Islamic State who see them, probably rightly, as useless and stupid and eminently expendable. The now famous decapitating imbecile Jihadi John is, for the moment, a useful idiot to Islamic State, no more than that.
But should we negotiate over the fate of British citizens, the Hennings and Cantlies of this world? Our official position is that we should not, and there’s an end to it — an echo of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that we should never talk to terrorists. But of course, under Thatcher, we did talk to the terrorists of the IRA. The truth is, we always end up talking — much as we have done in Afghanistan with the Taleban.
Quite possibly the best solution is to insist that we will never talk to terrorists while in private nattering away like there’s no tomorrow. This seems to be the approach favoured by every other country that has had cause to engage with the events in Iraq and Syria. IS has just released 49 Turkish citizens (diplomats and their families, and soldiers) it had been holding hostage following a lengthy negotiation with President Recep Erdogan. The Turks of course swore blind that no money had changed hands — but in that case, why were the hostages released? The suspicion remains that Turkey gave various cowardly injunctions about refraining from abetting in a Nato attack upon ISIS; that is certainly the feeling in Washington.
In a moral sense, this is worse than simply bunging the lunatics a pile of wonga, surely. But it is not just the Turks. How do you imagine that the US hostage Peter Theo Curtis managed to get himself free? It would seem on the face of it to have been a deal brokered by a third party, the thugs of Qatar, who secured his release from the al-Nusra Front, part of the exciting al-Qa’eda franchise.
The Qataris, of course, are by far the greatest conduit of financial support for IS and indeed any other Sunni Muslim madmen who wish to impose some variant of a caliphate on the south-western quarter of the Middle East. To save the skins of Cantlie and Henning, we should be bullying the Qataris right now.