I don’t know what we should do about ISIS (I refuse to call them ‘Islamic State’ – they are, as Nigel Fletcher has pointed out, neither of these things). I know that we could assist the US in producing a more favourable ground war for the Kurds, Christians, Shiite militias and others braving resistance against this tide of barbarism. I know that we could offer refuge to religious minorities fleeing – in particular, because they have nowhere else to go and because we are a Christian country in heritage at least, to Iraqi and Syrian Christians. I know that we could provide troops to help shore up the defences of innocents and that we could equip our friends in the region with the kind of military technology that we have, inadvertently, allowed ISIS to capture and to use. What I do know, though, is that it is unsustainable to sit and to watch.
As Pope Francis said, when asked whether he would support action against ISIS, “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor … I say stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.”
This point is hammered home with brutal clarity by the murder of US journalist James Foley. I have not watched the video; I would urge you not to either. To do so would be to join ISIS in turning one man’s lonely and uncalled for death into a geopolitical plaything, a stunt. But we now know – as if there were ever any real doubt – the true extent of ISIS’s evil ambitions. They won’t rest at genocide in their own lands. They won’t stop when they reach the borders of Iraq. They will come for us as surely as they came for Foley. If the people of Britain felt able to ignore the plight of Christian, Yazidi and Shiite victims in far-off lands – and, to our credit, polling shows that many of us do not – we cannot ignore the direct threat to our own safety that ISIS’s expansion poses. This murder is significant because it demonstrates that no-one will ever be safe. Yes, Foley was in Syria. But his killing was directed at us, here. It was an act of theatre, macabre but meaningful.
And what do our politicians intend to do about it? Who knows? David Cameron sweeps up the road from his holidays in Cornwall (not that one begrudges him a break) to meet with Cobra. Ed Miliband tweets vague messages of support for “combatting the threat of ISIS”. What that means is, really, anybody’s guess. The spectacle of Philip Hammond on the Today Programme outlining all the things Britain “could” do – without ever committing to any of the options he outlines – is a demonstration of the strange paralysis that appears to exist at the highest levels of Government. Politics has become enfeebled when it comes to foreign policy – to the serious, weighty questions of war and peace, we are adrift.
It is, in some ways, Tony Blair’s fault. Not because of Iraq in the conventional sense. I understand why we helped to defeat Saddam Hussein. And I supported it then for reasons of basic morality that I continue to believe relevant and justified. But Tony Blair’s handling of the build up to that war continues to have a haunting, emasculating effect on our current leaders – it is a toxic hangover that exerts a tremendous, physical effect on Britain’s politicians. Blair’s desperation to get his way on Iraq led him to establish a new and wholly invented precedent – giving Parliament a previously non-existent right to vote prior to action in a foreign land.
The Royal Prerogative was, in effect, abolished on the basis of a PR campaign that required Parliamentary consent to establish legitimacy. Of course, the law didn’t change. But Britain is run more on convention than on constitution and it is difficult to imagine a Prime Minister now ignoring Blair’s convenient innovation. And so David Cameron went to Parliament last Summer and asked for its consent in tackling Bashir Assad’s brutal oppression of his people. They declined him his writ and we sat on our hands – with Cameron and his inner circle bitter at Ed Miliband’s perceived betrayal and permanently blocked from action. That decision was fateful. It left a vacuum that ISIS was perfectly placed to fill. We, the west, were not coming to help. But Al Qaeda’s even-more-evil twin was. And so the fate of Iraqi and Syrian Christians was sealed by our inaction and by the newfound timidity – born of an absurd and cynical invented convention – which has left the Arab world to the mercy of its ugliest side.
We have a choice to make as a country. We can look away for now and reap the consequences later – even whilst knowing that our brothers and sisters in the Middle East have no such option to delay. Or we can confront the evil that stares us in the face and murders our people. I would rather we did the latter. As I say, I don’t know what we should do, in what order or at what velocity – but I do (and I realise how glib this might sound) believe we must do something. I also know that there are others who – mostly with good intentions – do not believe we can or that we should even try. What is important now – because we live in the world, and the constitution, that Blair created – is that a debate is held. Parliament must be recalled. Lord Dannatt – the former head of Britain’s armed services – was surely right when he said “Parliament needs to come back together, people need to have a full debate about it and express their point of view. I think the nation would expect that. Everyone has private points of view, I think they need to be aired publicly.”
Parliament must decide whether a mandate to act is to be granted to the British state. And then – whatever the outcome – they must be held accountable.
All I would say to our honourable men and women is that they should remember – when eventually they get the chance to vote – that it is not just their constituents who will be watching, remembering. It is many hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. It is the families of those upon whom horrors have been perpetrated and those who face horrors to come. It is MPs’ own children and grandchildren who, if nothing is done, will live in a world where ISIS has morphed into a rich, powerful state. And, for those who believe, it is their God – who cannot, whatever faith they are of, wish these crimes to go unpunished and their victims unaided.
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