Faced with the twin-pronged threat of ISIL and Putin, there is a palpable sense of drift in this government's actions
During Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday I accused David Cameron of weakness in the face of President Putin’s inexcusable aggression in Ukraine.
It was depressingly typical that his response failed even to mention the conflict which has seen the first unilateral redrawing of state boundaries in Europe since the second world war.
There is far more at stake here than point scoring in the weeks before the general election. David Cameron has led Britain during five years of global turmoil at least equal to that experienced immediately after the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.
In many ways the instability now is greater, as threats have become more diverse, less predictable and faster evolving. Yet whether dealing with renewed aggression from Russia or the extremist terror that has found a foothold in Iraq and Syria, the prime minister’s lack of clarity and failure to project a credible willingness to act has actually made it more likely that the country will be dragged into conflict for longer, with less predictable outcomes.
Largely isolated on the world stage, thanks in part to his own party’s innate suspicion of overseas co-operation, he is leaving Britain badly unprepared to face up to the threats we face.
Britain and its allies face a twin-pronged threat to our security and the values we are proud to promote across the world. The rise of ISIL in the middle east (or Daesh as many are now calling them) threatens us both through the regional instability it causes as well as the threat of returning, radicalised fighters.
Meanwhile, the sabre-rattling of Vladimir Putin has left Europe facing the most severe military and political threat since the fall of the Berlin wall. That has been seen in its most deadly form in Ukraine, but also in the form of intimidation of the Baltic states and even of Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall.
Yet faced with these twin threats, there is a palpable sense of drift and an utter lack of urgency in this government’s actions. In the crucial fight to remove Daesh from the huge foothold it has secured in Iraq, the UK is a bit player at best. We play a small role in coalition air strikes against terrorists, but have abdicated from any sense of leadership.
Earlier this year the Defence Select Committee, of which I am a member, issued a damning report on the lack of strategy or commitment from Britain to this crucial battle. Outside Kurdistan, there are just three British military personnel in Iraq.
Sustained defeat of Daesh in Iraq will not be achieved through military means alone, but also by helping to build and strengthen a functioning, democratic and anti-sectarian government in Baghdad, which can command the confidence of the Iraqi people.
But here too Britain has been negligent: there is no meaningful FCO political section in Baghdad and the department for International Development has ended all its work on supporting government structures and economic development in Iraq, just when it is most needed. Whatever anyone’s views on the 2003 intervention in Iraq, it is surely beyond question that we should be playing a full role now in helping secure a peaceful future for Iraq.
Today’s announcement of some very limited British non-lethal military support for the Ukrainian government is welcome, but we must be realistic about what 70 people in a non-military role will be able to do. And it does little to excuse the many months where the only apparent British government response to Russia’s clear aggression was an occasional toughly-worded ministerial statement. Thanks to the sabotaging of key relationships in Europe in an attempt to placate his backbenchers, David Cameron has relegated himself and Britain from even a place on the reserves bench when it comes to the Ukraine crisis.
Where was the prime minister when Hollande and Merkel were bashing out a ceasefire deal, however shaky, in Minsk? There is nothing splendid about Britain’s current isolation. As shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander makes clear in The Times today, our interests are being damaged by this diminished status.
When Ukraine abandoned the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, the western allies, including Britain, promised in return to guarantee its security. We are failing on that count, which is why president Putin feels so confident about veiled and not-so-veiled threats to EU members in the Baltic or the Russian presence near Britain’s airspace. Defence cuts are having an impact on the ability of Britain and our NATO allies to project required military deterrence to prevent conflict escalating, but it is lack of political and moral courage that is doing the most damage.
David Cameron failed to make an effective case for intervention in Syria. He has presided over a response to Daesh which is at best half-hearted, and he is missing in action over Russian aggression.
Some of the backwoodsmen in his party may revel in isolation and the UKIP threat may have pushed him into absurd anti-Europeanism, but Britain needs better leadership in these turbulent times.
John Woodcock is the Labour Coop MP for Barrow and Furness. Follow him on Twitter
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