Granted, you don’t really expect foreign policy to feature much in an election campaign – we’re not saints – but it’s still shaming the way that the biggest foreign policy issue simply doesn’t register on the radar right now. I refer obviously to Islamic State, the group that just keeps on giving when it comes to reasons to want them wiped out. It’s a toss up really whether you go for the recently exhumed mass graves of the soldiers they massacred in Tikrit, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp they seized control of, the images they obligingly posted of themselves smashing artefacts at Hatra or the blowing up an Assyrian church over Easter. Take your pick.
And the response from the British Government? The last thing anyone heard was last month, when the MoD declared it would be sending 75 military trainers to train up Syrian rebels, ones that have been carefully screened for extremist Islamist tendencies and are fighting both IS and Syrian government forces. Both? Really? The US, which is leading this particular initiative, is right now focussing its efforts on those who are fighting IS. Yet the government seems never quite to have recovered from its chagrin that the Commons refused to sanction military action against Assad in 2012, though MPs did later approve air strikes against IS. The Foreign Office was caught unawares when Islamic State first captured Mosul, because at that time its attention was focused on William Hague and Angelina Jolie’s very worthy initiative for tackling sexual violence in war. Right from the outset the Government has been paralysed, impotent, clueless when it comes to IS. The Commons Defence Committee pointed this out last month when it observed that Britain had mounted only a small percentage of air strikes, had only a handful of troops in Baghdad and no clear strategy. Rory Stewart was especially scathing. The MoD took that criticism badly.
The only rational approach really is the one taken by John Kerry, who observed, unanswerably, that the US and its allies would eventually have to strike some sort of deal with President Assad to arrive at a negotiated solution – preferably one that involves him leaving office – if there were to be any peace in Syria. ‘We’ll have to negotiate in the end…everyone agreed there’s no military solution; there has to be a political solution,’ he said, though his spokeswoman hastily clarified that this didn’t actually mean talking to the man face to face. And he’s obviously right. Sometimes foreign policy comes down to a choice of lesser evil. In Syria and Iraq, the overwhelming priority is to defeat Islamic State, including its repulsive contingent of foreign fighters. That may mean engaging with a Syrian regime we should prefer not to exist in order to deal coherently with IS in Syria, particularly in its stronghold of Raqqa. It also, I think, means giving far more robust support to the Kurdish fighters who have provided the most effective military opposition to IS in Iraq – hardly surprising, when you consider the way the former Iraqi army was dismantled after the fall of Saddam Hussein – and who are now getting little help or money from the Baghdad government.
But of this we can expect to hear nothing during the election campaign, because Britain’s place in the world doesn’t really cut it as an issue. Trouble is, we may not hear much more about it after the election either.