David Cameron: all mouth and no combat trousers?

Aug 18, 2014
The Mole

What happened to the 'monstrous threat' rhetoric? Does tackling IS not pass the 'family friendly' test?

Are we hearing the war tom-toms or not? Yesterday, David Cameron said the Islamic State posed a "direct and deadly threat" to Britain and we had "no choice but to rise the challenge". This morning he told BBC TV Breakfast viewers: "Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq."

In short, he seems to have done a handbreak turn in his rhetoric. 

The Prime Minister had used an article for the Sunday Telegraph to – apparently – soften us up for the prospect of a long campaign to contain the murderous Sunni fanatics. "True security will only be achieved if we use all our resources – aid, diplomacy, our military prowess – to help bring about a more stable world," he wrote.  

His new Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, was also banging the drum. Speaking on a flying visit to RAF Akrotiri, the airbase in Cyprus where British operations are based, Fallon said: "This is not simply a humanitarian mission..." He told the crews of RAF Tornado, Chinook and Hercules aircraft that the military mission could go on for months.

Cameron was on Breakfast TV this morning to promote a new initiative - intended to appeal to women voters - which promises that every government policy will be checked from now on to see whether it is "family friendly" before it is put into action.

He wasn't asked whether military intervention to tackle the Islamic State would pass the "family friendly" test – but by now he had changed his tune anyway.  

"Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq," he said. "We are not going to be putting boots on the ground, we're not going to be sending in the British Army".

So what happened to Cameron's war rhetoric? Downing Street added to the confusion by insisting: "We are not talking about a combat operation."

In which case, what are we talking about? More "family-friendly" air drops to the beleaguered Yazidis? Or will RAF pilots join their American allies in air strikes on IS positions, presumably guided by intelligence provided by SAS troops we already have on the ground (but who, because they are observing not fighting, don't count as "boots on the ground")?

As The Times reports, some MPs are anxious about "mission creep". Yet Cameron remains deaf to demands for a recall of Parliament so they can question ministers and be clear on the RAF pilots' rules of engagement.

Cameron has managed to avoid the recall issue partly because the Opposition leader, Ed Miliband, has so far refused to join in the calls.

One reason why it has suited both sides to avoid the difficult questions surrounding military action is that there are so many unanswered questions about the sort of war we might be getting involved in. And for Labour it is a horrid reminder that it was Tony Blair, the former Labour PM, who got us into this mess by invading Iraq.

One of the few MPs who is a real expert on the subject of Iraq, Rory Stewart, told Radio 4's Today programme this morning there were good reasons for holding back from military intervention.

"The reason you have to pause is if you think David Petraeus [the former US commander] with 120,000 troops and $120 billion a year wasn't able to bring lasting peace to these areas, what exactly are you proposing to do now? This idea that there is some grand military scheme which takes the willpower and the money to achieve, I am not convinced by it..."

Stewart, a former diplomat who is now Tory chairman of the cross-party Commons select committee on defence, also warned that we still don't have enough intelligence about IS members and aims. 

Another cause for pause is the perception among the embattled Shias in Baghdad - and some Americans - that President Barack Obama's readiness to sanction air strikes against IS positions is really about protecting the oil wells in US-backed Kurdistan.

“Obama’s defence of Irbil is effectively the defence of an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose sources of geopolitical appeal — as a long-term, non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe,” writes Steve Coll, an intelligence and national security expert, in The New Yorker.

The region’s oil-fields have boomed in the post-war years, attracting a number of drilling companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

But perhaps the real reason to avoid a recall of Parliament is that - in a reversal of the position last August over Syria - Cameron fears that this time MPs will say 'Yes' to a war that he and Obama do not want.

And, of course, it would ruin his holidays. Having been criticised for remaining on the beach in Portugal as the crisis mounted in Iraq, Cameron is hoping to return to holiday on Wednesday, this time in Cornwall. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband is in France and Nick Clegg is at his family retreat in Spain.

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