Recovering from a bout of pneumonia in North Africa in 1943, Churchill mused aloud to Harold Macmillan, who was Minister Resident with Eisenhower’s HQ in Algiers, that he was not sure that history would judge him well. This was an echo of a comment he had made a little earlier at Tehran where he had said history would judge him kindly – because he would write it. Startled, Macmillan asked him why he thought that. In typical fashion, Churchill’s mind went back to English history, and he pointed out that Cromwell had been so obsessed with fighting England’s old enemy, Spain, that he had missed the rise of the new one, the France of Louis XIV; he wondered whether men would say that he had been so obsessed with Germany that he had missed the rise of Soviet Russia? There’s a case to be made for that, but Churchill at least tried to make up for any error. Our current generation of politicians have been so obsessed with winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and obtaining the ‘peace dividend’ that they have missed the dangers that those wars helped make far more serious. Not even in his wildest dreams could Osama bin Laden have imagined that the evil acts he planned for 9/11 would end by radicalising so much of the Muslim world in an arc from Algeria through to Afghanistan and beyond. The news that ISIS forces have now captured territory in the Lebanon, and that they have made gains in Kurdistan ought to be causing more concern in Whitehall and Washington than appears to be the case. It may be that the influx of help from the Syrian Kurds can help stabilise the situation, but if not, then we may see in Kurdistan on a larger scale what we have seen in Mosul.
Whether we like it or not, the only effective armed forces in the region who are capable of dealing with ISIS are controlled by the Butcher of Aleppo, Bashar al Assad. Quite at what point the West is going to say of him as Churchill did of Stalin, that if Hitler invaded hell, I should at least make a friendly reference in the House to the devil, in not at all clear. Churchill saw the need for a pretty ruthless Realpolitik. Few had been more critical of Soviet Russia than he had, but he knew that needs must when the devil drives. Our leaders appear to imagine they have the luxury of a variety of options; they also have elections coming up, and they have been busy reducing the size and cost of the armed forces; they also have public opinions thoroughly war-weary and distrustful of any ‘crying wolf’ over anywhere east of Suez. ISIS is troubled by none of these things and, at the moment, is on a roll. That will continue until it meets with a check. Only then will we get some idea of how stable this organisation is; at the moment it is unclear where the check will come from.
We have a generation and more of politicians and advisers shaped by either the Cold War or its aftermath. They are not used to thinking of the world in terms of religious affiliation, and tend to regard ‘faith’ as either a private matter or an irrelevance. The first step they could take is to begin to remedy this situation. Beyond that, the options are stark. We have ruled out working with Putin and Assad, and we don’t want to work with Iran either; but we are best friends with the Saudis, who are, shall we say, no opponents of the sort of Wahhabite Islam preferred by ISIS. In the meantime the Kurdish forces are finding it difficult to cope, and we are doing precisely what to help? Any policy towards Israel needs to bear these things in mind. We are not dealing with Nasser and the old Arab league here. If the Kurds are defeated by ISIS then our options are few, and none particularly attractive.
This morning Baroness Warsi resigned over the Government’s policy on Gaza; some were amazed there was one; there appears to be none on Mosul.