Dozens of British citizens were just killed in Tunisia. But David Cameron’s government has no clue how to combat Islamist terror.
- By Alex MassieAlex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
“You may not be interested in war,” Leon Trotsky once warned, “but war is interested in you.” If British Prime Minister David Cameron ever doubted that, he knows better now. The slaughter of at least 22 British holidaymakers on a Tunisian beach confirms something which should have long been obvious: There is no hiding place from terrorism. Not for Britain or any other Western country. And not for anyone else either.
The victims of Seifeddine Rezgui’s massacre may have been largely British, but the target was Tunisia, too. A country which relies so heavily upon tourism — which accounts for nearly 15 percent of Tunisian GDP — is always vulnerable. Terrorism is happy to prey upon more than one kind of victim at a time.
“Britain can take it” was the slogan favored when London was bombed by Nazi Germany; ever since, the so-called “Blitz spirit” has become Britain’s emotional crutch whenever the country, or its people, is attacked. It is a flattering pose and, like most, not one without some foundation. Irish Republican terrorism was something to be endured with a measure of stoicism too, and so, more recently, has Islamist terrorism. Next week will be the 10th anniversary of the attacks on London’s transport system that killed 56 people (including the four bombers themselves).
That atrocity was the most powerful illustration of the problem Britain, like other European countries, has with homegrown radicalism. Little that has happened in the decade since suggests that problem is any closer to being solved. On the contrary, Islamist extremism continues to exert a gruesome hold on a small, but still troublingly large, number of British Muslims. Some estimates suggest more than 500 Britons have traveled to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State. Some may be little more than misguided “tourism jihadis”; others are deadly serious. “Jihadi John,” the infamous Islamic State beheader, is merely the highest-profile member of a group whose potential for wreaking havoc back home terrifies ministers and security officials alike.
No wonder London this week is the forum for the largest counterterrorism exercise in years. Hundreds of armed police officers, plus detachments from the Special Air Service and the regular army, took part in an exercise yesterday designed to prepare them for a “marauding attack” such as that launched in Tunisia last week or in Mumbai in 2008.
On Monday, Cameron suggested as many as a half dozen terrorist plots had been thwarted recently. As ever, the truth about the extent and seriousness of such plots is hard to ascertain. What cannot be denied, however, is that British intelligence continues to believe, as it has for years, that an attack of this sort is more likely than not. One day, the bomber or the shooter will get through. Britain will have to take it all over again.
Tellingly, however, the reaction to the massacre in Tunisia has focused as much on domestic concerns as it has on British foreign policy. Cameron promised what he dubbed a “full spectrum” reaction to internal extremism of the kind that might yet pose a danger to Britain. Announcing that a national minute of silence for the Tunisian victims would be held this Friday, Cameron admitted — yet again — that much more needed to be done to combat extremism in British schools, universities, prisons, and mosques. This, he said, was a “generational struggle,” as the need to “take on the radical narrative that is poisoning young minds” had never been greater.
And yet words are all very well but rarely much of a replacement for actions. The problem has been apparent for more than a decade, and yet, it persists. This suggests something gloomy: There may be no solution to it.
Nothing encapsulated the inadequacy of Britain’s response to this atrocity than Cameron’s suggestion that the BBC, and other media outlets, should not refer to ISIS — or ISIL — as the “Islamic State.” Because clearly what to call ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State or even Daesh, the group’s Arabic acronym, is what really matters and will make all the difference.
“We do need to crush [the Islamic State] in Iraq and Syria,” Cameron later said, but a plan for actually doing so remains elusive. Moreover, crushing the Islamic State — assuming it can be crushed — in turn feeds some of the narratives that help fuel the extremism the crushing would be designed to eliminate. Short-term success might merely seed longer term failure. But a modest response also seems inadequate. Equally, however, short-term failure also makes long-term failure more probable.
It was telling, however, that the British response to this latest horror has been chiefly domestic in nature. The truth is that Britain is wary, and perhaps even tired, of foreign policy. Even Americans fret that Britain no longer has the capacity — or even the desire — to be a prominent player in the international arena. The spirit of “If not us, then who?” that spawned Tony Blair’s interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Middle East has been replaced with a cry of “Why us?”
Last month’s general election was notable for avoiding almost any talk of foreign affairs. The parochialism of the campaign was as depressing as it was telling. But it reflected a singular truth: Britain is weary of foreign entanglements after a dozen years of resource-and-willpower sapping engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq that have all too often failed to achieve their stated objectives.
That reflects, of course, the unease felt by the consequences of past misadventures. The Iraq War still casts a large, baleful shadow over British politics. It did more than just destroy Tony Blair’s reputation; it inflicted a deep and lasting psychological scar on British politics. Cameron has been similarly burned by the aftermath of an intervention in Libya which, to put it as mildly as possible, has not quite paid the dividends he hoped.
Cameron’s weakness was underlined two years ago when it came to the question of any potential British involvement in an intervention in Syria. The aim of any such intervention was unclear, and so, too, was the duration of any British participation. Prompted by the opposition Labour Party, the House of Commons did not so much reject British involvement in any putative anti-Assad mission as opt to avoid having a policy of any sort.
Then again, Britain’s military capabilities have been sharply pruned since the Iraq War. There are fewer than 100,000 full-time soldiers in the British Army now, and though the Royal Navy is building two new aircraft carriers, there are, as yet, no planes to fly from them. Financial retrenchment has bitten the military hard: During the recent election, it was notable that neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party promised to maintain defense spending at the 2 percent of GDP that NATO asks — but rarely receives — from members of the alliance.
To the extent foreign policy intrudes upon Britain’s political consciousness at all these days, it does so purely in terms of the expected referendum on the terms and conditions of Britain’s membership in the European Union. This, however, is a domestic parlor game far removed from the wider international arena. It is a question of Cameron’s ability to manage the Conservative Party just as much as it is a serious engagement with the realities of modern Europe.
Be that as it may, the real lesson of this latest attack is that more massacres should be expected. Perhaps in London, perhaps elsewhere, but somewhere — and, most probably, sooner rather than later. The Iraq War reduced Britain’s standing in the world and its ability to maintain what the country liked to think was its proper position as a leading power and permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. When Tony Blair was prime minister, Britain seemed, for a fleeting moment, to have found a new role for itself. That was then, however, and this is now. With Blair disgraced and Cameron uncertain, Britain’s position in the world is, once again, uncertain.
Nothing that has happened since Cameron entered Downing Street five years ago has changed that. And with Britain’s capacity and will to act sharply reduced, most of what’s left is little more than fine-sounding rhetoric. There is, in the current climate, little to be done except warn the country that Britain will have to take it again.
Photo credit: Rob Stothard/Getty Images)