I do not claim to be an expert on British Foreign and Defence Policy. Neither, it seems is the British Government. Nobody could dispute the requirement for the British Government to do everything it can to ensure that British visitors to Egypt return safely to the UK. I shall leave the efficiency of the execution of this policy for others to discuss.
Britain is in a difficult position (as it was over Libya or Iraq) not because of unforeseeable contingent events, but because of how these events fit into the UK’s longer term presence in, and strategy for the crises currently unfolding in the Middle East. In that wider policy context all the circumstances that have brought us over time to this point in Egypt are connected.
The immediate British Foreign Policy consequences of a non-British air disaster in Egypt follow from the Government’s recent invitation to the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to visit the UK; in which our sudden announcement to supervise British departures from Sharm el-Sheikh Airport embarrassed a Head of State and humiliated his country, even before the President’s flight landed on British soil. At the same time we exasperated the Russians, who (after all) lost the passenger aircraft and over 200 of their citizens in the crash which caused the political crisis: and in a remarkable ‘coup de grâce’ we have now dealt a severe blow to the Egyptian economy, which relies excessively on foreign tourism.
We may expertly rationalise to our own smooth satisfaction all blame for these unfortunate and unintended incidents, but it remains reasonably plain that the principal effect of this sequence of events is that it is unconsciously helping realise an ISIS destabilisation strategy in the region, whatever we – apparently floundering helplessly in the middle of it – intend.
When approaching the mysterious and often apparently counter-rational nature of British Foreign Policy, it is worth remembering a trenchant maxim that is as venerable as the Foreign Office itself: ‘Britain has no permanent friends or permanent enemies; only permanent interests’. The second part of the maxim, on close inspection and with the advantage of historical perspective, is unsustainable because the permanence of national interests may in time be disproved: Winston Churchill spent his whole life defending the proposition that the British Empire was permanent. It wasn’t. However, the first part of the Foreign Office maxim, that we have no permanent friends or enemies has merit, and perhaps has been lost from view in the same march of history; lost in the desiccated atmosphere of Bleak House decay that has seemingly, finally overwhelmed Whitehall.
In order to understand how we arrived in our current predicament over Egypt I shall ask a few very simple questions, because, quite genuinely I do not know the answers. In the complex and chaotic Syrian crisis who are our friends? Who are our enemies? Do we know who our friends and enemies are?
In order to help the answers along, allow me to ask an equally small number of simple, supplementary questions. We either know, suspect or surmise that ISIS, Daesh, “so-called Islamic State”, proto-caliphate or whatever nomenclature is now favoured by the experts (who, incidentally often seem somewhat confused about the name, and even more uncertain about the exact content), is both one or many, or both, and is well-funded and supported by powerful interests; and will therefore be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to eliminate. This proposition seems to be established conventional wisdom throughout the West: yet this same elusive, dangerous but effective operation that has a current presence in Iraq, Syria (and beyond) seems to exist without any public, international representation or support anywhere in the world. It is almost as if the rise of IS was achieved through an act of political magic, somehow conjured into existence in a puff of smoke and sustained by nobody at all.
There is an old, wise and effective maxim that did not originate in the Foreign Office, but that can be applied to almost everything in this dysfunctional world, and if it is used rigorously it is a reliable technique for discovering the real sources of power and influence, wherever this requires examination. This technique first came to worldwide public attention in the United States, with the 1931 Al Capone tax case and is now laconically summarised by three terse words: follow the money. If we ‘follow the money’ in the case of IS, where does it lead? Do we know? Do we suspect? Does the trail of money lead back to those we call our enemies, or our friends?
The deeper question is, how do we tell?