Editorial: Caution, Mr Cameron, caution

The Prime Minister must avoid rhetoric about the spread of Islamist ideology

Related Topics

The ghost of Tony Blair could be heard in the House of Commons on Friday, when David Cameron made a statement about the Algerian hostage-taking crisis. "We will stand with the Algerians in their fight against these terrorist forces," he said. "Those who believe there is a terrorist, extremist al-Qa'ida problem in parts of North Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong. This is a problem for those places and for us."

As the 10th anniversary of the disaster of the Iraq war approaches, and as British troops are still taking casualties in our long overstayed mission in Afghanistan, how uncanny it is to hear a British prime minister using such similar words with only the names of the countries changed.

That may be partly because Mr Blair was not wholly wrong about Afghanistan, at least. The original intervention in Afghanistan was justified. The mistake was to think, once the Taliban had fallen, that it was our responsibility to construct a workable democratic society – from the roads and power stations up.

Therein lies the lesson for Mr Cameron. It was the lesson of Vietnam. The danger is that early decisions may lead to further decisions taken by default, and under less scrutiny. That is why the Prime Minister should be careful about sending those two transport planes to help the French intervention in Mali. That is one of the ways in which countries can take the first innocuous steps into a quagmire.

This is part of a broader lesson, which is that military action, even for the best of motives, can have unforeseen consequences, either because they were unforeseeable or because they were not thought through. The Iraq invasion, far from denying opportunities to terrorists, did exactly the opposite. It created precisely the kind of "ungoverned space" about which Mr Cameron is now worried in the Sahara, in which new groups inspired by al-Qa'ida now operate.

The law of unintended consequences applies in cases where the case for military intervention is far stronger than it ever was in Iraq. This newspaper supported the no-fly zone – authorised by the United Nations – over Libya in 2011, and is proud of the UK's role in enforcing it. Libya's progress since Gaddafi's fall, as John Rentoul notes opposite, is partly to Mr Cameron's credit.

Yet Libya's liberation has plainly sent weapons and soldiers into the Saharan corridor of instability. It was not the cause of civil war in Mali, but it has not helped, and it would seem to have contributed to the raid on the Algerian gas plant.

It is at this point that the Prime Minister should prefer caution to rhetoric of the domino theory and the spread of a violent Islamist ideology against which the democratic world must stand. As our writers explain today, the politics of this corridor are more complex than a simple attempt by al-Qa'ida to find new franchises for its terrorist brand. Ethnic and sectarian conflict merge into banditry across that whole strip of the continent, and direct European military "assistance" is likely to be anything but, except in the shortest of terms.

Mr Cameron, learn the right lessons from Mr Blair, not just how to make fine declamations of apparently moral sentiment. Proceed with care.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor