It was with some trepidation that we waited for the Prime Minister's statement in the House of Commons this afternoon. Over the weekend, as the news from Algeria grew ever bleaker and the death toll from the attack on the In Amenas gas plant continued to rise, the tone of official pronouncements, including from David Cameron on Sunday, sounded alarmingly simplistic and shrill.
Not just the tone, but actual phrases, seemed eerily reminiscent of the former US President George Bush as he waged his "war on terror" and of our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as he warned with false certainty about the threat from Iraq. There was more than a hint of their dogmatic approach, of a view of the world in black and white, of a threat so great that it demanded immediate intervention. He made frequent references to extremism, Islamism and al-Qa'ida. It seemed but a small step to the position of Mr Blair and Gordon Brown that we had to fight the terrorists "over there" so that we would not have to confront them "over here".
Thankfully, it was a rather different David Cameron who delivered his statement. He expressed, quite rightly, a refusal to compromise with terrorists in general and those who had shown so little mercy towards their captives in the Sahara in particular. For the rest, though, there was a new and welcome appreciation of complexity, of the dilemma faced by the Algerian authorities and of the paramount need for a collaborative response.
Where, on Sunday, Mr Cameron seemed to glimpse a British African intervention force on stand-by to reclaim the desert, his emphasis yesterday was on "patience" as well as "resolve". He stressed the need for "a tough, but intelligent political response" and proposed discussions in the framework of the G8. He spoke of al-Qa'ida "franchises" and of a particular strand of jihadist Islam. Such distinctions are important.
So why the difference? Was the Prime Minister's first response dictated by the knowledge that the attack was not yet over and uncertainty about the scale of British casualties? Or perhaps by yesterday he and his ministers had had time to take advice from regional specialists of the sort that Mr Blair routinely spurned before going to war in Iraq. Or did time bring wiser counsel? Whatever the reason, we can only hope that yesterday's more considered and more collaborative David Cameron was the real one, and the one that will endure.
It should really not be news that longstanding grievances divide populations in the Sahel region or that giant installations employing foreigners, such as the In Amenas gas plant, may be vulnerable not just to those driven by extremist ideology, but to bounty-hunters. That last week's attack seemed to surprise shows how far Francophone Africa has been treated by London as a French problem. Belatedly, too, it must be recognised that, along with new freedoms, the Arab Spring has brought regional unpredictability, at times chaos, in its wake. The violent toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was always likely to have, and could still have, consequences that reverberate beyond artificial, colonial-era, borders.
And if, as is now reported, there were Westerners among the In Amenas hostage-takers, then it is not just to the region's problems that we have to look, but to our own as well. We just hope that Mr Cameron continues to match his calls for "iron resolve" with an equal insistence on intelligence, politics and patience. In the fast-moving crises of today, these qualities too often go missing.Reuse content