Tom Richmond: Do not discard diplomacy amid revulsion at Paris carnage

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WHERE are the diplomats? As the world comes to terms with the barbaric brutality of the terrorist attacks against France – and the liberty of all – it is sickening to think that such atrocities might increase in frequency.

Like it or not, I sense a growing inevitability that David Cameron will find a way – with or without Parliament’s consent – to ensure that Britain plays a more active role in targeting the Islamic State’s leadership apparatus in Syria. Michael Fallon, his gung-ho Defence Secretary, has said as much.

After all, this week’s meeting at the G20 summit between Mr Cameron and Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin could not have been frostier or more depressing to witness.

Even though they have a common enemy in the IS, the personal chemistry was non-existent, despite Britain sharing intelligence with Russia after one of its passenger jets was blown up over Sinai. The platitudes in the post-summit communiqué are probably worthless.

Why does this matter? Compare and contrast the leadership of today’s leaders – and their mutual contempt and loathing – with the global political giants who gathered 25 years ago in Paris, scene of the latest bloodshed, to mark the end of Cold War hostilities.

Despite this gathering being overshadowed by the Tory leadership vote which brought about Margaret Thatcher’s downfall, it remains emblematic of the resolve required if the latest challenge to world peace is to be thwarted.

Of course, the brinkmanship of the Cold War – and the constant threat of a nuclear conflict between America and the Soviet Union – is very different to the motives of those Islamic extremists and their loathing of Western values. At least the rules of engagement were known when the two superpowers threatened to square off. They are not now.

Yet the Americans and Soviets only saw sense because of the tireless work of diplomats, aided and abetted by interested parties like Britain, France and Germany. Those diplomats worked painstakingly prior to the momentous summits in the 1980s between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev when the world held its collective breath while the two presidents sought – and found – common ground.

I am reminded of this because of one’s feeling of wretched helpfulness when the first reports of the Paris massacre emerged – that sickening feeling as the death toll increased relentlessly and then the sense of sorrow as names, faces and stories were put to the victims.

This, tragically, is the age of 9/11, the Madrid train bombings and, of course, the 7/7 suicide bombings in London. Yet, while the despair is the same, the one comfort this time is the extent to which ordinary people reached out to the French in shows of spontaneous ‘Je Suis Paris’ solidarity which culminated with a rendition of La Marseillaise prior to last night’s football international between England and France as the arch above Wembley was illuminated by the French Tricolore.

However, I don’t believe that this outpouring gives Mr Cameron carte blanche to increase Britain’s military intervention in Syria.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from Britain’s missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that military action can be counter-productive without diplomatic and political initiatives.

This was President George W Bush and Tony Blair’s greatest failure. Their thinking was too narrow – they thought al-Qaida and affiliated groups could be neutralised by invading Afghanistan and then dismantling Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. They were wrong; the reach of this terror network was far greater. It is the same with IS – its influence is not confined to Syria and Iraq, as the Paris bloodbath proved with acts of mass murder undertaken by terrorists born in France.

This is not to preclude the Prime Minister from authorising military action if Britain’s national security is compromised. The burden on Mr Cameron’s shoulders is great and he needs to keep all options open.

But still I hope against hope that Britain does not go down the road to war without all diplomatic options being explored.

If that means Mr Cameron having to make an accommodation with Putin and even Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, it should not be ruled out. If ever the world needed leaders conducting themselves as statesmen it is now.

And there is historical precedent. Diplomacy ended the Cold War. Kuwait was only liberated in 1990 after an international consensus was reached. And a secret dialogue between John Major’s government and elements of the IRA was critical to kickstarting the Northern Ireland peace process.

Surely, in the 21st century, there has to be an alternative to the bombs and bullets which have come to symbolise the West’s dealings with the Middle East? As Winston Churchill once said: “To jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk