London Mayor Boris Johnson has disobeyed the Lady Soames Commandment: “Thou shall not say what my father would do today.” May the fleas of a thousand camels infest his pyjamas.
During a Daily Telegraph readers Q&A to launch Johnson’s new book, The Churchill Factor, Telegraph Head of Books Gaby Wood asked the Mayor what “we could take from Churchill today” and whether Islamofascism was an equivalent threat to the Nazis.
Although Mr. Johnson said he did not know whether Churchill would get involved in Iraq, he added: “I think he would have been in favour of air power. I think air strikes but not boots on the ground is my hunch on where he would have been because he wasn’t obsessed with foreign entanglements.”
Well, he was obsessed enough in the 1930s to argue for foreign entanglements (France, Russia, USA) when his country was in danger. But Mr. Johnson’s theory does have some basis in earlier history. During the 1920s Churchill favored air power not troops to quell rebellious tribesmen in Iraq. Of course, air power and “boots on the ground” were rather more primitive operations ninety years ago, and the situation is not at all congruent—which is why Mary Soames always emphasized her Commandment.
If you want to consider what Churchill thought then, you are cordially invited to do so. Whether it has any application now you’ll have to decide for yourself:
There is something very sinister to my mind in this Mesopotamian entanglement….[We seem] compelled to go on pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts….Week after week and month after month for a long time to come we shall have a continuance of this miserable, wasteful, sporadic warfare, marked from time to time certainly by minor disasters and cuttings off of troops and agents, and very possibly attended by some very grave occurrence. (Unsent letter to Prime Minister Lloyd George, 31 August 1920.)
We are paying eight millions a year [£200 million today] for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having. (Ditto, 1 September 1922.)
If you want a bit of general Middle East philosophy that might be worth considering, I recommend my personal favorite, to his Private Secretary in 1958:
The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major power has established firm influence and shown that it would maintain its will. Your friends must be supported with every vigour and if necessary they must be avenged. Force, or perhaps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected. It is very sad, but we had all better recognise it. At present our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared. (Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset, 166-67.)
Colorful politicians willing to say what they really think are rare prizes and Mr. Johnson is one. But publishing a book on Churchill doesn’t convey the right to judge what he would do nowadays. The answer his late daughter always gave when people said such things was: “How do you know?”