Tough task ahead for new British Foreign secretary

Sunday 24/07/2016
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson listens as US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Office in London, on July 19th.

London - New British Foreign Sec­retary Boris Johnson faces a difficult task as the country’s top dip­lomat with many in the Middle East questioning the credentials of the charismatic but gaffe-prone former London mayor.

Johnson had been roundly criti­cised for previous undiplomatic antics, including writing a poem insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and newspaper articles including references to US President Barack Obama’s “part- Kenyan” ancestry and comparing US presidential challenger Hillary Clinton to Lady Macbeth and a “sa­distic nurse in a mental hospital”.

Britain’s new Foreign Affairs min­ister sought to draw a line under the criticism following a July 19th meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in London. “I’m afraid there is such a rich thesaurus now of things that I have said that have been — one way or another — some­how misconstrued that it would take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned,” he said during a joint news conference.

“Most people who read these things in their proper context can see exactly what was intended and indeed I find that virtually every­body I have met so far in this job understands that very well, partic­ularly on the international scene,” he added.

Kerry underlined Washington’s “special relationship” with Brit­ain and praised Johnson as a “very smart and capable man”. Johnson was keen to move from personal criticisms to focus on British for­eign policy, including the conflict in Syria.

Prior to his appointment, John­son had argued that Britain should support Moscow and Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), something that would represent a marked change in Britain’s foreign policy towards the region.

“We need someone to provide the boots on the ground and, given that we are not going to be provid­ing British ground forces — and the French and the Americans are just as reluctant — we cannot afford to be picky about our allies,” Johnson wrote in a 2015 article titled Let’s deal with the Devil: We should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al- Assad in Syria.

Johnson has moved quickly to try to allay regional fears, clarifying that Britain will not be changing its foreign policy towards the Syrian crisis.

“I will be making clear my view that the suffering of the Syrian people will not end while Assad re­mains in power. The international community, including Russia, must be united on this,” Johnson said.

Johnson called on Moscow to pressure Assad to “end the car­nage” in Syria and return to the negotiating table. “We seek those with influence over the Assad re­gime — including Russia and Iran — to ensure humanitarian access to the besieged areas in line with UN Security Council resolutions,” he said.

In a first week in office that in­cluded a tense visit to Brussels, as well as talks about the Syrian and Yemeni crises, it was clear that Johnson is facing major challenges other than the unprecedented tur­moil across the Middle East.

The appointment of one of Brit­ain’s most well-known pro-Brexit politicians as the face of the coun­try’s foreign policy indicates that Britain will be increasingly focused on Europe and post-Brexit trade. This could lead to a diminished British role in the Middle East, if not an actual change in British for­eign policy towards the region.