Boris Johnson

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Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom

NOTABLE QUOTES

“Israel is a country that when all is said and done is the only democracy in the region, the only place that has in my view a pluralist open society.”

“Britain should do a deal with the Devil: we [Britain] should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”

(When President Obama removed one of two statues of Winston Churchill from the White House): “The part-Kenyan president has an ancestral dislike of the British empire — of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”

Regarding Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014: "I can’t for the life of me see how this can be a sensible strategy. I think it is disproportionate, I think it is ugly and it is tragic and I don’t think it will do Israel any good in the long run."


EARLY YEARS AND EDUCATION

You were born in June 1964 in New York City, while your father was completing his studies at Columbia University (your family would soon return to England so that your mother could pursue her own studies at Oxford). As a consequence, to you hold both American and British citizenship. It should also be noted that you are a self-described “one man melting pot” with Muslims, Jews and Christians as great grandparents. One of your great grandfathers was Turkish, and you yourself were named after a Russian friend that your parents met in Mexico.

Over the first five years of your life, you spent nearly as much time in the United States as you did in England, moving to Brussels in 1973 when your father took a job with the European Commission (he would later serve in the European Parliament). Your mother suffered from mental health issues and you spent most of your teenage years at boarding school, doing the equivalent of high school at the celebrated Eton School, and later attending Oxford University where you majored in ancient literature and classical philosophy. Starting in the late 1980’s, you worked as a journalist and newspaper editor, and gradually developed a prominent public persona, derived from the offbeat good humor you showed in many television appearances on talk shows, and in political essays that you wrote. Over time you published many books, ranging from collections of your essays to works of history focused on the Roman Era, early Islamic history, and the life of Winston Churchill.


PUBLIC LIFE

In 2001, you made the controversial decision to run for parliament on the Conservative ticket. Your name recognition drew many voters, but many party leaders worried that your flippant style wouldn’t play well, and might not reflect well on the party. You were elected to a safely Conservative seat, however, though by most accounts you did not distinguish yourself in parliament, missing a lot of votes and, by even your own account, not showing well as a speaker. You gained a reputation, at first, by publicly flip-flopping on the question of British involvement in the Iraq War, saying that you would oppose it before you publicly came out for it in 2003, only to change course and publicly oppose British involvement in Iraq in 2006. Even if you were not the model parliamentarian, seeming to focus much more on your newspaper work and writing, your public profile grew, and in 2007 you decided to run for Mayor of London. You had to fend off charges of racism, as demonstrated in your newspaper columns, but you defended your work as being satiric in nature, and were ultimately able to win the day, defeating the incumbent and taking office in 2008. Your tenure as Mayor was generally considered to be successful. You were at the helm during the 2012 Summer Olympics, which came off well, and you oversaw significant improvements to public transportation. You won re-election in 2012, and ran for and won a seat in parliament in 2014, serving in both roles until 2016.

Perhaps your greatest international fame derived from your involvement in the so-called “Brexit” campaign, an initiative approved by Prime Minister David Cameron to put before British voters the question of whether or not Great Britain should remain in the European Union. Cameron felt that Great Britain should stay in the European Union, but saw that there was strong enough Conservative support for the idea that he proposed the vote, thinking that the “Remain” campaign would win, and that he would gain favor within his party for giving British voters a chance to decide the matter directly. Although you were known to have deliberated extensively before deciding your stand on the question, you soon became one of the public faces of the “Leave” campaign, criticizing Prime Minister Cameron for needlessly stoking fears about the consequences of Great Britain leaving the EU. In June 2016, the “Leave” side won the election, and David Cameron immediately resigned, leaving the Conservative Party to hold a new election for party leader, with the winner of that election taking the Prime Ministership owing to the fact that the Conservative Party held a parliamentary majority. You were considered to be the front-runner for the position, but your fellow Conservative “Leave” campaigner, Michael Gove, declared for the party leadership as well, stealing enough of your would-be voters that your candidacy was undermined and you had to withdraw, ultimately clearing the way for Theresa May to ultimately win the party leadership and take over as Prime Minister in July 2016. This move was a shocker, and it was thought to represent the end of your ambitions for a major role in the party. However, Prime Minister May’s very first move was to install you as Foreign Secretary, stunning many observers, and worrying many more who feared that your free-wheeling speaking style (and “Brexit” baggage) made you a bad fit for the job.


YOU AND THE MIDDLE EAST

Owing to your journalistic work and your public station, as well as your family background and personal interests, you come into office with a significant public record on Middle Eastern matters. You are, for example, regarded as a strong supporter of Israel, although you were harshly critical of Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2014. You have likewise been sharply critical of the international “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. You characterized the movement, which advocates using economic means to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, as being a crazy idea perpetrated by “corduroy-jacketed, snaggletoothed, lefty academics in the UK”.

You gained notoriety for advocating that Great Britain should ally itself with Syria and Russia in an effort to defeat ISIS, stating that doing so would be to embrace “the lesser of two evils.” Although British and American policy has seemingly been headed in the direction of relinquishing the demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go at all costs, you are now on record as advocating a path opposed to official British policy, leaving many wondering if you will continue to push in this direction in your new position. Although you have not stinted on your criticism of Assad, it is likely that Syrian Opposition leaders take little comfort from your words. You offered praise for Russian President Putin’s action regarding ISIS, although (like most world leaders) Putin has been the object of your satirical eye, with you famously stating that Putin reminded you of Dobby from the Harry Potter series.

Although you were a longtime supporter of Turkey’s ascension to membership in the European Union, you have incurred the wrath of Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan by offering support for the Kurdish separatist PKK party, which is Public Enemy #1 in Erdogan’s eyes. Indeed, the PKK is regarded as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Great Britain, so it will be very interesting to see if and how your stance evolves.


MIDDLE EASTERN POLICY

The Prime Minister will need your support and your political skill as she tries to work with a British Parliament that has sought both to put more pressure on Israel to stop the building of settlements in the West Bank, and to be more public about advocating for an independent Palestinian state. In this latter connection, the British Parliament overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution in October 2014, calling on the British government to recognize the state of Palestine. Though many of those voting for the bill were in the left-wing Labour Party, there were also many supporters from among the ranks of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Your predecessor, Philip Hammond, said the government wouldn’t be forced to recognize Palestine, and would only do so “at a time of its’ choosing.” Toby Ellwood, Minister for Middle Eastern Affairs, said in the parliamentary debate that recognition was a card that could only be played once, and his statement was roundly criticized as reducing the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians to a diplomatic “move.” Many parliamentarians believe that if your government truly wants to support a negotiated settlement then its best course of action is to recognize Palestine, so as to even the scales in a negotiation where they see Israel holding most of the cards, while others believe that recognition should be the end result of direct negotiations, and that to offer this prize to the Palestinians now would undermine the very process that ostensibly will lead to the desired outcome. Given the tenor of the parliamentary debates, you can be sure that your stance on this question will be put to the test.


ROLE-PLAYING NOTES

British political pundits had a field day making sense of your appointment as Foreign Secretary. Some say that it showed Theresa May’s political savvy, as she was much better off with you inside the government than standing outside lobbing criticism, particularly but not exclusively regarding how the process of Great Britain’s exit from the EU unfolds. Another explanation for your appointment holds that you are one of the avid advocates for leaving Europe, and that Prime Minister May (who was a quiet advocate for the “Remain” side) wants the messy business of the Brexit to be in the hands of its advocates, allowing the Prime Minister to keep her distance from an ugly business. Other people who regard Prime Minister May’s move to be a canny one claim that if you revert to old habits and make a public misstatement, she can cut you loose without losing much politically, while leaving you completely neutralized. Still others want to look at this very thing and see it the opposite way, wondering why the Prime Minister would risk the reputation of her government on your ability to act and speak in a consistently diplomatic fashion. You come into this position with many assets. Most people regard you as plain-spoken and smart, and your familiarity with American culture can only be an asset as you seek to keep the British-American relationship strong. You are thought by many to be a great communicator who is media-savvy, and who will counter the image of Great Britain as a meek former power that is receding into the background. Use your gift with language to score points in press releases, knowing that you can always shrug off mistakes by leveraging your personal charm. Indeed, the success of your tenure as Foreign Secretary may rely quite heavily on whether you come to be seen as more charming than reckless.


REFERENCES

Boris Johnson. (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Johnson

Boris Johnson: Britain's Top Envoy Anything but Diplomatic. (2016, July 14). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/07/14/world/europe/ap-eu-britain-boris-johnson.html

Eaton, T. (2016, July 14). Boris Johnson's Position on Syria Is a Problem for the UK. Retrieved July 20, 2016, from https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/boris-johnson-s-position-syria-problem-uk?utm_source=Sailthru

MacDonald, A. (2016, July 14). ANALYSIS: Shock appointment puts Boris Johnson on Middle East collision course. Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://www.middleeasteye.net/Boris-Johnson-Middle-East-politics-Syria-Iraq-Israel-Turkey

Massie, A. (2016, June 30). Boris Johnson Reached for the Throne but Got Stabbed in the Back Instead. Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/06/30/boris-johnson-reached-for-the-throne-but-got-stabbed-in-the-back-instead/?utm_source=Sailthru

White House compares Boris Johnson to Israeli envoy. (2016, July 14). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://www.timesofisrael.com/white-house-compares-boris-johnson-to-israeli-envoy/?utm_source=The+Times+of+Israel+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=67f0baea4b-2016_07_15&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_adb46cec92-67f0baea4b-55270009

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