Is it going to happen again? Will the next 12 months really see western armies return to Iraq?
Last year was meant to signal an end to wars of intervention that dominated the world stage at the turn of the 21st century, attacks by powerful western states mostly against weak Muslim ones. It was assumed that Washington and London would draw a curtain over the most shambolic foreign policy adventures of modern times. The West would stop trying to reconfigure political Islam. Troops would return to base. Barack Obama and David Cameron were emphatic: ‘No more boots on foreign soil.’ As Cameron told Parliament last year after being stopped from intervening in Syria, ‘I get it.’
Yet the old tic, the twitch to intervene, has not gone away. Last October, despite his Commons rebuff, Cameron told his party conference that Islamic State was ‘a danger to Europe’ which he could not ignore. ‘There is no walk-on-by option,’ he said, though he did then walk on by. Since then he has plundered the lexicon for adjectives to hurl at Isis: vile, loathsome, evil, inhuman, odious. Like Tony Blair and George Bush, he sees terrorism as an ideology rather than a form of coercion. To him the Tunisian beach murders last June were said oddly to pose ‘an existential threat to Britain’.
Following his spring election victory, Cameron let it be known that he wanted Parliament to reverse its vote on Syria. It was then revealed that British pilots had been secretly involved in bombing Syria all along, in defiance of Parliament. Cameron was unrepentant. Like Blair, he craves covert liaison with Washington in matters of war and peace.
Britain’s leaders are at least consistent in their military adventurism. America is whimsical. It is hard now to recall Bush’s 2000 election rhetoric against what he and his aide Condoleezza Rice dismissed as wimpish ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘nation-building’. Blair was ridiculed for his interventionism. The world was not America’s business. The Somalia fiasco of 1993 was enough. There would be no more of the ‘101st Airborne leading kids to school’.
September 11 reversed all that. Bush became a born-again crusader and initiated an era of shock and awe which, by 2014, had engulfed the Muslim world from Pakistan to the Sahara. Governments were undermined or toppled, fuelling a fierce Islamist backlash, leading in turn to a refugee flood on a scale not seen since the 1940s.
By the time Bush left office, the Iraq and Afghanistan expeditions were widely discredited. I have counted some 200 books on them, barely one of which rates them with favour. The end was signalled by Obama’s 2008 election and his popular promise to bring troops home. Even the growth of Sunni militancy under Isis did not see an interventionist revival. Over the course of 2014 polls showed a solid 55 per cent of Americans against ‘boots on the ground’. Muslims should look after their own.
In the past year that has totally changed. The lame-duck Obama has had to send forces to support the helpless armies of Baghdad and Kabul. He wages a token air war against Isis-held territory that he is in no position to occupy or govern. Trapped by his military-industrial lobbyists into launching drone attacks across the region, he seems oblivious of the aid they offer Isis recruitment.
Iraq has now secured pride of place in the forthcoming American presidential election. Last year’s polls have gone into reverse, with more than half of recent Pew and Rasmussen surveys now in favour of a ground war against Isis. The latest CNN poll put Donald Trump well ahead of his rivals, with double the support offered Jeb Bush largely as he is seen as the candidate ‘to best handle Isis’.
The defining feature of the wars of intervention was media-induced mission creep. Each tended to start with sanctions and bombing, ‘intervention lite’. These were the fool’s gold of intervention. Subsequent Pentagon assessments of bombing campaigns were highly critical of their contribution to any strategic goal. Bombs tend to entrench a regime and draw people behind it. They are highly destructive, making it hard to restore administration afterwards. The past year’s bombing of Isis has reinforced its claim as champion of Islam’s defiance of the West, clouding its role in the Sunni war against the Shia. The longer Isis holds power across Sunni Iraq and Syria, the more its neighbours will move towards accommodation.
The question now is how long can London and Washington tolerate weekly Isis atrocity videos. The western media lacks any self-restraint in publicising them, such that Isis is said to regard them as a far more potent way of drawing attention to itself than the occasional act of terrorism. The clear objective is to goad the West into sending armies back to the desert and renewed entrapment. Nothing has changed since Gladstone was browbeaten into sending Gordon to disaster in Khartoum.
American election candidates are responding as if on cue. Every one wants to take on Isis. Jeb Bush, hounded by Trump, declared last week that ‘the world is slipping out of control’. Only he could safely restore it. Hillary Clinton has attacked Obama’s plea that ‘We don’t do stupid’ as ‘not an organising principle’. She demands that he ‘fill the vacuum’, whatever that means.
Islamic State cannot pose any serious threat to any western state, yet the media is happy to accept politicians who pretend it does. Eisenhower’s ‘military–industrial complex’ should today be renamed the military–industrial-media one. For all the condemnation of Blair over Iraq, it should be remembered that every daily paper (except the Mirror) supported his call for force, including initially the Guardian.
In America, Fox News is hugely influential in setting the foreign policy agenda. It reincarnates Randolph Hearst’s belief that wars were good for circulation, retorting to a journalist who doubted there would be war over Cuba, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,’ which he did. From another round of atrocities, it is a short step to transport jets roaring over Lakenheath air base and new carpets in Baghdad’s Camp Liberty.
There is little appetite in Britain for a return to Iraq. In the Commons last month, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon asserted, ‘Britain will not send ground forces into Iraq or Syria because it will be used by Isis as anti-western propaganda.’ He failed to explain why this did not apply to British pilots. But every British deployment in the wars of intervention began with similar denials of mission creep. Cameron has been making it very hard for Britain not to join an American reoccupation force.
In none of the wars of intervention was there any plausible casus belli, beyond the presence on television of ‘bad guys’. Kosovo was said to be humanitarian, but was effectively a war of partition. Afghanistan was punitive, but mutated into ‘rebuilding’ a nation — Britain’s Clare Short was even flown out to eradicate the opium crop. Iraq was claimed as a matter of ‘Britain’s national security’, but in reality was a simple decapitation of a dictator. Libya was ‘to avert a Srebrenica in Benghazi’, but soon changed into taking one side in a civil war — probably the wrong one.
I can find no truth to the left-wing claim that the wars were about securing oil. Even the most evil oil regime has to sell oil, and we have to buy it. Nor were the victim states significant harbours of terrorism. Most countries are that in some shape or form. In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq it was only boots on the ground that altered the outcome, for good or ill. But the longer the boots stayed, the more likely was defeat, either in battle or in failing to resolve the anarchy that followed victory. ‘Wars among the peoples’ are rarely won by outsiders.
The conservative American Cato institute ran a regular analysis of the wars and their outcomes. It reached a clear conclusion. They were all wars of choice. The selected enemies ‘posed no existential threat to any western state’. Attempts to rebuild them proved ‘extremely costly, most of them fail and most erode American power’. The war in Iraq alone was estimated to have cost three trillion dollars.
Yet war still has the best tunes. Until the end Suez was popular in Britain, Vietnam in America. Foreign adventures have long appealed to insecure leaders. Callaghan said privately he was mortified that ‘I never had a Falklands.’ During Libya, Cameron yearned for a chance to play Henry V, with the help of his interventionist foreign policy aide, Ed Llewellyn. He still dives for his Cobra bunker at the slightest whiff of cordite and emerges speaking cod Churchill. Those who have no experience of war seem to crave it.
But Iraq, again? It is hardly to be believed. Must we join Kipling and watch as ‘the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire’?
Simon Jenkins’s Mission Accomplished? The Crisis of International Intervention is published next month.Simon Jenkins is a former editor of the Times and the London Evening Standard, and a columnist for the Guardian.