Barack Obama delivers an address on Iraq from the State Dining Room of the White House last night. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron backs US military action in Iraq - but he won't join it

Last summer's defeat over Syria has made the PM wary of intervention.

"Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help. Well, today America is coming to help," Barack Obama said last night. In response to the threat posed to the Yazidi minority, besieged on Mount Sinjar after being pursued by Islamic State (IS) jihadists, the US president has authorised air strikes to prevent what he described as a potential "genocide". 

"When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale and we have a mandate to help - in this case a request from the Iraqi government - and when we have unique capabilities to act to avoid a massacre, I believe the United States cannot turn a blind eye," he said in an address from the State Dining Room of the White House.

For the first time since its troops withdrew from the country at the end of 2011, the US has returned to a military role in Iraq. But Obama emphasised last night that "As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq". 

Where does the UK stand? The government has welcomed Obama's decision, while emphasising that "we are not planning a military intervention" (which is not quite the same as ruling it out). After being defeated by MPs over intervention in Syria last summer, and with a general election just nine months away, Cameron is wary of engagement. But he has asked officials to establish "what more we can do to provide help to those affected, including those in grave need of food, water and shelter in Sinjar area."

He added: "I welcome President Obama’s decision to accept the Iraqi Government’s request for help and to conduct targeted US airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces as they fight back against ISIL [sic] terrorists to free the civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. And I fully agree with the President that we should stand up for the values we believe in – the right to freedom and dignity, whatever your religious beliefs."

Given the UK's role in the 2003 invasion, widely blamed for the sectarian strife in Iraq, some MPs argue that the government has a moral obligation to act. Mike Gapes, a Labour member of the foreign affairs select committee, and its former chairman, tweeted: "Why is weak Cameron ruling out UK support for @KurdistanRegion in exisential fight v ISIL terrorist butchers? Contrast Major 91." 

But in the absence of a sudden change of heart in Downing Street, it looks likely that any UK involvement will be strictly non-military. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.