An Iraqi-Kurdish fighter at a checkpoint west of Arbil. Photo: Getty
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The first “war on terror” was a failure. Do we really need a sequel?

Just because there are no good options in Iraq doesn’t mean we have to pick the worst option.

It’s difficult to disagree with the verdict of Barack Obama. The Isis terrorists, the US president declared in a televised address on 10 September, “are unique in their brutality . . . They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists – Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.” (On 13 September, they also beheaded the brave British aid worker David Haines.)

Isis, in other words, is evil. Scum. The worst of the worst. Unique, to borrow Obama’s phrase, in its brutality. Nevertheless, it isn’t difficult to disagree with the solution proffered by the president and his new neocon pals. “We are at war [and] we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win,” declaimed Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president. “What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” asked the pundit William Kristol.

Forget for a moment the legality of bombing Iraq without congressional approval, or bombing Syria without UN approval. Put to one side, also, the morality of dropping bombs from 5,000 feet on towns in northern Iraq that are full of civilians.

The bigger issue is that military action might make us feel better about ourselves and it might even “degrade” Isis but it won’t “destroy” it (to use Obama’s preferred terminology). How will dropping bombs destroy the hate-filled ideology behind the terrorist group? How will air strikes prevent foreign fighters returning home to the west to carry out revenge attacks? How will killing innocent Iraqi Sunnis “in the crossfire” stop Isis from recruiting new and angry fighters from inside Iraq’s Sunni communities? How will cruise missiles produce an inclusive government in Baghdad, one that heals the long-standing rifts between Kurds, Shias and Sunnis and encourages the Sunnis to turn their backs on Isis, as they did on al-Qaeda in 2006 and 2007? How will despatching drones help generate a national civic identity that makes Iraqis feel united as a single people, rather than part of a patchwork of warring tribes and sects?

If bombing “worked”, Iraq would have morphed into a Scandinavia-style utopia long ago. Remember, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama is the fourth US president in a row to appear live on television in order to announce air strikes on Iraq.

Remember also that the US and its allies have been dropping ordnance on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya, among other countries, since 2001. Yet, today, the Taliban is resurgent in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while al-Qaeda is opening new branches of its terror franchise in India; Libya is in chaos, with Islamist militias vying for control and the government in exile hiding out on a Greek car ferry; and US air strikes in Yemen, according to a former US embassy official in Sana’a, generate “roughly 40 to 60 new enemies for every [al-Qaeda] operative killed by drones”.

“It’s hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end,” said Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in July. Why? “The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences . . . Coercive measures like sanctions and bombing are much more immediately satisfying emotionally than the long slog of diplomacy.” Or as the economist and senior UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs recently tweeted, “US has a one-note foreign policy: bomb.”

Once again, we are confronted with the myth of redemptive violence, the belief that the application of superior western air power is ultimately just, noble and necessary. Wanting vengeance for Foley, Sotloff and Haines, not to mention the thousands of unnamed Syrians and Iraqis slaughtered by Isis, is understandable. Vengeance, however, is no substitute for a viable strategy.

As Richard Barrett, the former MI6 head of counterterrorism, warned me in a recent interview, it’s a mistake to see air strikes as a “tool that is going to solve the [Islamic State] problem . . . It’s just reaching for a hammer because it is a hammer and it’s to hand.”

So what’s to be done? First, just because there are no good options in Iraq doesn’t mean we have to pick the worst option: a tried, tested and failed option. Yes, air strikes can keep Isis fighters away from Erbil but they cannot eradicate Isis.

Second, there is a range of political steps that must be taken – from guaranteeing Sunni participation in the new Iraqi government to cracking down on the oil sales worth $100m a month that fund the Isis reign of terror. Then there is the regional cold war that has helped fuel the hot wars in Iraq and Syria. Getting Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran to a negotiating table, Richard Barrett explained, would have “much more impact [on Iraq] than flying out and dropping bombs”.

We can’t talk to Isis but we can talk to Saudi Arabia (and, for that matter, to Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). And, yes, to Iran, too. The Iranians can put pressure on the dysfunctional Shia-led government in Baghdad; the Saudis can do the same with the disaffected Sunni tribes that have allied with Isis.

Instead, Obama, with David Cameron in support, prepares for a new, US-led, three-year military campaign, across two countries, against the thugs and gangsters of Isis, even though 13 years of the so-called war on terror – stretching from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iraq to Yemen, Libya to Somalia – have produced only more war and more terror. Do we really want a sequel?

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer. He works for Al Jazeera English and the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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