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?

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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