The left should stop congratulating themselves about the Iraq War being disastrous. Photo: Getty
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The answer to Iraq’s current crisis is not the left re-fighting the arguments of 2003

As soon as Iraq plunges into another disaster, the 2003 reenactment society gets back together, presenting a simple case of cause and effect  but the ISIS insurgency wasn’t inevitable.

I marched against the invasion of Iraq and I was right. Bully for me.
 
As the Sunni extremists of ISIS sweep through Iraq, the western left returns like a homing pigeon to the political battles of 2003, wrongly but understandably. Although the anti-war campaign was a defeat in practical terms, it was a resounding moral victory. We were more right than we could have possibly known. Like my fellow marchers, I knew that the war was illegal and unnecessary but I didn’t predict what a fiasco it would be. We assumed the neocons had a devious masterplan; their callous incompetence came as a shock. Whatever Blair and his dogged loyalists might say, history has utterly vindicated the demonstrators. Even Glenn Beck, of all people, has come around to agreeing with them. But that was then. What now?
 
Victory has a tendency to corrupt judgement. If not for the brevity of the first Iraq war, the toppling of the Taliban (short-lived though it turned out to be) and the effectiveness of Blair’s pet crusades in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Blair and Bush would not have been so bullishly confident about Iraq. Similarly, the left has a tendency to treat 2003 like a geopolitical skeleton key that unlocks every problem since, as if US and UK foreign policy hadn’t moved in inch.
 
In reality, the neocons have been humbled and sidelined even within the Republican party. Neither President Obama, Congress nor the American public has much appetite for another war (drone strikes, of course, are another matter). Even rapprochement with the old enemy Iran is underway. In Britain, Cameron has none of Blair’s dangerous moral conviction and nor do most of his ministers, with the notable exception of Michael Gove. The west’s most enthusiastic (and, in Mali, successful) intervener isn’t a neocon at all but France’s socialist president. It’s either ignorant or disingenuous to pretend that nothing much has changed in western capitals, let alone elsewhere.
 
What about the war’s legacy? Naturally, as soon as Iraq plunges into another disaster, the 2003 reenactment society gets back together, presenting a simple case of cause and effect. It’s a familiar dance and I know all the steps. But the ISIS insurgency wasn’t inevitable. Without the war in Syria or Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive governance, things could have been different. Conversely, there is no way of knowing how things would have unfolded if Saddam had been in power during the Arab Spring, or died of natural causes and left a weakened Ba’ath party. To hack through this forest of counterfactuals and confidently say the west caused the current crisis, or suggest that Islamists wouldn’t be pursuing their militant agenda here and elsewhere if Bush and Blair had stayed their hands, is simplistic at best.
 
The kneejerk invocation of 2003 during every foreign policy crisis has come to feel not just lazy but morally cheap. The anti-war camp won the day over Syria but the ongoing slaughter and humanitarian crisis is nothing to crow about. Might western intervention have made the situation worse? Very possibly, but the absence of it hasn’t made it better. There’s no reason to feel especially proud, unless your only concern is what the west does.
 
But then I suspect for many people it is. The solipsism of the neocons is to believe the west can and should fix all of the world's problems; the solipsism of a sector of the left is to believe the west causes all of the word's problems. Neither worldview properly takes into account the agency, history and local circumstances of other countries — the idea that they might do both great and terrible things without the west’s involvement — but each one provides a powerful sense of moral clarity.
 
Clarity is attractive. I feel confident when it comes to 2003, or the shabby Islamophobia of the tabloids, or the hysteria over the non-existent “Trojan horse” plot in Birmingham schools. It's easy to know which side you’re on. I’m almost comforted by the sporadic appearances of Tony Blair, even more grotesquely messianic now that he doesn’t have voters to worry about, because his denial is so appalling that I can say, “Ah yes, we were right. Terrible man, terrible war.”
 
But when I hear about ISIS, or Boko Haram, or Syria, or murderous Islamists in Pakistan or Kenya I just feel impotent rage and sorrow. Terrified of seeming remotely warmongering, the left hasn’t developed the intellectual machinery with which to talk about Islamist atrocities and the void is painful.
 
So I feel the tug of that solipsism and self-congratulation, nostalgic for a moment when the west was simply wrong and I felt I could do my bit by trying to prevent a useless war, because it makes me feel marginally less helpless now, even though I know it's an illusion of no real use to anyone. But I prefer honestly pained ambivalence to the hard certainty of those who obsessively hark back to 2003 in lieu of wrestling with what’s happening now and accepting how much of it cannot be pinned on western belligerence. It’s OK not to have answers to fiendishly complicated situations that bring misery to millions but the license to be smug about making the right call 11 years ago has expired.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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