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

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Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman