Displaced Iraqi women arrive at a camp in Aski Kalak in the north of the country. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

With Iraq, Obama was dealt a bad hand – and he’s playing it badly

The latest violence exposes the administration’s lack of vision for the broader Middle East.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni extremist group that was kicked out of Al Qaeda for being too violent, has seized Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq, and is now heading toward Baghdad. They are in pursuit of an Islamic Caliphate, which would encompass territory across Syria and Iraq. They have harnessed the past decade of Sunni oppression in Iraq and are bolstered by the influx of foreign fighters that flooded Syria to fight President Bashar Al Assad. Just three years after the US withdrawal from Iraq, the Iraqi military is proving incapable of resisting ISIS fighters and the US is struggling with a series of bad response options.

The prospect of an ISIS takeover in Iraq has presented pundits with ample opportunity to point out that the US invasion of Iraq was a bad idea and the withdrawal was poorly coordinated. But more importantly, it exposes the fact that the Obama administration still has no cohesive regional policy for the broader Middle East.

In his statement about Iraq, President Obama acknowledged the need to increase military and intelligence support to the Iraqi military and said his national security team was looking at all options. But he also said, “ultimately, it’s up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems”. The President’s frustration with Iraq’s unravelling is understandable, but it does not excuse his lack of a foreign policy strategy, especially since US intervention in Iraq and the surrounding area is partly to blame for the current chaos. 

Last week, Obama said the US can’t “play Whac-a-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular country”. But that it is increasingly what his Middle East policy resembles – a game of forcing enemies back into a hole, with repeated failure to address long-term regional outcomes. The US has responded individually to conflicts in the Middle East, without recognition of the overlapping causes and strategic interests between states in the region. The crisis in Iraq cannot be separated from the civil war in Syria. Furthermore, the alternative to military intervention is not inaction – it is diplomacy. Diplomatic efforts between the US and Iran on the nuclear deal, though turbulent, are progressing; this cooperation should be harnessed to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria and to contain the spread of ISIS in Iraq.

At this point, the US is limited in its response to Iraq. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki reportedly asked the Obama administration to carry out targeted drone strikes in extremist areas last month and Obama refused. There is speculation that he will now be compelled to reverse his decision, though he has only gone as far as saying “I don’t rule out anything.” While drone strikes can effectively target the leadership of an organisation and disrupt isolated terrorist attacks, they cannot be used to reclaim entire cities from well-organised fighters. 

Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained, “ISIS is very adaptive and proficient. It’s not just a terrorist organisation, but a hybrid army that really incorporates elements of guerilla strategy with conventional strategy.” He added that air strikes could slow ISIS’s advance toward Baghdad and buy Maliki more time, but will not ultimately destroy the group.

In Tuesday’s press briefing, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the US has also been increasing shipments of military equipment and training for Iraqi security forces since the beginning of the year in recognition of growing instability. Her announcement was unconvincing to the press pack. “You had about a decade, though, to train the Iraqi security forces ... what makes you think ramping up training since the start of this year is going to do much in this circumstance?” asked an attending reporter.

Further complicating things for outsiders who want to prop up Maliki’s regime is the fact that Iraq’s inability to defend itself from ISIS does not stem from a lack of weapons and training –  over the course of the war, the US spent $25bn to train and equip the Iraqi security forces –  as much as a lack of trust in Maliki, whose sectarian politics have carved deeper divides between Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations. Ultimately, a stable Iraq will require increased power sharing among sects.

This week’s events in Iraq are caused, at least in part, by the deteriorating security situation in neighboring Syria. Three years into the civil war, Obama’s policy in Syria has amounted to arming moderate Sunnis opposed to Assad, and giving them political legitimacy by declaring that Assad must go. However, Assad, strongly backed by the Iranians, has made it clear that he plans to stay, and outside support for the opposition has not been enough to pose any real threat to Assad’s hold on power. Rather, it has allowed the bloody war to continue indefinitely, during which time the opposition has fractured, and these days, the most extremist of the opposition are fighting with ISIS in Iraq.

To recap: the US is supporting the Sunnis in Syria as they fight Assad, backed by the Iranians. Meanwhile, the US is considering airstrikes to kill Sunni extremists as they fight Maliki, who is backed by Iran. If this seems utterly incomprehensible, it’s because it is.

In the aftermath of ISIS’s seizure of major cities in Iraq, the US has been caught without a grand strategy in the Middle East. Obama’s short-term solutions in Syria and Iraq contradict one another and have little chance of stabilising either country. 

In his statement yesterday, the President also expressed a need to build new partnerships to deal with regional threats. While there are political barriers to an outward alliance with Iran, the US needs to recognise the influence that Iran has in the Middle East, and harness the cooperative gains made in the nuclear negotiations to wider cooperation in dealing with Syria and Iraq. Iran is equally, if not more, threatened by ISIS. And the Iranians see a direct connection between ISIS’s growth and the terrorism safe-haven that became Syria. While it is not clear what form their intervention will take, collaborative effort with the Iranians, whether overt or covert, is necessary in stabilising Iraq.

The US should also reassess its diplomatic efforts in Syria. Though the Obama administration has claimed to support a negotiated end to the war, he unequivocally insists on Assad’s ouster and attempted to exclude Iran from previous negotiations in Geneva earlier this year. This is not negotiation. A true negotiated conclusion to the war will have to include a power-sharing government, that possibly includes Assad, and all regional powers must be included in the discussion –  including Iran. Critics who say this is impossible should look to the 15-year-long civil war in Lebanon, which concluded with the Taif Agreement, granting each side to the conflict proportional representation in the new government. While the Lebanese government is far from perfect, is has resisted falling back into civil war for over 20 years. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt