Obama is the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq. Photo: Getty
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US air strikes on Isis add fuel to extremist ideologies

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years.

President Obama has become the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq and the first to launch them on Syria. It is a remarkable submission to history for a president whose candidacy in 2008 was largely defined by his opposition to America’s recent past.

The Obama administration would argue that the current mission is different from previous campaigns, primarily because of the manner in which the US now projects its military power abroad. Boots have been replaced with drones and ever more mechanisation. Such an approach evidently assuages public concerns over sacrificing more western lives for seemingly elusive stability in the Middle East.

Yet this is true only to an extent. The marked increase in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen under Obama has destroyed much of al-Qaeda’s core leadership. While drones can eliminate leaders, however, they cannot dismantle terrorist networks. The unpicking of al-Qaeda’s global network, as demonstrated by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was the result of conventional military deployment.

In this context, it is hard to imagine how Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis) will be defeated with air strikes alone. The group controls swathes of land, has an army of tens of thousands and possesses highly sophisticated weapons. Were aerial bombardment enough to crush IS, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would have put an end to the rebellion long ago.

For now, Obama has limited himself to ordering air strikes while ruling out a more vigorous military response. The perils of such an approach are many. There is the danger of mission creep – but there also broader issues that have been poorly understood.

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years. When the uprising in Syria first began, thousands of civilians were abandoned to Assad’s regime. He tortured and slaughtered them with impunity and practised the worst form of dog-whistle politics.

Many Syrians called for intervention to tip the balance. Instead, as law and order broke down and instability increasingly took hold, jihadists moved in to fill the power vacuum. The west, they told Syrians, doesn’t care about the deaths of Sunni Muslims. This was a repeat of the Bosnia narrative, which peddled the view that European governments were indifferent to the plight of Balkan Muslims.

Many Sunni Muslims in Syria have similarly questioned the west’s concern over the fate of minorities in their country. What about the majority, they ask? They were abandoned to the regime and Obama was stirred into action only in defence of the Yazidis.

Although the US president has stopped short of saying so explicitly, we are left to understand that Assad is the lesser of two evils. So it is that discreet diplomatic channels have been reopened to the Assad regime. That much is clear from a statement issued by Lieutenant General William Mayville, a Pentagon spokesman, who confirmed that Syrian air defence systems were “passive” during US raids on IS targets in Syria.

We have been here before. Months before the 2011 uprising, Vogue showered encomium on the Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, describing her as “a rose in the desert”. The American academic David W Lesch similarly described Bashar al-Assad as “the new lion of Damascus”. The authoritarian bargain that the Syrian president offered seemed to enchant western observers. Asma al-Assad launched civic empowerment projects for children, the Four Seasons opened new hotels in Damascus and laws were passed allowing for casinos. Yet, behind the scenes, it was business as usual. President Assad continued to crush all dissent, while providing a vital air route for Iranian intelligence to supply Hezbollah.

Those clambering to support Assad should remember just how much blood of our troops he is responsible for. In the last Iraq war, Syria provided the primary thoroughfare for foreign jihadists wanting to fight western coalition forces. Syrian intelligence not only turned a blind eye to the fighters passing through the country but also actively supported their efforts, releasing a number of senior jihadists from prison.

Obama’s initial inaction helped to create the conditions in which the jihadists could flourish. Now, he has reacted with hasty half-heartedness and delivered the worst of both worlds. This confrontation with IS will almost certainly extend beyond the end of Obama’s presidency in 2017, after which he will be able to repent at leisure. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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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