Canberra – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls to mind a Charles Dickens character in “Bleak House”: “Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent mood. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject.”
Blair popped up recently to deny that the lightning advance of the ruthlessly efficient ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) could be blamed on the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rather, in his parallel universe, the fault lies in not intervening in Syria last year to topple President Bashar Assad.
Blair was widely ridiculed, especially as Western intervention would have effectively been in support of the extremists. Syria’s military has been battling them with more fight and success than shown by Iraq’s army after more than a decade of U.S. training.
London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, who supported the 2003 war, concluded that Blair has finally become “unhinged” in his refusal to face facts: His “assertions are so jaw-droppingly and breathtakingly at variance with reality that he surely needs professional psychiatric help.”
Two years ago, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu explained his refusal to share the stage with Blair at a seminar in Johannesburg by recalling the “immorality” of the United States and British invasion of Iraq: “In a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Prime Minister John Howard took the U.S., U.K. and Australia to a war of choice to topple Saddam Hussein. They did so against the massive weight of popular, elite and global opinion, insisting their judgment was superior and that they would answer to history. Well, history seems to be giving its verdict and its nemesis is ISIL.
The Islamist force has fought, tortured and killed its way through large swaths of Iraqi territory and captured Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, plus several others. The Iraqi military dissolved and melted away faster than an ice cream cone in the desert heat.
The senior Middle East journalist Rami Khouri points to “the total lack of accountability or restraint in how global, mostly Western, powers focus on an issue related to a powerful Middle Eastern country, then take action, from sanctions to warfare and regime change, to achieve the goals they set.”
When it all goes wrong, they profess to have acted in good faith to make the best decision with the information they had at the time, offer a mild public admission of mistake, and “we are asked to wipe clean the slate of moral accountability.” But Middle Eastern leaders are subject “to different rules of accountability. If Western powers deem them to have misbehaved — or merely suspect them of misbehaving,” the “local leaders or countries are immediately sanctioned, threatened, accused of war crimes or attacked.”
How do we impress on U.S. neoconservatives-cum-chickenhawks — and their Australian-British fellow-travelers — the enormous disparity between the vision dreamed, the goals pursued, the means used and the results obtained?
More than a decade after the event, conventional wisdom seems to have settled into the conclusion that the war was one of the gravest foreign policy blunders of modern times. To paraphrase Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the good the coalition may have done lies interred with the bones of the dead in Iraq; the evil they unleashed will live on in infamy.
Stephen Walt argues that until the U.S. “gets better at listening to those who are consistently right instead of those who are reliably wrong, we will repeat the same mistakes and achieve the same dismal results.” The neocons remain utterly shameless about “how wrong they’ve been,” and “appear utterly indifferent to the tragic human consequences of their repeated policy failures.”
Hussein’s regime was the most secular in the region. His strongman rule was brutal but effective in imposing stability. His removal set off a train of pernicious consequences. It reduced the political space for secularists and promoted a hardening of zero-sum religious identity, which in turn sparked increasingly ruthless sectarian fighting that in a vicious cycle reinforced sectarian hatred.
The poison of the hatred and killings entered deep into Iraq’s body politic with Nouri al-Maliki’s steady disenfranchisement and marginalization of Sunnis from state structures and institutions, then spread rapidly outward from Iraq to surrounding countries. By now it has engulfed the entire region with a deepening Sunni-Shiite schism that sees Iran as the champion of the Shiites and Saudi Arabia and Turkey as the two Sunni nodes. ISIL has been bankrolled by Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalists and other conservative Gulf states. They too must now fear blowback from the monster on the loose.
For all his failings and disappointments on other fronts, President Barack Obama is right to be extremely circumspect in returning to the discredited and destabilizing military option for resolving an internal Middle East crisis.
Clearly U.S. diplomats and soldiers will be protected as best as possible. Beyond that, options range from doing nothing, on the reasoning that Washington no longer has a dog in the fight, to another full-fledged military intervention. The first will have some support in U.S. policy and commentariat circles; the last will have none beyond the few who are yet to see a war they don’t like, learn nothing and forget everything.
A Reuters-IPSOS public opinion poll released June 19 showed a solid 55-20 majority against U.S. intervention of any kind. Options in between include drone strikes; military strikes by U.S. planes and missiles stationed in the region; intelligence and logistical support for Iraqi government forces; cooperation with Iran against a common enemy; and acceptance of a tripartite split of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish components rather than a united “Sunnistan.”
Meanwhile, the crisis confirms the urgent need for parliamentary consent to be converted from an optional add-on to a legally binding requirement before a democracy goes to war. It should not be possible for a president or prime minister to wage war — the most solemn foreign policy decision of all — based on the whims or personal convictions of the leader, as was the case with Bush, Blair and Howard.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.