Mary Wakefield

Please, Cameron – no moral grandstanding over Iraq

This time, surely there is no one we can mistake for simple goodies and baddies

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

If there’s a bright spot in the murky mess of Iraq, it’s that finally we have a war that it is impossible to paint in simple terms, as a battle of good against evil. This time, even our PM, the self-appointed heir to Blair, can’t grandstand about defeating ‘terror’ or protecting ‘innocent civilians’ because there’s terror and innocence on every side. He can’t pose as world policeman; stand side by side with Obama and say ‘we must not let this evil happen’, because clearly we already have.

Take ISIS, the Islamist group once affiliated to al-Qa’eda who’ve become the world’s new public enemy number one. ISIS have captured parts of northeast Syria and Iraq, and have begun to eye up Baghdad. They’re into beheading and stoning, even crucifying civilians, and under other circumstances it’d be tempting for both Obama and Cameron to paint them as the very apex of evil and the antithesis of all the West holds dear.

But as both leaders know, ISIS are not the only horror show around. Take a look at the ‘good’ rebel soldiers of the Free Syrian Army, the ones we’ve armed and backed against Assad, and you’ll see they’ve developed quite a taste for darkness too. You can watch them on YouTube, if you like, sawing off body parts from their Shia victims and wearing necklaces made of ears. The brutality has spread as if waterborne down the Euphrates.

Next, consider all the ways in which ISIS owes its success to the West. They’re a tiny outfit, just a few thousand men, but they’ve been able to capture great swaths of Iraq with remarkable ease, because ordinary Iraqis don’t care enough to fight. This is in part our fault. The man we backed, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has presided over the collapse and corruption of government and the police. He’s sidelined and bullied Iraq’s Sunnis to the extent that they now don’t much care who’s in charge. The eccentric decision after the Iraq war to exclude Ba’ath Party members from the new government has meant that Ba’athists in particular have been only too happy to help ISIS on their way.

It’s a dark and twisted business, this new battle for Baghdad. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t act to save the city, but just that any talk of goodies and baddies makes little sense. Here’s how surreal the situation has become: some of the Shia who normally fight in Syria for Assad (against the US-backed FSA) have trooped south to do battle with ISIS in Iraq (on America’s side). As they crossed the border, I suppose, they changed from foe to friend, and they’ll change back again when, if, they return. Cameron’s been telling us for years about the need to depose the tyrant Assad. Now we rely on the tyrant’s troops.

Our other allies are if anything even less reassuring. For some time now Mr Maliki has been under the sheltering wing of Iran. After ISIS took Mosul last week, several Iranian units were deployed to defend the capital and protect the Shia shrines in Samarra to the north. Though Obama may send in his drones, the man really leading the charge against ISIS will be the impressively ruthless-looking Major General Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, who arrived in Baghdad last week to direct operations.

Anyone still tempted to make clear moral distinctions might recall Hillary Clinton’s comments about Iran when she ran for her party’s presidential nomination in 2008. ‘If I’m the president, we will attack Iran’ if it attacks Israel. Then, with a cackle, she spoke of ‘obliterating’ it. Won’t it be curious, come 2016, if Hillary’s presidential dreams come true and she finds herself with Iran as an ally, still fighting shoulder to shoulder in Iraq?

Here’s how interchangeable the words ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ have become. As America prepares to help Iran beat back ISIS, so also this week it meets with Iranian ministers to give them a talking-to about their nuclear programme; to wave more sanctions in their face. It’s like hobbling a horse you’ve backed to win. Meanwhile: America still hands Saudi Arabia billions of dollars a year — and they hand it on to ISIS to buy guns.

I say it’s impossible to paint a black and white picture, but I’m aware there’s another form of Manichaeism waiting in the wings. In the absence of other certainties, it’s become common to say: look what happens when men are driven mad by a medieval religion. Look what animals the Islamists have become without reason to light their way. There’s some truth there — but again no easy them and us. A few thousand miles to the west, Christians hack Muslim children to death with machetes in the Central African Republic. In Mexico, atheistic drug cartels leave the beaches strewn with severed heads. The US colonel Kenneth King, who ran a camp in Iraq for both Sunni and Shia inmates, described the feuding between them in gang terms: ‘It’s the Bloods with the Bloods and the Crips with the Crips, that kind of thing.’

We often paint our enemies as deranged, especially by Islam, as if it’s comforting to see ourselves as uniquely sane. So before we write off ISIS as madmen, let’s be clear: they saw a chance in the chaos we helped create and they seized it. Now they control the beginnings of a caliphate from northeast Syria down into Iraq. What’s so crazy about that?

Even the ultra-violence has its logic. It’s evil, yes, but not insane. ISIS relies on its reputation. Such a tiny brigade could never have made such headway otherwise. They’ve taken towns in Iraq, from Mosul to Baiji, by simply calling ahead and saying: you know what we’re like, so flee or face the consequences.

Just in case, in coming weeks, Cameron’s still tempted to pose as saviour, let’s remember that this new Iraq war plays out against the backdrop of his last one, ongoing in Libya. In we flew in 2011, short on planning, high on talk of protecting innocents. Liberated Libya is now a lawless drug-infested hell; a playground for ISIS and its like. The free men of Benghazi quite openly now rue the day we arrived to ‘save’ them.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Mary Wakefield is deputy editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Excellent article – the lesson of Iraq 2003 is not that intervention is good or bad but that basing foreign policy more on principle than pragmatism is a huge danger.

  • Ahobz

    I don’t think “we” did any of this. Blair and Bush created the Iraq mess, pretty much single handed. While Saddam Hussein was a monster, he was in Rumsfelt’s phrase, a “known, known”. Iraq is now just another failed state, probably to become a satrapy of Iran, which it once held in check.

  • Sean L

    There’s no such thing as an atheisitc drug cartel, that’s a despearte comparison. The drug cartels exist to profit from the sale and consumption of drugs. Not to promote atheism. Arab or Islamic expansionism is another matter entirely. No one’s ever suggested Islam or any other religion or ideology is the only cause of mass murder. That said, Arab imperialism has a most impressive pedigree and long precedes even the formation of Britain as a sovereign power. The Arabs were conquering and enslaving Africans before even the Romans crossed the English Channel. And if a couple of battles had gone the other way in France in the 8th century Europe would likely be Islamic and Arab speaking today, just as the whole of North Africa is. But our children aren’t taught the history of Arab expansionism or Islam. So the only thing they assoicate with the terms “slavery”, “colonialsim” or “imperialism” is “Britain”, when historically the British are novices compared to the Arabs. Indeed the renowned scholar of slavery David Brion-Davies argues that the Europeans learnt about African slavery from their Arab predecesors. And nowhere is Britsh culture as entrenched as Arab is in the places it conquered. But then Britain has never had its own religion, ours being itself a middle Eastern import. Whereas Islam is thoroughly tied to Arabic in its language and holy places. Thus it is the most succesful form of imperialism in world history. So far anyway.

  • random_observer_2011

    It is in fact possible to make moral distinctions without necessarily assuming that the other side is in fact wholly evil or one’s own side entirely unsullied- even in the Second World War, facing a German enemy practicing evil well above the accustomed standard of mere imperialism or military aggression, and excepting the most explicit propaganda, one is left with the impression that the average Briton was perfectly capable of recognizing the war’s profound moral dimensions and the indisputable justice of his cause without it being necessary to reduce things to a cartoonish level to facilitate his understanding. Similarly, the Japanese could be accurately characterized as behaving like barbarians without it being necessary to forget entirely their sophisticated culture, if one was aware of it. And in neither case was any Briton compelled by state or his own mind to ignore any knowledge he might have of the moral ambiguities of his own society or its empire, or of its war efforts. He knew how to do the moral calculus, at least broadly speaking.
    It seems only in recent times that we have fallen to the point of needing pure good and evil in our foreign policy decisions, to the point where even this inherently skeptical piece must, with mild sarcasm, use terms like ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in the confidence that many have indeed looked at the world this way.
    As much as Blair was a vainglorious, Flashmanesque mountebank [and not just about military intervention and foreign policy, but every bit of damage he did to Britain, and as plenty of people thought obvious in 1997], the people of Britain are not immune to criticism, just as those of America should not evade criticism. Just as Americans are most prone to support a foreign policy of either pure isolationism or cowboyish aggression married to sublime assurance in their own white hat, so Britain seems to veer from sheer lassitude and cynicism dressed up as elite-driven realism to aggressive, idealistic interventionism on behalf of internationalist, multilateralist ends. And the people, in parallel, respond to either.

  • random_observer_2011

    This column is a symptom in itself, as Ms Wakefield attempts to illustrate the many complexities and moral ambiguities of the Middle East by way of implying that it would be essentially impossible for Britain to play any kind of useful role because it would have to be on every side at once.

    Well, yes. Of course. Now, if Wakefield could just take the extra leap and carry the electorate with her, perhaps Britain could once again have an intelligent, national-interest driven foreign policy.
    It is perfectly possible to conclude that Britain has no interest in intervening in Syria but an interest in intervening in Iraq, or both, or neither, or vice versa. And then to act on that. The number of civilians being killed in either country, by whom, or under what conditions, are not relevant considerations in making the assessment. If Britain concludes it has no interest, the number of prospective local dead is also irrelevant. Only prospective British casualties ought to be relevant, and what if any aim relevant to Britain they might be risked to achieve.
    There is nothing inherently wrong with intervening and cooperating thereby with someone who might be an enemy later, or have been an enemy before, or both. It is more problematic to intervene and cooperate with someone who might be an enemy combatant on some other front right now, but it would hardly be the first time. And, lest it be forgotten, Iran and the US or UK are nowhere actually engaged in war against one another. They simply are in fraught diplomatic situations over such things as nuclear weapons. The existence of that diplomatic conflict should not preclude cooperation on Iraq if it is in mutual interest, and neither should the distaste of either side for the political and social institutions of the other.
    Similarly, intervening, if justified for national interest or related reasons, does not mean one has to be consistent from one situation to the next along arbitrary lines. If interest requires propping up Shia and fighting Sunni in both countries, or vice versa, or propping up both Shia and Sunni majorities, or defending both Shia and Sunni minorities, or collaborating with and opposing rival factions of the same groups, or whatever, fine.
    The question is, what is to be gained? These aims do not need to be entirely cynical to be national interest. They can range from direct economic or military gain, to propping up likely allies for future interest, to ‘stability’ as a strategic aim in itself [though that one really depends on plausibility and the arguments Wakefield suggests work against that in this case; also, stability in other regions isn’t always in one’s national interest].
    If there are gains to be made, then Britain can support Assad, or Maliki, or FSA but not al Nusra, or al Nusra and FSA against Assad and IS, or any combination necessary, with or without cooperating with Iran. Whatever. If there are no gains to be made, that’s fine too. In that case, Britain’s enemies [or for that matter, enemies plus complete strangers to whom Britain has no specific opinion] are killing one another en masse. Let them.
    When the electorate and press are ready for that thought process to be made the basis of decision, and articulated in parliament and media, then Britain can have an honest discussion of foreign policy.