The world has woken up to a war in Iraq. Yes, finally. For several years, it was hear no evil, see no evil and say nothing. Contrary to media reports, the success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was predictable, all the signs were there - all very much detectable. The violence had been increasing as had the activities of hard-line Jihadists. The Maliki government had lost credibility, its dictatorial, sectarian and corrupt apparatus of power had alienated many, especially the majority of Sunni Arabs in Iraq.
For the United States and Britain, Iraq is bad karma. Many wish it would just go away. The political classes craved other issues, even other crises. The public and the media were fed up with it. After all the speeches about supporting the Iraqi people, they had been abandoned. But there is nobody is to blame for this, there is no debate of how we have failed Iraqis and Syrians, but still a rear-view dissection of all the sterile 2003 intervention arguments.
For too many, winning an 11-year-old argument is far more significant than facing up to the challenges of 2014. The case for and against Bush and Blair remains the same today as it was ten years ago. The frontlines in that war have changed little, unlike those in Iraq and Syria.
Bush’s neocons have lined up in the U.S. media both to justify the 2003 war and slam Obama for pulling troops out in 2011. Tony Blair wasted nearly 3,000 words on his website in a vain, confused attempt at self-justification. If he truly cared about the fate of Iraqis and Syrians as opposed to his mega-ego, he might realize that his interventions pollute any case for intervention, and that silence would be preferable. Many of those ardently opposed to the 2003 war have been little better.
There is a collective trauma over Iraq and intervention. Any politician who speaks about Iraq or Syria now, has to make a declaration as to what their position was a decade ago.
There are no easy solutions, no magic bullets and no quick fixesChris Doyle
The debates in June 2014 have barely moved on since 2003, and were only recently reheated in August of 2013 over Syria. It is Groundhog Day.
The question is whether in 2014 the international community is fit for purpose to address these multiple major crises. Too often it seems there is only capacity to handle one crisis at the time. In some respects, outside expertise on Iraq has improved but many areas of Iraq, like many areas of Syria, have been almost no-go areas for years for non-Iraqis. Donald Rumsfeld would be frothing at the mouth about the number of known unknowns. As before, the outside world lacks the human, on the ground, intelligence. Moreover, the international community still struggles in peace building, reconciliation and reconstruction.
None of this helps Iraqis or Syrians. They need solutions and strategies. There is little need to ask how they feel about all this bickering and point scoring as their cities burn and their people flee.
The 2014 crisis
The Iraq of 2014 is not Iraq of 2003 (an obvious point, but one that is lost on many). A convincing argument could be made that the 2014 crisis is far more serious than 2003 and represents a far more credible threat to Iraq, the regional and the international community. This does not mean that military intervention is automatically justified but the international community have to take this very seriously. The crisis zone extends way beyond Iraq, intimately entwined with Syria’s but including all their neighbors. Few countries in the Middle East can claim not to be in crisis or under threat.
There are no easy solutions, no magic bullets and no quick fixes. Leaders will have to take short-term decisions but must develop a long-term strategy. In devising the latter, policy makers should consider the following points.
Firstly, learn the lessons of history. And history in Iraq did not begin in 2003. Western failure in Iraq, especially British, has a rich history starting in the first world war; arbitrary border demarcations, gassing of Kurds, helping Saddam Hussein into power and arming him before turning a blind eye to his genocidal chemical weapons use. Having encouraged Iraqis to rise up, the U.S. abandoned them in 1991. To crown this glorious list of pre-2003 disasters, the United Nations imposed the most punitive sanctions regime ever imposed on a nation state that led to the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five. So quibble over how much the 2003 war is responsible for Iraq’s current plight but remember that Iraqis know the length and depth of our century old meddling. U.S.-UK credibility rating is well south of zero.
Secondly, major powers, international and regional, must put aside their differences to work together as one as they have disastrously failed to over Syria. Saudi and Iran should both call a halt to their cold war rivalry for simple national interest if nothing else whilst disagreements over Ukraine and Syria are no excuse for the U.S. and Russia to work against each other.
Thirdly, avoid further polarization within the country by anointing favored partners and proxies. International players should bring parties together not divide them. The debate should be about what principles we stand for not who is to be backed.
Fourthly, not every Iraqi requires a label and not every area of Iraq can be neatly parceled as Sunni, Shiitr, or Kurdish. There should be zero tolerance for outside powers, and those in the region, who play the sectarian card as has been happening in Syria.
Finally, put the interests and rights of Iraqi and Syrian peoples first. These crises will not be resolved if viewed solely through the lens of narrow geopolitical, military or commercial self-interest.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.