By authorising airstrikes against the Islamic State (aka ISIS), President Obama became the fourth US Commander-In-Chief since Ronald Reagan to initiate a bombing campaign on Iraq.
As always, the BBC quickly fell in line. Reporting on the announcement for the Today Programme the BBC’s Tom Esslemont stated “Doing nothing here was not an option”. Like much of the BBC’s output it was unclear whether Esslemont was telling us the US Government’s view or his own. There was no confusion about his concluding remark: “To critics it is too limited an operation that will do little to diminish the power of the Islamic State jihadists.” Mark Urban, the BBC’s Diplomatic Editor, was also far from objective and neutral when he tweeted “France is considering joining humanitarian intervention in northern Iraq. [US Secretary of State John] Kerry is talking abt ‘genocide’. Time for Downing St to re-think?”
In addition, The Guardian has come out in support of the airstrikes (“The Americans have a special responsibility here”), as has the Labour Party.
Often missing from the depressingly narrow debate in the media and political mainstream is expert opinion. Noting the rise of the Islamic State is a symptom of the failure of the Iraqi and Western political elites, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, argues “the airstrikes could propagate rather than solve the problem”. Phyllis Bennis, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says “it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.” Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, agrees. Writing in June, he argued “Far from hurting the terrorists, reengaging Iraq (and/or engaging Syria) would put us back on the path of a rising terrorist threat that has taken us over a decade to escape”, before concluding “US military involvement can only hurt, not help.”
Even former Obama Administration insiders have been critical of the bombing. Writing for Foreign Affairs magazine, Steven Simon, who served as Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs at the White House from 2011-12, argues US airstrikes “will almost certainly unite Sunnis against other sects and boost support for ISIS while fueling disdain for the United States.”
So if US military attacks are not the solution, what is? With the Islamic State feeding off the support given to them by significant sections of the Sunni community in Iraq, there is a broad consensus among Middle East observers that the answer lies in Baghdad. In short, the threat from the Islamic State will only be solved when there is a broad-based, non-sectarian Iraqi Government that Sunnis feel they have a stake in. Nouri Al-Maliki’s decision to step down as Iraq’s Prime Minister is therefore an important step towards this goal, although questions remain over whether his replacement, Haidar al-Abadi (from the same political party as Maliki), will make the changes that are necessary for national reconciliation. Second, pressure needs to be applied to those, mainly in the Gulf, who support the Islamic State. The recently announced United Nations resolution threatening sanctions against those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to the jihadi group is therefore welcome. More broadly, rather than external states arming one side or another, all arms deliveries to the region need to be stopped. It is common knowledge the Islamic State has captured large amounts of the US-supplied Iraqi army’s armoury. Less well known is the fact the Islamic State has been seen using Croatian-made weapons – which the CIA helped to send in to Syria, according to the New York Times.
These are medium and long-term solutions. However, contrary to the media’s framing of the crisis, the US is not the only global actor who is able to respond quickly to an immediate crisis. As Diane Abbott MP noted on BBC Newsnight, if there is to be external intervention in Iraq, it should be conducted by the United Nations – exactly what it was set up to do. “We’ve forgotten the role of international institutions”, noted Abbott. Media commentators unable to comprehend anyone but the US acting should take note.
They would do well to also take note of the recent New York Times report about the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “At every turn, Mr Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq”. Quoting the research of Iraqi scholar Hisham al-Hashimi, the article noted Mr Baghdadi had spent five years in a US prison “where, like many ISIS fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised.”
As Abbott sardonically noted on Newsnight about the West’s violent relationship with Iraq, the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair