Obama and Cameron’s response to the nightmare of Iraq is an incoherent mess

But after all the mistakes of 2003, are our Western leaders right to be so hesitant?


The response of the US and UK governments to the latest nightmarish crisis in Iraq is an incoherent mess. The two administrations are in agonised doubt about what to do and what they have the space to do given their respective domestic political contexts.

In an illuminating interview with the New York Times at the weekend President Obama outlined more explicitly than before his approach to foreign policy, adopting principles far removed from those that determined the policies of the wayward Bush regime.

Obama said he would only involve America more deeply in the Middle East “to the extent that the different communities there agree to an inclusive politics…. The United States is not going to be the air force of Iraqi Shiites or any other faction”.

Obama believes the governments in the Middle East must show an appetite for compromise and a willingness to work with other factions. The US cannot impose such a will on countries through military action.

On Iraq he stated: “We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves…Our military is so capable, that if we put everything we have into it, we can keep a lid on a problem for a time. But for a society to function long term, the people themselves have to make decisions about how they are going to live together, how they are going to accommodate each other’s interests”.

Obama explained that this was why the US did not intervene militarily in June when IS began its offensive in northern Iraq. He suggested that such military action would have encouraged Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nourial Maliki, to assume complacently that the US were bailing him out, and that he did not have to change as a Shiite leader unwilling to compromise.

But his reasons for earlier inaction leave Obama struggling to explain why he intervenes militarily now. He frames his defence in terms of humanitarian aid, while authorising targeted airstrikes “if necessary” against Islamic radicals advancing on the Kurdish capital of Erbil and others threatening to kill non-Muslims stranded on the remote mountaintop.

The interview captures the essence of Obama’s incoherent foreign policy. Obama seeks to give Maliki, or Maliki’s successor, and the governing classes in Iraq no get-out clauses by intervening militarily. Faced with the continuing horrors of IS, he intervenes militarily.


Meanwhile David Cameron’s approach has changed beyond recognition after his defeat in the Commons on military action against Syria last summer. Before the vote, Cameron had been at his most Blair-like, putting the case for intervention with a pained sense of duty and a vague description of what would follow a military attack.

Within seconds of the Commons defeat, Cameron stated powerlessly that there was no political appetite for military intervention and he would not seek to make the case again. Ever since, he has been privately scathing of Ed Miliband’s unreliability in the build-up to that vote, but his main problem is his own MPs, many of who were opposed to the planned intervention. They might be similarly hostile to military strikes on Iraq.

Some Tory MPs call now for the UK government to join the US in its limited military mission in Iraq. But such a move would involve two very big calculations on the part of Cameron. First he would need to rediscover his earlier Blair-like sense of interventionist mission. Second he would need to recall parliament and be wholly confident he could win a vote on taking military action. He could not lose a second vote and be taken seriously as a leader.

Cameron is not ready to make either of those two leaps yet. It is almost impossible to gage the mood of MPs when they are on holiday and yet Cameron would need to be sure of decisive support if he called them back to support military action.

The intensification of the horror in Iraq may still lead to a change of course in the UK. We know Cameron is capable of supporting military intervention. The position of the Labour leadership last summer in relation to Syria was never to rule out military action in all circumstances. It is possible that at some point given the bloody fragility in Iraq that Labour might support limited military intervention, although given recent history this is unlikely.

The contrast with the confident assertiveness that preceded the invasion of Iraq is marked. Then Bush and Blair spoke of the region and the world becoming a safer place and the Iraqi people being liberated. Now there is near impotence as new leaders face the nightmares partly unleashed by the invasion in 2003.

The US president is not a great political actor and in his weekend interviews could not disguise his sense of depressed wariness as he authorised a military mission. Meanwhile Cameron keeps his head down on holiday while his new Foreign Secretary spends the summer mastering a complex brief, having been unexpectedly elevated last month.

The nervy, tentative pragmatism at least means the US and UK governments do not become trapped into taking a military course without fully contemplating the risks. Ultimately it is for Iraq’s governing classes to work with all factions, rather than for the US to strike in another doomed attempt to impose unity. But when hell reaches new depths, Obama at least keeps some military options open. After last summer’s Commons’ vote on Syria Cameron has no choice but to reflect more deeply before authorising military action. He also has no choice but to keep options open.

By contrast, when Bush and Blair made their moves they had little flexibility when presented with evidence that they were being reckless. They were trapped by their chosen course.

There are no answers to the nightmare in Iraq but the current messy expediency is preferable to the shallow evangelism that preceded it.

i Editor's Letter: Are you sleeping well at the moment, Tony Blair?
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