“Mission accomplished” was, briefly, a slogan associated with President George W Bush and it has come to be synonymous with the high noon of American hubris in Iraq a decade or so ago. We all know what happened next.
Soon the slogan could be adopted by Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a brilliant military commander apparently as well suited to the arts of insurgency as Mr Bush and his forces were not.
Isis troops are an hour’s ride from Baghdad, and while the capital may prove a harder target than Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit, no one would be surprised if the Iraqi government and its military soon suffer a complete collapse. That the country’s parliament could not gather sufficient strength to back Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s call for a state of emergency tells us all we need to know about the state of Iraqi democracy. Only the Kurdish areas can be deemed secure, for the time being.
That such an apparently small force with so little popular support could command such vast tracts of Iraq and Syria in such a short time is remarkable as well as terrifying. In its way, it is impressive, but Isis’s tactical skill has been more than matched by the long-term incompetence, feebleness and corruption of the Iraqi government. Commanding less popular support in some areas than Isis because of its myopic exclusion of the Sunni minority from power, Mr Maliki’s Shia state is ill-equipped to ask anyone to lay down their life for it.
Not only are Isis’s extremists capable of the most bestial acts of cruelty, they are also, from what little we know of them, capable of destabilising the entire region, using their modern-day caliphate as a base for international terrorism, and generally taking over from where Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida left off. How the neighbours of the new Isis “nation” in Iran, Turkey and Israel react will be crucial; none is famed for its easy-going approach to existential threats.
It is easy to blame “Bush and Blair” – their names will be forever conjoined – for all this, and justifiably. There is also a case for saying that some sort of decisive Western action in Syria, famously defeated in the House of Commons, might have prevented Isis from gaining the strength it has. However, such speculation is not greatly productive. The West has to put its past mistakes behind it, and should analyse the situation as it stands. Would intervention now work? If Isis continues its winning streak, armed intervention, mainly on the part of the US, may become inevitable because of the threat to Israel and Turkey, a Nato ally. With such a prospect might it be better to act now? Or would American intervention merely repeat the mistakes made after 2003?
To a large degree, as with the earlier debate on Syria, such questions may prove academic, at least in the short term, because recent history does haunt us. The memories of the loss of life and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan remain fresh in the minds of the public, and there is no appetite for intervention anywhere, no matter how compelling the arguments.
Our failures in Iraq have inoculated Western electorates against any desire to repeat the experiment, no matter that an invasion of Iraq now could be more truthfully termed a “liberation” for the Iraqi people, and an act to save many more lives throughout the Middle East, than the one Mr Blair and Mr Bush presided over 11 years ago. Their failures do mean we cannot act now. Mission accomplished indeed.