When Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2007, and not long after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, there was one thing that seemed certain. Both the British and American electorates had reached breaking point as far as military involvement in the Middle East was concerned. After what was seen as a misconceived and mishandled adventure in Iraq, there was a strong sense in the West (and the UK and US in particular) that the policy of intervening in these countries was more a part of the cause of Islamic extremism, than it was the remedy. In many ways it is amazing that the public debate has rebounded from that hardline anti-interventionist position so quickly, but as a new government takes office in the UK and a new presidential cycle begins in the United States it is time for those countries to consider again their role in the region.
To come to a balanced conclusion on the future role of Britain and the United States in the Middle East there are three issues that must be addressed: the Blair-Bush legacy and Obama’s response, the nature of Islamic extremism, and the role of the West in the future.
Blair-Bush vs. Obama
When one considers the pessimism that existed in the West during the height of the Iraqi insurgency in mid-2007 it is hard to believe that the Blair-Bush legacy in the Middle East could be seen as anything other than an unmitigated disaster. It is worth considering however, how that legacy faces up to Obama.
In Iraq, when Bush left office the US-led coalition had successfully surged their troops and partnered with local Sunni militias to hugely reduce the level of violence in Iraq, and as long as the policy of increased troop numbers remained (up until 2009) deaths and injuries in the country as a result of terrorism were reduced by 90%. Elections were successfully held and the economy was growing (albeit stutteringly) with a sense of fragile but sustainable progress.
In his six years in office President Obama presided over a precipitous withdrawal of US and coalition forces which he was warned would endanger the sustainability of Iraq’s progress. The warnings turned out to be understated. The Iraqi state today no longer functions in most of the country and the violence is so extensive that Western troops are returning to the country, albeit thus far predominantly in an advisory capacity.
During his two terms in office Bush brokered the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military personnel from Gaza and a modest economic and rule of law improvement in the Palestinian territories. A long term truce was established along the Lebanese border between Israel and Hezbollah following a bloody war in 2007. The Annapolis Conference and subsequent negotiations kept both Israeli and Palestinian officials at the negotiating table, and according to many participants in the talks were as far reaching as any peace attempts have been between the two sides in that intractable conflict.
Obama has thus far failed catastrophically to achieve absolutely anything on the Israel-Palestine issue. He has mismanaged his relationship with both Israeli leaders and the public at large to the point that he is not taken seriously on that side, while he has stood by and allowed the one honest official in the Palestinian Authority (Salaam Fayyad) to be sidelined and then dismissed to the clear benefit of the recalcitrant and endemically corrupt President Abbas. Hamas and Israel have fought two wars on his watch which achieved absolutely nothing other than more dead civilians and sense that a conflict that was intractable at the best of times is now utterly hopeless.
The rest of the region was largely stable when Bush left office, though only kept that way through cowardly deals with dictators that were longstanding and deeply immoral. Today, with the sole exception of Tunisia, the region is less stable, less free and contains more suffering.
Obama has presided over the collapse of not only Iraq but Syria as well (with the instability of one feeding the other), hundreds of thousands dead in a civil war that has demonstrated once and for all that the humanitarian cost of doing nothing is often just as high as doing something, and a complete reversal of the one moment of hope for the region in decades: the Arab Spring.
Jordan and Lebanon are buckling under the pressure of refugees from Syria and Iraq, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states try unsuccessfully to hold Yemen together as it too collapses into civil war. Libya – one of the few places Obama was vaguely willing to act – is a disaster with no national government and continued violence and unrest. In Egypt the West has thrown in its lot with President Sisi who has thus far made former President Mubarak look liberal and tolerant of dissent, trading short-term stability for long-term coherence and progress.
No, any objective look at the region makes it absolutely crystal clear that however bad one considered Bush, Obama has been an awful lot worse.
The Middle East today is more violent, more sectarian, and more dangerous to both the West and itself than it was when President Obama assumed office.
The Islamic State, Iran and Religious Extremism
One of the great mistakes that many commentators make is to present Islamic extremism as monolithic. The reality is unsurprisingly that such a diverse and complex religion has a great variety of extremist forms, and it is important to know the difference between the Sunni view – stripped of all nuance and historical debate and theology – of Islamic State (IS) and the Shia perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Within both Sunni and Shia Islam one finds extremists for whom violence is justified (or even a religious duty), and within those two branches of Islam there are militants who come to the views they hold for very different reasons.
The threat of IS both in the region where it has established its caliphate and in the wider world where associates and wannabee-devotees carry out acts of terror in its name is covered daily by Western media. The Western response of bombing IS has been acknowledged by the most senior military figures in the countries carrying out the operations to have no chance of successfully achieving the objective of defeating the group. Meanwhile a slow trickle of Western Muslims has headed out East to join IS in one of the most disturbing regressions for humanity imaginable, including most recently three British women who took their nine children with them into IS-controlled Syria.
Of course for those for whom Islamic extremism is always a product of Western foreign policy the answer to IS lies in leaving them alone. According to such a worldview the emergence of IS is a rational response to the Western invasion of Iraq, as if the imposition of grotesque and abusive theocratic government which rules by brute force could be the rational reaction to anything. What is beginning to dawn on those who are willing to look at the facts is that the religious extremists that threaten the West are motivated by ideology and not responding rationally to events thrust upon them. Naturally it would be absurd to claim this ideology is uniform across the Islamic world, or that the religion itself is violent. Indeed it is essential to recognise that the ideology of IS requires the throwing out of the centuries of learning and theological discussion that is an essential component of Sunni Islam in favour of a radical and absolutist interpretation of the Koran.
As the public debate shifts further towards an understanding of the fact that someone leaving Manchester and heading for Mosul to fight for IS is not the product of British foreign policy but rather an identification with the ideology of that extremist group, then a more mature conversation regarding the appropriate Western response to it can take place.
Do we belong?
The fundamental question that remains to be answered regarding the Middle East is does the West belong there? Does it have a dog in this fight? Can it influence the outcomes of conflicts there to its own benefit?
The answer to all three questions must be clear and unapologetic: Yes, Yes and Yes.
In an interconnected world where the threats that exist in one country have profound security implications in another the West cannot allow itself to fall into the inaccurate and naïve belief that the problems will stay in the Middle East. Immigration and a globalized economy have made Middle Eastern cultures and interests a part of the Western landscape and it would be as self-defeating as it is foolhardy to say that the West does not belong in the Middle East as well.
In the fog of war and confusion brought about by collapsing countries it is often hard to tell who is supporting what and whether there is anyone palatable enough to deserve Western support. The answer should be clear on this as well. Minority groups such as the Kurds and the beleaguered Middle Eastern Christians need our support to exist in a region where minority rights are largely absent. The students whose protests brought down Mubarak deserve better than to have the West rubberstamp the accession of an identical dictator simply 30 years younger. Civilized humanity needs the West to fight its corner when it comes to confronting IS. Our side is with those standing for the values we proclaim, and it is the best hope for securing the West’s future as well.
Finally, can the West make a difference? While each situation and conflict will vary considerably, due to the enormous economic, military and organizational advantage of the West there can be no doubt that its intervention can still be decisive in many parts of the Middle East. Taking a clear and unapologetic stand on dictatorships in those countries hugely reliant on Western money and trade would be a start, but until the West delivers a fatal military blow to IS then there will still be a sense that religious extremism in state form is still a viable option for the region.