Values and identity in foreign policy

It is hard not to feel a general sense of weariness with the state of the world. Newspapers are filled with one crisis after another and these crises appear more wickedly complex than anything we have dealt with in the past. Our ability to predict them seems to be weakening. Our responses seem inadequate.order

This time last year no one would have imagined that war would have returned to Europe or that the brutality of ISIS would eclipse the misery of the on-going civil war in Syria. The Ebola pandemic in Western Africa now feels like a distant memory even though the economic and social fallout will be felt for years to come. What are the signals amid the current background noise that we are failing to register?

Amidst the gloom, to be fair, there are signs of encouragement, such as the reduced levels of global poverty, but such abstract indicators do nothing to dispel the sense that the existing conditions for global governance have been found wanting. Call it what you want, the great unravelling or a world coming apart at the seams, but it is hard not to conclude that our collective ability to solve problems has diminished at the very time when it is needed most.

Whether it is a cause or a symptom of this growing international disorder those that we elect to office appear to be ever more reluctant guardians. President’s Obama’s emphasis on ‘nation building at home’ or ‘leading from behind’ overseas might be overplayed by his opponents but it reinforces the popular perception of an Uncle Sam disengaging from the world.

This trend is not unique to the US.

Europe’s leaders continue to be preoccupied with saving the Eurozone and preventing a GREXIT, while the British Government has been consumed with saving the Union even while trying to renegotiate its relationship with the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, 27,000 people have died in the past 14 years, trying to make it to Europe’s shores. Rather than intensify its search and rescue mission, the focus of the EU’s follow up mission to Mare Nostrum is border protection. Welcome to Fortress Europe. Welcome to Fortress Britain.

In the UK, as in most parts of Europe, governments are still struggling to overcome the impact of the financial and economic crisis. With such domestic uncertainty and when faced with the tsunami of complex crises it is natural that governments should become ever more cautious, but as Hilary Clinton, said in August 2014 great nations need vision and courage: “Don’t do stupid stuff is not an organising principle.”

How might we create organising principles under these kinds of pressure and how might these principles guide our relations with others?

To be sure this isn’t an easy task, involving as it does a discussion of values and identity, which in many cases, not least here in the UK, requires a new style of politics that many of us are unaccustomed to. But in age where risk is globalised and where no one, not even our elected governments, really fathom the true complexity of the challenges we face, such an exercise has never been more necessary.

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The Church and the Armed Forces Covenant

This evening at Lambeth Palace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York will sign on behalf of the Archbishop’s Council of the Church of England an Armed Forces Corporate Covenant. The signing will be witnessed by the Anna Soubry MP, the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans and attended by a wider variety of welfare organisations and representatives from the armed forces.AFCC 2

When deciding this matter last year the Church of England’s General Synod held that responding faithfully to the spiritual and pastoral needs of the Armed Forces Community is not about the Church providing preferential treatment to one particular section of society. Rather, it is about how the Church builds inclusive communities and combats marginalization and disadvantage.

It is about drawing out and reaffirming the national narrative of the social and common good and the Church’s role in meeting the needs of those the State cannot adequately reach alone, in this case the Armed Forces Community.

There will be those who will hold that this ceremony is a sign of the Church glorifying war. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To honour those who have given their lives in the service of their country and to protect those who have suffered life changing injuries is not to glorify war. Instead, it is about acknowledging that, even when there is controversy about whether a particular war or conflict is just, those who serve in the Armed Forces and have had no say in the political decision to use military force, need the Church’s spiritual support, pastoral care and moral guidance.

Tonight’s ceremony is a timely affair occurring as it does against the backdrop of British troops returning from Afghanistan and the centennial commemorations to mark the outbreak of World War One.

We should never forget the sacrifices that others have made on our behalf. Nor should we unceremoniously sweep the human costs of our military endeavors under the carpet once the guns have fallen silent. We need to be alert to the current welfare needs of veterans and their families from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and make adequate provision to ensure that their specific pastoral needs are met both now and in the future

Reconfigurations in the way the armed forces are structured and resourced will also see members of the armed forces now more squarely rooted in the local community. With a greater reliance on Reserves the boundaries between civilian and military life set to become ever more porous. This will mean that the provision of pastoral and spiritual care to the Armed Forces Community becomes a shared responsibility involving both the Chaplains (lay and ordained) to the Armed Forces and the wider Church.

The Armed Forces Covenant Scheme offers a helpful opportunity for the Church to respond to the wider reforms affecting the Armed Forces and the welfare and spiritual needs of a new generation of veterans. This evening’s ceremony provides an occasion for the Church to commit to the principles underpinning the Armed Forces Covenant and for the Church to set out how it intends to live out these principles in practice.

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Breaking the Cycle of Violence in Gaza

To visit Gaza is to be reminded that war, whatever its justification, is a deadly and destructive affair. With 3 wars in 5 years it is impossible to distinguish between the damage caused by each. The scenes of desolation in some parts of Gaza feel eerily similar to the fire-bombed ruins of Dresden or Coventry.Gaza - war 1`

The TV cameras that brought us the distressing images of the 51 day war last summer have now moved on, but for the 1.8 million inhabitants of this tiny coastal strip rubble forms a permanent backdrop to their lives. In many cases, as in the Shija’ia neighbourhood of Gaza City, an apparent Hamas stronghold, families have opted to live amidst the ruins of their homes at the same time as they struggle to rebuild.

This is not without its costs. In early January with the region experiencing a sudden cold snap, with temperatures falling below freezing, two young infants died from hypothermia.

The basics of life are quite simply missing in Gaza. The war has created intolerable levels of unemployment and pushed ordinary people yet deeper into poverty. It has exhausted people’s coping mechanisms and increased their aid dependency and food insecurity.

gaza 3Last October international donors meeting in Cairo pledged some £3.4bn for the reconstruction of Gaza. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the distribution of this funding has itself become a battlefield involving the UN, the Israeli Government, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

The Government of Israel quite rightly wants assurances that materials for reconstruction are not going to be used by Hamas to rebuild the labyrinth of tunnels beneath Gaza. Ongoing disputes between the parties as to the end use of material mean that little of the donor money is getting through. UNDP calculates that at current efforts it will take 20 years just to return to the status quo ante the 51 day war.

The politics of aid and reconstruction in Gaza illustrate all too clearly that while armed hostilities might have ceased for the moment, the seven-year blockade of Gaza continues unabated and continues to impact all aspects of Palestinian life. The underlying dynamics of the conflict remain unresolved, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised if and when there is a further escalation of hostilities in a year to 18 months time. The current status quo is fragile in the extreme and is not sustainable.

Nor should we be surprised if this man-made disaster becomes a fertile breeding ground for more radical elements. On 19 January, just a few days after my visit to Gaza, a rally organised by the Salafist Youth Al Mujahi in protest against the cartoons published in France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine saw numerous ISIS flags raised and pro-ISIS slogans chanted.Gaza ISIS

If we are to stand a chance of changing this downward trajectory then further efforts need to be taken to make Gaza a livable place. That means moving towards a lifting of closures and an acceleration of reconstruction and recovery efforts, alongside efforts to consolidate the fragile ceasefire and a strengthening of the Palestinian Government of National Consensus. Ultimately it means restoring human dignity and giving people hope.

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Building Trust: Arab-EU Citizens Dialogue

I’m in Brussels at the moment taking part in a conference that brings together scholars and academics from Europe and the Arab world as well as civil society organisations, religious communities, journalists and politicians.

This is the fourth in the series of dialogues organised by the Protestant Academy Loccum in Germany and the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS). The catchy title for this event is – On Equal Footing? Shaping the future of Arab-European relationships.

The conference notes explains that “the aim is trust building between citizens of both regions, critical reflection of images created in public discourse and motivation for common activities towards civic values and democratic culture in their respective societies.”

Copied below is an unedited version of the talk I gave yesterday. I was privileged to share the platform with Dr Wajih Kanso from the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies in Beirut and Mr Hany Labib, a journalist and writer from Egypt.

Working Group 1: 
Parliaments and Political Institutions and their role in Arab-European relations

I’m grateful to Dr Anhelm and others for their efforts in taking forward this dialogue here in Brussels.

Dr Anhelm has asked me to offer a few reflections from a UK Church based perspective on Arab-European relations.

He has asked me to do so for 2 reasons.

First, he wants me to draw on my experiences as a parliamentary and public affairs advisor on international affairs to the 26 bishops in the House of Lords to offer some insights on the parameters of the UK parliamentary and political debate.

Before one asks, yes, it is one of the peculiarities of Britain’s parliamentary democracy, and one that we have the dubious honour of sharing with Iran, that a % of Bishops are Parliamentarians.

Since the start of the Arab Spring, Bishops have joined with others in reflecting on developments on Europe’s southern border as well as the efficacy of the British Government’s response.

Secondly, Dr Anhelm wants me to demonstrate that the EU like the Arab League is not a homogeneous entity and that there are a diversity of views across the EU’s member states and between the EU institutions and its member states.

Who better to ask to do this than an Englishmen?

To those unfamiliar with European politics, Britain has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for being an awkward partner and this awkwardness, which in the field in foreign policy is usually shared by other European governments, makes the development of a coherent and active foreign policy somewhat problematic.

With this explanatory note in mind, the overarching point that I want to make is that the rather joyful simplicity with which European parliaments and political institutions viewed the Arab Spring has not surprisingly fragmented into competing political exegesis each with their own framing values and interests. What does this fragmentation tell us?

The chaotically fluid situation on the ground has created a complexity that many have tried to master by imposing new narratives just as simplistic as the one founding wanting. These narratives jostle for political and media credibility in the hope of holding captive the prevailing political class of the day.

When the Arab uprisings started 3 years ago, many political commentators saw this as Fukuyama’s revenge. More recently the chaos of Iraq and Syria has seen some commentators revisit the clash of civilisations thesis, while others have called on Bernard Lewis and Henry Kissinger to help explain the Islamist antics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even while ignoring the democratic progress in Tunisia.

Within this predictable mix new narratives have emerged such as that which holds that what we are seeing is a clash of democratisations with people claiming democratic rights to both emancipate themselves from autocratic rulers and from the traditional influence of the west.

It is possible to identify these narratives or variations of them being played out in the British media’s coverage of the Arab spring and in parliamentary debates.

The intensity with which these debates are sometimes conducted hides 2 uncomfortable realities that shape the political debate in the UK and which in turn impacts on the quality of relations with the Arab world.

First, the fact that no one narrative holds illustrates that we don’t fully understand what is happening in the region. Having initially framed the uprising as a liberal awaking we have struggled to make sense of subsequent developments.

The Government’s response has been muddied and at times incoherent both in terms of its relations over time with a particular country and across the region as a whole. For example, with Syria the Government persists with a narrative that has remained unchanged since the initial uprising even when that narrative has been shown to be woefully inadequate.

Second, the search for a narrative is also a reflection of our own search for identity in a fractured and troubled world. Today, external actors such as the United States and Europe seem peripheral to the politics of the Middle East.

There is a growing recognition that we have limited leverage to affect positive change in the region. The Middle East has well and truly left the post-colonial era, but Western governments and parliaments are still struggling to readjust.

The impact of these two realities is that the Government and I don’t think the British Government is alone in this, risks prioritising interests over values. Increasingly the UK’s relations with the Arab world are seen through a security prism. We are at risk of repeating some of the neo-colonial errors of the past.

This predicament is perhaps best illustrated with regard to Egypt.
A number of parliamentarians, including those on the Bishops’ bench, have sought reassurance from the Government that it will treat with suspicion and scepticism the normalisation of the narrative that the new Egyptian government is promoting.

This is not to suggest that the Government should not work with President Sisi on development, security, migration and other mutual interests. It should, but it must at the same time also maintain some clear and critical distance with the regime.

The Government and its allies in Europe must hold to a long term policy of working to promote the openings of political space in Egypt. Stability cannot be achieved through a security crackdown.

We need to be alert to the dangers that President Sisi will use the rise of ISIS to justify its security orientated policies as a necessity in the fight against terrorism to both a domestic and international audience. While not wanting to rule out that ISIS has links to Egyptian radicals, it cannot be ruled out that the authoritarian crackdown in Egypt is itself fuelling new violent extremism.

Unfortunately a narrative that frames developments in security terms will inevitably see shrinkage in the space for dialogue and a diminishment in the number and type of partners in any conversation.

It is for this reason that dialogues like this that are built on trust over many years are so important. One can only hope that dialogues like this will help all sides to challenge the parameters of the political and public debate in their own national contexts.

Let me conclude by saying a few words about the dialogue at a European level. Many of the tensions that exist between the British Parliament and its Government are replicated across Europe and at the same time between the European Parliament and the European Council.

The differing national interests that inform particular member states understanding of an issue within the European Council and the EU Foreign Affairs Council makes the policy process at a European level some what sub optimal.

The particular narratives that each member states have of any particular situation needs to be reconciled with each other and also with the EU’s self-understanding of itself as a civilian power and its civilising mission.

Even when a position is reached it is open to change. I think here of the decision last year by the British and French Government to say that they were no longer bound by the European Council’s decision to uphold an arms embargo in Syria and that they were willing to supply arms to moderate Syrian rebels.

Yet even if the EU’s rules and procedures were so embedded that cooperation on foreign policy issues was made easier, it is far from clear that this would have helped the EU develop a less uncertain policy with regard to the Arab world.

I think here of the EU’s hesitancy and uncertainty as to whether the EU should send an election observation mission to observe Egypt’s recent Presidential elections. This hesitancy has little to do with logistics and more with how Europe might respond if it found irregularities with the elections.

Let’s remember here that the EU’s overall approach to the transitions in North Africa are based on the principle of more for more and less for less. Despite various European Parliamentary resolutions that funds should be withheld if Egypt’s government fails to carry out significant steps to abide by human and democratic rights and the rule of law, the European Council has so far been reluctant to set red lies.

The EU is perhaps all too aware that if it pressed the question of conditionality that Egypt would in all likelihood look to find other funding from its near abroad – Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In this respect the EU – like its member states – appears to be reluctant to give up the limited influence it has in the region on the alter of high principle.

In the discussions that follows it will be interesting to see whether this view of the EU’s decision making is shared more widely or whether I have been too influenced by my national context. Have I played true to form by being nothing more than the awkward Brit. If that is the case, I apologise and in the true European way I’m happy to be enlightened.

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British military action against ISIS

Parliament’s recall brings into sharp focus the question of whether the use of force against ISIS is justifiable. It is easy to build a convincing ethical case for military force, but political questions remain as to whether the overarching strategy to combat ISIS is itself coherent and likely to succeed. The use of force against ISIS might be ethical, but is it strategic? If it’s not strategic should we resist using military force until such as we have got the wider strategy right?

The ethical case for using military force against ISIS is pretty clear cut. It provides an opportunity to punish evil and reverse an act of aggression. It is being done at the invitation of the Government of Iraq and as part of a broad based international coalition. It is both legal and legitimate. The intention is not to seek territorial aggrandisement or to protect narrowly defined national interests, but to protect universal values and to store up a fragile world order.

Despite this compelling case questions remain as to whether there is a reasonable chance of success. There is little question that operationally missiles will – for the most part – reach their intended target, but will this be sufficient to secure wider strategic success?

Air power will help to degrade ISIS’s military capability, but on its own it will not be sufficient to defeat ISIS and crush its poisonous ideology. There are no real fighters for air power to support in Iraq and Syria, other than the peshmerga, and it is far from clear at this moment that they will venture beyond their own territory. Retraining the Iraqi army is a long term venture and even then there is no guarantee that this effort will be any more successful now than during the allied occupation of Iraq post 2003.

Airstrikes might buy the new Government of Iraq time to implement its programme of reform but that is all it does. As the UN General Secretary said in his address to the UN Security Council yesterday missiles kill terrorists, but it is good governance that kills terrorism.

Killing terrorists is the easy bit. Building good governance is a distinctly more tricky exercise and takes time. No one will mourn the departure of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, but it is far too soon to conclude that the appointment of Dr Haider al-Abadi will lead to a government in Iraq that is both inclusive and functional. Even if the early signs are encouraging, the Iraqi government will need to undertake a sustained outreach with disaffected Sunnis that address their long standing grievances.

In view of the importance of securing a wider political reform in Iraq, it is legitimate to ask what steps the Government is taking to assist the Government of Iraq implement its programme for inclusive government? To what extent will any UK support for the international strategy against ISIS be conditional upon there being a credible programme of reform in Iraq? How do we measure success and over what timeframe? What happens should the reform process falter?

These questions don’t necessarily affect the immediate decision before Parliament, but they still need to be addressed.

There are understandable domestic political reasons why Parliament’s attention will be narrowed to the use of force in Iraq even if the over arching objective of defeating ISIS requires engaging with this terrorist organisation in its Syrian stronghold. Even if the Government decides to restrict its military involvement to Iraq, Parliament needs to look again at whether the Government’s strategy for resolving the conflict in Syria is at odds with its more strategy to defeat ISIS.

The convergence of interests in the region and the start of a Saudi-Iran dialogue and the steps by both towards practical cooperation in Lebanon provide a rare and possibly temporary reconfiguration of interests that the British Government and others needs to build on. With a significant number of ISIS fighters coming from Chechnya, Russia too has an interest in defeating ISIS which has the potential to create new diplomatic openings. Are the UK and others making the most of this fluidity?

As in Iraq, airstrikes in Syria will count for nothing unless it is in support of a wider peace process that provides for the common good of all Syrians. The danger and risk with tomorrow’s parliamentary debate is that it risks focusing exclusively on the military dimension to the detrimental of other more concerns.

Military force only has utility if deployed in the service of a wider political strategy. At the moment, that strategy is still evolving.

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Obama’s strategy to destroy ISIS

In a televised address to the American people on Wednesday night President Obama outlined his grand strategy to combat ISIS. How comprehensive a strategy is it and what does it mean both for the region and those countries, like the UK, willing to partner the US in implementing the strategy?

ISIS Speech Obama made clear that the overarching objective is to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS through a comprehensive and sustained counter terrorism strategy.”

The strategy comprises 4 pillars: a systematic campaign of air strikes against ISIS; increased support to forces fighting ISIS on the ground; a substantial counter terrorism effort to cut of ISIS’s funding and to counter its warped ideology; continued humanitarian assistance to protect innocent victims.

The US President recognises then that the campaign against ISIS is likely to proceed in stages over a period of time and will involve a range of kinetic and non-kinetic instruments.

The strategy’s objective far exceeds that which Obama has previously set out. In his statement of 7 August Obama explained that the decision to launch air strikes against ISIS had 2 operational objectives: protecting US personnel and facilities and preventing a potential act of genocide.

Obama’s justification for this new overarching objective rests less on the threat that ISIS poses to the US and more on the danger that it poses to the people in the Middle East. Obama accepts, however, that if left unchecked ISIS might over time become a threat to the US and its allies.

This assessment that is not necessarily shared by some within his own administration or indeed for that matter analysts and pundits across Europe who are quick to argue that ISIS pose a serious threat to everything that we stand for. The competing understandings of the risk presented by ISIS needs to be teased out further.

As with his statement of 7 August, Obama’s statement of 10 September went to great lengths to make the case that “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqi’s what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. And that’s why I’ve insisted that additional US action be dependent on Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.”

No one will mourn the departure of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, but it is far too soon to think that the appointment of Haider al-Abadio will lead to a government in Iraq that is both inclusive and functional. All too often inclusive government in Iraq entails carving up government ministries between a tiny elite drawn from each ethnicity and sect.

Further consideration also needs to be given to how the intensification of military action might impact disaffected and marginalised Sunni communities in Iraq? Will military action cement or alleviate the drivers of the conflict?

The deep sectarian divisions within Iraq are not lost on Obama and explains why he places such a premium on developing a broad regional alliance against ISIS. It remains uncertain, however, whether even such an inclusive coalition against ISIS will be sufficient to challenge the perception on the Arab street that this is just another western intervention.

A lot depends here on the division of responsibilities within the coalition for taking this strategy forward. The drawing together to date of 37 countries from Albania to Saudi Arabia sounds impressive, but if it is only the US undertaking airstrikes with others providing humanitarian aid or supplying arms from afar then this strategy is likely to run into the buffers prett quickly.

Doubts also exist as to whether Obama will be able to maintain such a diverse coalition over the long-term. The emerging coalition appears united in its fear of ISIS, but the coalition might come unstuck when ISIS is in retreat, but not yet defeated.

By setting the objective of destroying ISIS, Obama has widened the theatre of operation from Iraq to Syria. The strategy rightly recognises the transnational character of ISIS, but it is short on details of how the fight against ISIS will be taken forward in Syria and the time frame over which this will be pursued?

Will the campaign in Syria be sequential or concurrent to the effort in Iraq? Is the intent to degrade ISIS in Iraq before moving to destroy it in Syria?

This ambiguity is understandable given the decidedly more complex environment any coalition of the willing faces in Syria. In his address on Wednesday, Obama rules out working with the Assad regime in combating ISIS in favour of strengthening the opposition as the best counterweight to ISIS while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.

All this sounds fine and dandy, but – as Obama acknowledged in an earlier interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times some weeks back – the US has had difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”

It’s hard to know what has changed in the last 2 weeks to change this assessment. Is there a danger of allowing our fear of ISIS to over ride our better judgment that has so far held that the situation on the ground in Syria is so murky that risks of arming a volatile and fragmented far outweigh the potential benefits?

Obama’s emphasis on finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria is welcome and remains the best long-term strategy of defeating ISIS, but the failures of Geneva II earlier in the year underline how wicked and intractable the conflict in Syria has become. The diplomatic fall out between the West and Russia over Ukraine adds a further layer of complexity that ward against a diplomatic solution.

To be fair to Obama, the televised address to his fellow Americans was a public relations exercise. The aim was to reassure a public worried both by the ISIS threat and the fear that the US might find itself embroiled alone in another conflict in the Middle East with all that it might entail in terms of boots on the ground. Despite its billing this was never going to be a speech that was high on detail, but at some point someone needs to do just that.

What does all this mean for the UK?

Of the strategy’s four pillars the last 2 are probably least problematic politically for the UK. On the humanitarian side, the UK has so far provided £23 million of aid, while it led on the effort to secure a strong UN Security Council resolution to disrupt ISIL’s financing flows. In both these areas it is likely the UK will want to continue to play a proactive role.

The UK is also playing a role supporting forces fighting ISIS on the ground. As with opposition groups in Syria, this support in Iraq has taken the form of providing non-lethal equipment.

The question will arise, however whether the UK should move to provide lethal equipment as well? This might be less problematic in Iraq – where the Peshmerga forces are a more cohesive unit – than in Syria, but it will still need close public scrutiny to ensure that any assistance does not contravene the government’s own ethical criteria that underpins its arms transfer regime.

More problematic for the UK is the question of whether it should take part in the systematic campaign of air strikes against ISIS? There will be some MPs who will want to make amends for last year’s Parliamentary decision against military action in Syria, but there will be others who, while supportive of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, will be more cautious about extending air strikes to Syria. No 10’s rebuke of the Foreign Secretary’s comments yesterday ruling out British airstrikes in Syria indicates that this tension runs deep throughout Government.

And yet, still others will be resistant to any military involvement even in Iraq, on the grounds that each time the UK, and others, have intervened in that country over the last 30 years it has generally left the country worse off. Why military action this time around will be any more successful than in the past is an uncomfortable question, but one that still needs answering.

The body of questions that arise then when debating whether Britain should commit to airstrikes against Iraq aren’t just political or strategic, but deeply ethical. It is important that they get raised in the debate. We can’t allow the horrors committed by ISIS to lead us blindly into using military force without first thinking through the appropriate checks and balances as to its use.

Similarly, we shouldn’t allow the terms of the debate to be narrowly drawn. We need to look at how the use of military force fits in with the overarching strategy and whether this strategy is itself coherent.

At present the lack of any detail makes it very difficult to have an informed debate and to reach a reasoned positioned on how best to proceed.

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The limits of military action in Iraq

This blogs reviews the US decision to launch limited air strikes against ISIS in Northern Iraq.

In his statement of 7 August, President Obama announced that he had authorized two operations in Iraq.

First, targeted airstrikes to protect American personnel in Erbil from the imminent threat posed by ISIS in Northern Iraq. These personnel, he explained, are considered vital to joint operations with the Kurds and the Iraqi government.

Second, a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped on the Sinjar mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death. As part of the humanitarian effort he authorised limited airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces that are fighting to beat back ISIS’s siege on the mountain and to protect the civilians there.

The immediate goals then are to protect US personnel and facilities and to prevent a potential act of genocide. As presented, this is not the start of an open-ended military campaign aimed at defeating ISIS. Nor is it the start of a wider humanitarian intervention to protect all innocent civilians from murder or displacement at the hands of ISIS.

Obama used the 7 August statement and his televised address to the nation 2 days later to place these limited operations within a wider political strategy, namely empowering Iraqis to confront this crisis by reconciling their differences.

Obama noted: “Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like ISIS”. Once a new government is in place the US would then “work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counterterrorism challenge.”

Seen from this perspective, the designation of Haider al-Abadi as the new Prime Minister of Iraq is a significant step towards opposing ISIS in Iraq, but given the depth of sectarian polarisation this will clearly be no easy task. The challenge could yet be significantly complicated by Maliki’s initial refusal to give up office. A intra-Shia conflict though possible is unlikely, but an uncooperative Maliki could still make the politics of reconciliation that much harder.

In a subsequent op-ed interview with Thomas Freidman for the New York Times, Obama explained that pursing a more ambitious military campaign would mitigate against the wider political strategy as it would invite the Iraqi government to avoid facing the difficult question of how it developed an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished. There is a clear understanding here that the best way, maybe the only way, to defeat the ISIS threat in Iraq is by reconstituting the Iraqi body politic in such a way that it provides for the common good of all.

The emphasis that Obama places on inclusive government explains why in part he has been willing to work with and through the Kurds. In his interview with Thomas Freidman, Obama notes:

“I do think the Kurds used that time that was given by our troop sacrifices in Iraq. They used that time well, and the Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see. It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it’s important to make sure that space is protected, but, more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force. I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against ISIL.”

Although the US has taken the lead to date, you only have to look at the White House website to see the efforts the Administration has taken to internationalise this campiagn. These efforts have met with some success with plenty of countries coming forward to assist with or contribute to the humanitarian effort.

Several countries – France, Turkey and the UK included – have moved beyond humanitarian assistance to provide logistical military support. In the case of France, this has now extended to arming the Kurdish forces in Iraq. Not surprisingly there remain diplomatic sensitivities and political divisions, as illustrated by the inability of EU member states to agree yesterday on a common policy on the question of arming the Kurds.

It remains unlear, however, whether this internationalisation will in turn see an intentional or unintentional widening of the military campaign, or whether the internationalisation is itself predicated on the campaign remaining narrowly defined and in support of the wider political strategy that Obama has set. To date it appears the latter. As per David Cameron’s announcement today’detailed plans’ are being put in place to assist stranded Yazidi in Iraq, but there appear to be no plans at this stage to widen the focus.

It is certainly possible that any success achieved in blunting the advance on Erbil and preventing a genocide on the Sinjar mountain might lead to the modus operandi being applied to other areas in Northern Iraq. Yet, even if that were to happen there are natural limits to this pattern of operation which will thwart wider efforts to combat ISIS.

It is difficult, for instance, to see this model being extended easily beyond Iraq to combat the ISIS threat in Syria. Assad has shown himself to be far less malleable than Maliki and unlike Kurdistan the US and its allies still has no reliable opposition partner in Syria.

It is revealing here that in his interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama acknowledged that the US has had difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.” Yet, even if they did exist, Western governments remain reluctant to take ownership of the fight against Assad.

Highlighting the transnational character of ISIS and widening the lens of focus beyond the Sinjar mountain top is to suggest that our efforts to safeguard the territorial integrity of Iraq and to help protect its people from the evil that is ISIS will remain incomplete so long as the there is no coherent international strategy to deal with Syria.

That is not to say that the use of force against ISIS in Northern Iraq is not necessary or timely, merely that we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that the deployment of military force can resolve fully the horrors we are currently witnessing.

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