America has now officially embarked on a long war in the Middle East, a war so taxing that officials judge it ill-advised to predict a termination in fifteen years or fifty. If one regards the entanglement as a product of American mistakes – a judgment shared by many observers – the causes in arrogance and ideology go a long way back. Among the culprits are Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and the triumvirate of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Tony Blair (an honorary American in this context). Wilson promoted the idea of the United States as the country whose mission was to make the world safe for democracy. Truman launched the national security state with mobilisation in peacetime. Two terms of Reagan effaced the conscience of Vietnam and closed with ‘victory in the Cold War’. In the years between the fall of communism and the Iraq war, that victory was rubbed in by the eastward expansion of Nato, an event whose reverberations are now being felt elsewhere.
Overall, the Iraq war of 2003 was opposed by more Democrats than Republicans, but at the highest levels it was sufficiently bipartisan. In October 2002, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry voted for Bush’s request to authorise the use of force. Barack Obama, then a state senator in Illinois, gave a speech against it; and nobody who knows the history would blame the present conflict in the Middle East on Obama. Indeed, after the disaster of Libya in 2011, he had begun to drop hints of a non-interventionist policy.
At a briefing in Manila in April, he said that the press and policy establishment should not expect ‘home runs’; his administration was coming up with singles and doubles that added up to progress. In a more relaxed mood, he said that al-Qaida was so reduced that we were now facing the junior varsity team instead of the first string – a provocation on a par with Bush’s taunt ‘Bring ’em on!’ which the events of the summer have given Obama cause to regret. Yet the president’s policy in the Middle East after 2011 followed a sound protocol for avoiding disaster. His advisers were instructed to make their rule of conduct ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’ Obama said it had always been a ‘fantasy’ that you could overthrow Assad with a moderate rebel force composed of ‘former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth’. With luck, he might have gone further on the path of candour and restraint.
Reports of the conquest by Isis of large sections of Iraq were not enough to sway the public mood of the US back towards acceptance of war. But the beheadings of two Americans had a terrifying effect, like reports of atrocities by pirates in earlier ages. It is hard to imagine how the president could have avoided a major explanation at this stage. A wider war has long been urged by the slant of the New York Times, rumoured in the network crawl at CNN, and promoted by two active and energetic senators: John McCain, whose father commanded Nixon’s air war against Vietnam; and Lindsey Graham, whose campaign for re-election in South Carolina is bankrolled by the casino billionaire and Israel lobbyist Sheldon Adelson.
The substance of Obama’s speech on 10 September was low-keyed. He was setting the US on a path ‘to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group’ Isis. In contrast with Bush’s promise to ‘rid the world of evil’, Obama said that ‘we cannot erase every trace of evil from the world.’ Having fled the scene of battle, the Iraqi army must reassemble itself. ‘We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.’ But all that air support and financial assistance can do, the US will do. The terrorists will be defeated by US air strikes and a ‘broad coalition’ of Arab soldiers, aided by occasional insertions of US ‘service members’ who don’t count as US troops: 475 more have just been dispatched. Does Obama need approval by the Senate? His phrasing here was careful: ‘I welcome congressional support.’ The humanitarian justification favoured by some of Obama’s advisers was noticed only at the end: ‘we helped prevent the massacre of civilians trapped on a distant mountain’ and thereby upheld ‘timeless ideals’.
American policy is hampered by contradictions which when looked at closely amount to incoherence. In Syria, Obama is committed to the overthrow of Assad. But even the farmers and pharmacists we support are implicated in atrocities; the family of Steven Sotloff has accused them of selling him to Isis for beheading at a price between $25,000 and $50,000. Again, America’s enemies in Iraq are identical with our friends in Syria; if we encourage them anywhere, we strengthen the poison that is killing Iraq. Another set of friends, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, have rescued Iraqis from the menace of Isis, but they are themselves on the US list of terrorist groups and are violently opposed by another US ally, Turkey, because of the threat of Kurdish liberation. Iran is our biggest potential ally, but negotiations with Iran have been played down by Obama. The public has been trained to regard that country as an enemy since 1979.
An American aged thirty hardly remembers a time when the United States was not at war. And if the prognosis of the 10 September speech can be trusted, this generation will be far into middle age before the chance returns for a politics that is not overhung by continuing war. We simply live with wars and expect propaganda for further wars. The forces stirring behind the scenes (the hunt for dwindling energy resources, Israeli and Saudi regional ambitions) are as unfamiliar to most Americans as the religious passions that have stirred our succession of enemies.