Even the left is demanding quick solutions to the horror and immediacy of the Isis beheadings. But the situation in Iraq is too complex for simplistic thinking
Britain's former foreign minister Jack Straw. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
There are some surprising people who want to see American bombs dropping on Iraq again. Of course, it is no surprise at all to see the coalescence of a pro-war sentiment in the Atlanticist wing of the political class. Even Jack Straw’s extraordinary bluster against Barack Obama’s “indecisiveness” (thank God for his “decisiveness” back in 2003) hardly raises more than an eyebrow.
Yet, beyond the Westminster spear-carriers for American empire, there is a muted, hardly enthusiastic, but nonetheless real sentiment in parts of the left. It runs something like this: “I marched against the war on Iraq, I detest US domination, but in this case I have no problem with American airstrikes.” Why?
The answer is Islamic State. Isis goes to your head and gets under your skin; it leaves you feeling infested. Back in the days when one didn’t know much about the jihadis carrying out beheadings, it was possible to think that they were just – as David Cameron has denounced them – “monsters”, savages, beasts. Or, if one were on the anti-war left, one could simply point out that there was, after all, a war on. A brutal occupation produces a brutal insurgency: case closed.
But that argument was always vulgar, and it would be even more vulgar now to say that Isis’s success can be explained by reference to an occupation that no longer persists. Further, the shift in communication technology and strategy adds a new dimension. Whereas “al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers” communicated principally in the medium of shaky videos with hostages reading bombastic messages from their host-killers, Isis is tweeting, often with a wry, sardonic edge that makes them sound like New York hipsters turned salafists.
And whereas the jihadi ultras of the “war on terror” era were an unpopular, marginalised minority within the Iraqi resistance, always fought and opposed by the mainstream of the Sunni Arab insurgency, Isis succeeds because of the support it enjoys within much of the population it seeks to rule. And this support, be it noted, is gained on the basis of vicious sectarianism.
The unutterable, ostentatious horror of Isis’s actions – the latest of which is the beheading of the British aid worker David Haines – and the way in which it actively solicits disgust, now has to be reconciled with the knowledge that these combatants are educated, tech-savvy and enjoy a popular base. The mainstream press doesn’t offer much help in interpreting this.
Take the character who has been referred to as “Jihad John”, the man supposedly behind a number of the killings. The immediate dilemma faced by the anglophone press is explaining how a British person “from a good area” could be tempted to participate in such grim spectacles. The desperate search for motives, sifting hopelessly through his rap lyrics for clues, is indicative of how misplaced this approach is.
And, of course, in the absence of explanation, we are very quick to believe anything we hear about Isis. For example, the story of 40,000 Iraqis stranded and starving on a mountain – invoked by supporters of intervention – turned out to be exaggerated. The Isis siege, far from requiring the flexing of US muscle, was broken by Kurdish peshmerga.
Given the paucity of political explanations for Isis’s racing success, and knowing only what Isis rule means for the majority of inhabitants of the incipient “Islamic state”, American or British bombs seem to offer a tempting short cut. This is what has always given “humanitarian intervention” its compelling ideological power: while we as citizens watch in horror, we know that there are powerful people in the world who could stop this without breaking a sweat.
Such a stance, of course, involves taking great risks with the lives of other people one is in no position to consult, by urging on a military and political authority over which we have at most extremely exiguous checks. Worse, the illusion that there is a simple techno-military solution to grave humanitarian exigencies is necessarily inherently naive about the social basis of war, and therefore about the potential for even the best-intentioned intervention to go horribly wrong.
It is easy to think that if Isis members were identified and vaporised, the murder would end. However, Isis would be nowhere if it weren’t for the generalised rejection by Sunni Iraqis of the sectarian political authority in Baghdad.
This is, after all, a state that was built by the US occupiers on the basis of the more sectarian Shia religious parties and their death squads. Trained and deployed by the US, they end up being worse torturers than Saddam Hussein. The sectarian civil war that gripped Iraq around 2006 was precipitated to a large extent by this development. The promise that the George W Bush administration made to Sunni groups who joined the counter-insurgency in the context of the “surge” was that their interests would no longer be excluded. That promise was not fulfilled, and President al-Maliki’s repression of Sunni Arabs is now driving an insurgency against his rule, from which Isis is gaining.
Airstrikes can destroy bodies, but they can’t destroy political antagonisms. Nor would a renewed occupation solve the problem. The formerly occupying coalition which constructed that authority are in no position – even if they had the ability – to replace it with something plural and democratic. There simply are no shortcuts. The illusion that there are, or could be, is one of the reasons why people were led to war in Iraq in 2003.
Richard Seymour is a political activist who blogs at Lenin's tomb. He is the author of Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made