Tony Blair has forgotten the lessons of his own history in Iraq

If the West repeats its history of bombing Iraq, it is the Arabs who will - once again - be doomed to live with the consequences, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Tony Blair, left, with George W Bush during a news conference in Maryland, in 2003. 

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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Few politicians are historians – that, indeed, is one of the misfortunes of politics – but most are at least familiar with Edmund Burke’s remark that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

Usually this remark refers to politicians who don’t know the history of events before they were born. When it comes to Tony Blair, however, it appears he doesn’t even know history that he himself was part of.

The former British prime minister – the man who led Britain into the disastrous invasion of Iraq – has taken to the media to argue that the coalition being assembled against ISIL should include ground troops.

“Air power is a major component,” wrote Mr Blair. “But air power alone will not suffice. [ISIL] can be hemmed in, harried and to a degree contained by air power. But they can’t be defeated by it.”

All of that is accurate, except that Mr Blair’s conclusion is not to seek a political settlement, or end the Syrian civil war, or focus on those enabling the chaos in the Middle East like Iran and Russia. Instead, his solution is the same playbook he has been touting for years: more explosions, more western boots on the ground.

Mr Blair has always been excessively evangelical about the use of force for political ends. He has a messianic belief in the military. But while force has its uses, it is not an end in itself. And too often, the West has used force without heeding the consequences or preparing for the aftermath.

The simple reason for that is that the people who are the victims of western attacks rarely have a voice. The circles of politics are closed to them and their voices are excluded from western media. The families of the Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Iraqis and many others who have died from western bombs are not afforded airtime or diplomatic meetings. It is easy, therefore, to forget the real consequences of bombs.

ISIL, says Mr Blair, needs to be attacked “to send a very strong signal to other terrorist groups in the region”. Here again is the messiah without the details: what signal, precisely, needs to be sent? These groups know very well that the West, and indeed the Arab countries, dislike them. They know that these countries will seek to attack them. The “signals” of bombing Baghdad and bombing Kabul are recent, if such an object lesson were required. Bombing these groups won’t send any message at all.

There is a limited utility to air strikes, but there is a utility. Without air strikes, ISIL cannot be defeated. But they also cannot be defeated by air strikes alone.

It is a political settlement in Iraq and an end to the civil war in Syria that will deny ISIL and similar groups the ungoverned spaces they need and the oxygen of resentment they breathe.

Mr Blair doesn’t seem to have learnt the lessons of Iraq: that military force alone, coupled with a utopian vision of what could happen, is not sufficient. The devil is always in the detail.

The attack on ISIL is not a repeat of the invasion of Iraq. But that doesn’t mean the lessons of that war should not be heeded.

It is not true, as some have alleged, that the coalition being assembled against ISIL is a second (indeed third) western invasion of Iraq.

It is understandable why observers might think that: a video currently making the rounds online has stitched together the television addresses of every US president, all the way back to George H W Bush in 1991, all ordering military action against Iraq. The importance of Iraq as a strategic threat and vital oil producer has made it of interest to US leaders for decades.

Indeed, America’s secretary of state John Kerry addressed that criticism, saying this Iraq war would not be the same as the one a decade ago. “We will not repeat that moment,” he said.

But there are worrying similarities. Once again, the US refuses to be bound by the rules of the world. In 2003, George W Bush refused to seek UN authorisation – knowing that he wouldn’t get it. The same appears to be happening this time, with Mr Kerry arguing that “Russian obstructionism” is a valid enough reason to ignore the world body.

But there are crucial differences. This time, it is the Iraqis themselves who have requested US air strikes. The expanding coalition includes Arab countries and may even include Arab armies. It is they, in fact, who should lead the push for a comprehensive strategy. Not foreign ground troops but clear organisation of the troops – Kurdish, Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian rebels – already on the ground.

The Arab countries are best placed to work out what political settlement is needed to draw the Iraqi Sunnis away from ISIL and towards the Iraqi government – and the US is best placed to push the Iraqis to act.

Air strikes, then, must be part of the strategy against ISIL, not the totality of it. The Arab countries must push that message strongly to their western allies. Because if the West repeats its history of bombing, it is the Arabs who will once again be doomed to bear the consequences.

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai