Iraq, Gaza, Ebola: perfect storm tests Obama and Cameron
As US bombers attack Islamic State fighters, the world looks as flammable today as it did in 1914
The contrast is stark enough. A century ago this week, the armies of the great powers of Europe were at war, each capital trying to master its own destiny. They had little idea of the global catastrophe of four years of industrial war on an unprecedented scale - Lloyd George’s ‘Great Convulsion’ - that lay ahead.
This week the powers are involved in conflicts and convulsions across the world with every sign that no one seems to be fully in charge of events: not Obama’s Washington, nor Putin’s Russia, nor the capitals of the great agencies for peace and harmony – Brussels for the EU and Nato, New York for the UN.
The ingredients of the world crises of 1914 and 2014 are very different. But just look at the parallels and echoes for a minute. In 1914 an order collapsed that had kept Europe free of major continental war for a century – since the defeat Napoleon in 1815, to be precise.
Today the apparatus for making global peace that was launched in 1945 with the UN, and enhanced with the establishment of the OSCE at the end of the Cold War, is under stress as never before.
There is now the possibility of a Russian invasion, albeit in limited form, of sovereign Ukraine. The Middle East, always one of the most toxic legacies of the 1914–18 war, is consumed by the collapse of nations, tribes and faiths. Whether in Gaza or northern Iraq, no outside intervention seems to be on the cards that can resolve anything in the short term.
Through the centre of this new crisis, there is the sinister and murderous advance of the most extreme of active Salafist movements, the Islamic State (formerly Isis), a state that isn’t a state but with a huge global reach through social media, a product of the infidel West it affects to despise and maybe eventually destroy.
There is also the less obvious activity of the sects and power-brokers of Saudi Arabia, backing the jihadis in Syria and Yemen, and building Wahabi mosques by the thousand across the world.
IS - or the Islamic State and Caliphate as it grandiosely declares itself - has been seriously underestimated by western governments, their strategic advisers and intelligence agencies. This includes the CIA and MI6.
Even when Isis – as the movement was then called - was tearing up Mosul, bombing Kirkuk, and clearing Sunni lands north of Baghdad, we in the UK were being informed by anonymous ‘intelligence experts’ via the usual media channels that its power was exaggerated, that it would be incapable of actually administering a province, let alone a state.
This is beside the point. What marks out IS is the capacity for actual murder and genocide on the ground – witness the drive to eradicate the Yazidis and their faith, and the coming all-out assault on the Kurds – and for global mayhem by virtual means.
If you add in the local conflicts and massacres – such as in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, northern Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo– plus the dramatic flare–up of the Ebola virus, in terms of global crisis we are facing a perfect storm.
The Ebola outbreak is as challenging as any of the pandemics of recent times, such as SARS and Bird Flu. Though confined to West Africa for the moment, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, has today called it “the most complex outbreak in the four decades of the disease”. She said it is likely to spread beyond Africa.
Though governments dutifully list the risk of pandemics in their roster of global threat in drawing up their national security strategies, they have failed to connect the urgency of communicating such threats to their public. Ebola is already becoming an ominous wake-up call.
There is an equal lack of communication and awareness, insouciance even, in the response of western leaders like Barack Obama and David Cameron to the crises in Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza – which now look set to deepen by the day.
President Obama has ordered US air forces to bomb IS fighters as they close in on the Yasidis trapped on Mount Sinjar and this afternoon the Pentagon announced that the first attack had indeed been mounted. But Obama has ruled out any other form of military intervention, especially the use of ground forces.
Prime Minister Cameron says he supports the US leadership but will not "offer UK air forces" to help. Neither leader seems to be calculating the strategic consequences of their action or inaction. Bombing from the air, and leaving matters at that, is precisely the solution the British devised when they struggled to keep order in Iraq in the decade after independence in 1920. The RAF’s bi-planes achieved only limited results.
In 2003 Blair and Bush sent their forces to change the regime in Baghdad, betting that the country would still hold together in the aftermath. That bet is now lost.
The UK and US may try to shrug off their role in the debacle of today’s Iraq, but they cannot walk away and leave it to become the assault course and training ground for global jihadis. Their allies like Turkey won’t allow them to. The same goes for the crisis in Gaza – we are all involved in one way or another.
Ukraine has provided another setting for the failure to calculate the consequences of the mis-steps in international diplomacy with Putin’s Russia.
Moscow has put a new leadership into the separatist enclaves of eastern Ukraine and how has ranged against the Donetsk sector 30 medium artillery batteries and 17 armoured infantry battalions. These are not for show; they are designed for the business of moving into and occupying eastern Ukraine, possibly by next weekend.
Western Europe has responded with sanctions, and President Putin has put in his counter-fire of sanctions on EU produce. And the result? Italy has tipped back into recession again and Poland faces the ruin of its large agricultural export sector. Here comes another tidal rip of crisis for the Eurozone.
How do we manage the new global perfect storm? It is not just a question of intervention or non–intervention, as too many BBC commentators seem to think. We need to chart afresh the structures for security and diplomacy for the mid 21st century global crisis – of which this current storm may just be the first.
Too much is done for the short-term, and for crowd-pleasing effect – a characteristic that has plagued the international policies and posturing of the last two American presidents and British prime ministers in equal measure. The structure and policies have to be sustainable over years, decades even.
If the world isn’t to fall apart, the collective and individual policies of nations and peoples will have to be a lot more substantial than your average 30-second sound-bite or 140-character tweet.