The caution of Western nations to engage once again in military action in the Middle East has vanished. For a short time it seemed that they (and the US in particular) appeared to have learnt some lessons from their disastrous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year we saw President Obama draw back from attacking Syria and the UK parliament voting against military action there. In some ways it was like the aftermath of another American disaster - their war in Vietnam whose abject failure curtailed their overt military interventions for a decade. I use the word "overt" deliberately of course because their covert operations to undermine regimes they dislike have never ceased.
But within the last week President Obama has authorised military force against the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL) and the Levant, and the UK parliament have voted to add British support. What has so suddenly changed?
In one sense probably nothing much has changed. There were hawks in London and Washington who always wanted to re-engage in Iraq for realpolitik reasons to do with oil, support of Israel, fear of losing influence etc. But while the public at large opposed military intervention it was hard to force war-like actions through elected assemblies. The thing that has fundamentally changed is the public mood who now clamour for action against ISIL. In my opinion the public mood has been skillfully manipulated by the media who have exploited to the hilt the public brutality of ISIL. The revulsion to the YouTube beheading videos that ISIS have released surely explains why the man in the street is now so trigger-happy but the media have been grossly negligent in whipping up public sentiment.
At least three things have to be borne in mind which all suggest a more measured reaction. First of all, shocking though it is, a beheading is just another way of killing. Indeed in some countries such as Saudi Arabia (which last month beheaded more than one victim per day) beheading is a normal occurrence. Furthermore, if we recognise that summary executions, no matter the manner of them, are the real sin then we have to recognise many other greater sinners (and I can't avoid adding "such as the USA").
The second thing is that ISIL clearly wanted to provoke an armed response by Western nations (why else would the axe-wielding thugs address the leaders of the US and the UK so directly on the beheading videos?). It seems obvious what their motivation is: to garner support by encouraging so-called "Christian nations" to make war on Middle-eastern soil so that they can be painted as the real villains.
And thirdly, are we really so sure that ISIL are some super-army overrunning territory in Iraq and Syria? I do not believe that their original numbers (a small number of thousands) were so savage and efficient fighters that the Iraqi army and police (numbering over a million personnel trained by the US and armed with modern weaponry) laid down their arms without a fight. It is surely much more likely that many of them, quite likely a majority, had great sympathy with a Sunni insurrection. It is much more likely that we are witnessing further unravelling of the band-aid wrapped around Iraq before the Americans left declaring "Mission accomplished".
We are making a shocking mistake by yet more intervention in Iraq and Syria. Wasn't killing around one million Iraqis, devastating their country's infrastructure, and earning the hatred of so many of them enough? It is astonishing how we just haven't learnt from our mistakes.