x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

As ISIL pushes on, has America gone wobbly?

Margaret Thatcher's advice to George H Bush over Iraq applies again today.

“Considering” is an unusual word to use when ruthless armed militants are merely dozens of kilometres from the capital city of Iraq. America’s secretary of state John Kerry says the US is considering drone strikes. There will be more talks with Iran and the US is considering ways to cooperate. The White House has sent a couple of hundred troops to Iraq to protect the US embassy and is considering sending special forces.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a fierce militia that appears to have US$2bn in money and weapons at its disposal, continues its advance towards Baghdad. Where is the urgency? ISIL lines up Iraqi troops in a ditch and massacres them. Where are the air strikes? Tens of thousands of Iraqis are on the move, frightened of returning to their homes, in a country already badly fragmented. Where is the speedy response from Iraq’s prime minister?

The apparently leisurely response of both Nouri Al Maliki and Barack Obama to this extraordinary crisis is astonishing. Viewed from the Gulf, the threat is outsize, an astonishing conflagration that has already touched the lives of the thousands of Iraqis, and one with the potential to affect this region directly. And still the United States, which has a greater military presence in the Middle East than any other single country, dithers over what to do.

Of course the situation is complex. ISIL have embedded themselves in towns and cities. Air strikes will not end the problem, although they could degrade the capacity of the group and destroy some of the looted Iraqi army equipment. There must be a political strategy and that is in the hands of the Iraqi prime minister. But there must also be a sense of urgency.

When news emerges, as it did last week, that Mr Al Maliki had asked the US for air strikes against ISIL last month and was rebuffed, the Gulf begins to wonder if the US understands what is at stake. When US officials state that they are considering options and weighing facts, the Gulf must ask itself if America has forgotten its allies.

And when the masked men of ISIL have brought chaos to two Arab countries without a serious response from America, then the Gulf states must look across at the president of the United States and warn – as British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously warned George H Bush 24 years ago when Iraq invaded Kuwait – that this, Mr Obama, is no time to go wobbly.