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Malcolm Turnbull and Theresa May at the G20 summit in China (Tom Evans CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)

It is all too easy to want to raise the drawbridge against a dangerous world. In the 15 years since 9/11, the metastasis of jihad has defied the best efforts of the West. Syria’s self-immolation has now lasted longer than either the Spanish or American civil wars. Similarly interminable conflicts rage across much of Africa and the Middle East, from Nigeria and Libya to Yemen and Afghanistan. Others, such as Kashmir and Korea, are frozen but may flare up at any moment.

At the epicentre of evil is the so-called Islamic State, still spreading chaos and misery in all directions from its Iraqi strongholds. It is easy to assume that the emergence of IS was inevitable, but in fact Iraq was relatively calm after the “surge” led by General David Petraeus in 2007-8. Ignoring military advice to stay put, President Obama chose to cut and run instead. Equally culpable was his decision to threaten Bashar al-Assad with dire consequences for crossing a “red line” by using chemical weapons — and then, when Assad followed his father’s example and gassed his own civilians, to do nothing. We are all living with the consequences of the great American abdication of the last decade.

Isolation is always alluring, but it is never splendid. We may tell ourselves that we don’t have a dog in most of these fights, or that there is nothing to choose between equally savage antagonists. Disillusionment is widespread in the West among those who once supported intervention to prevent genocide or to build nations. Many no longer believe that by creating democracies, we can prevent terrorism. The commonest cause of failed states is our own fear of failure.

Yet underestimating the West’s ability to make a difference is just as grave an error as the overconfidence of the past. Pessimism of the intellect, to adopt Gramsci’s phrase, is perfectly proper when so many lives, not least our own, are at stake, and it was foolish to expect Iraqis and Afghans to behave like Germans and Japanese after 1945, but we were not wrong to believe that these Muslim states might one day join the free world. If we fail to bring order to the chaos on our periphery, we shall find disorder spreading to our own heartlands.

The great migrations of history are driven either by hope or fear. It is easier to absorb the former than the latter. We are rightly anxious about the motives of millions who are fleeing the Muslim world to Europe; we worry less about the millions of other Europeans who have moved to Britain to work. In a few years the UK took in more Poles than there are in Krakow. They have come because London is the metropolis of meritocracy.

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October 10th, 2016
5:10 AM
Excellent article. I would add that if the US had withdrawn from South Korea in the way that President Obama withdrew from Iraq, then that country would now be a part of the North Korean gulag instead of a thriving and prosperous democracy. In fact, the US still has 30,000 troops in South Korea. If half that many had remained in Iraq, that country might eventually have evolved to be a beacon of light for the middle east. It would have taken time - South Korea went through a long period of authoritarianism and is still far from perfect - but it would not have become the mess it is today.

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