Shorten Plays Australian Politics While Iraq Burns

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It fell to Labor leader Bill Shorten, doing his usual impression of a hole in the air, to encapsulate this week’s mini debate around the Abbott government’s intentions (or lack of them) regarding the unfolding situation in Iraq, where, if this week’s reports are correct, 80 men have just been massacred (and their wives and children taken prisoner) in the Yazidi village of Kocho.

Refusing to be drawn into commenting on ‘hypotheticals’, Shorten nevertheless upbraided the government for failing to give Australians ‘one position in terms of their intent’.

Having registered a very slight difference in tone between comments made by defence minister David Johnston, who said that he wouldn’t rule out providing military ‘back-up assistance’ to the US should it recommit ground-troops to Iraq, and foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop, who said that she did not envisage a situation in which the US would request such assistance, his political instruments flickered into life and he tottered out to meet the press.

“I do wish the defence minister or the prime minister could clarify what the position of the government is,” said Shorten, adding, a little pettishly, “Labor certainly hasn’t been consulted at all.”

This is the politics of politics, and it’s bullshit. The government’s lack of a clear media line may indeed be further evidence of the omnishambles that is Team Abbott. But ruling anything in or out is precisely what the government should not be doing with regard to the fluid situation in Iraq, and, notwithstanding Bishop’s lack of imagination, precisely what it hasn’t done.

If recent statements are anything to go by, the Australian Prime Minister is not averse to declaring things ‘on or off the table’: economic sanctions against Russia are ‘on’ it; reforms to the RDA are ‘off’ it. But Australian involvement in a military endeavour is, for the moment, neither on nor off it, and that is where it should, and shouldn’t, be.

Clearly, the tables that matter in this instance are not located in Canberra; they are located in Baghdad and Washington, and, to a depressingly lesser extent, at the UN’s headquarters in New York.

Nothing will happen unless the US moves first, and at the moment it looks unlikely to do so.

On the one hand, Obama has shown a statesmanlike willingness to overrule his own strong ambition to avoid any further entanglements in Iraq; on the other, the humanitarian mission to rescue the desperate souls on Mount Sinjar and to hold their pursuers at bay through airstrikes comes hedged around with promises not to commit any boots to the soil.

In a stage-managed question-and-answer session with Marines at Camp Pendleton a few days ago, the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel was blunt: advisors, yes; combat troops, no.

“As the president has made very clear,” said Hagel, “we’re not going back to Iraq in any of the same combat dimensions we were once in.”

Needless to say, this (Shorten-friendly) line is a response to public sentiment in the US – a sentiment of which the polls are supposed, as always, to be eloquent.

Time and again we are told that the public has ‘no appetite’ for another military intervention, though whether it has an ‘appetite’ for a genocidal terror state at a chokepoint of the world economy remains, for the moment at least, unclear (perhaps there wasn’t a poll on that).

At any rate, it’s plain that the neocons and liberal hawks who favour action still have all their work ahead of them, especially given the clusterf*ck they led us into in 2003.

The question is whether the current alliance of conservative ‘realists’ and liberal peaceniks is, in the circumstances, any less dangerous.

In his 2010 book, The Icarus Syndrome, Peter Beinart suggests that an unhelpful dialectic is at work in US foreign policy, with each new generation of politicians reacting to what has gone before, often invoking some mistake or success as justification for the new ‘doctrine’.

One symptom of this dialectic is too smooth a rehashing of historical precedent.

In the 1960s, the Munich analogy helped make the case for war in Vietnam, while in the 1990s the Vietnam analogy was used to justify non-intervention in Bosnia.

Clearly, the situation in Iraq is different from either of those examples, since the war to remove Saddam Hussein was in many and multifarious ways the author of where the country is now. But the principle holds, or should hold, good.

Having done the wrong thing in 2003 should not be taken as an argument for doing nothing in 2014.

Certainly the threat from IS, or ISIS, is of an order that cannot be dismissed.

Beheadings, stonings and crucifixions are only the most conspicuous aspects of a campaign of almost unbelievable brutality.

ISIS is a terror army bent on theological cleansing and the choice it presents to the Iraqis and Syrians now under its control is stark and terrifying.

That choice, in its own terms, is between silver and lead: do as we say and receive our largess, or resist us and receive a bullet in the brain.

The veteran reporter Patrick Cockburn, writing in the London Review of Books, has suggested that the Islamic State is the most significant development in the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.

Given that, and given the fact that the Genocide Convention obliges its signatories to both prevent and punish genocide, this doesn’t seem like the most appropriate time to come over all isolationist.

The desire to end the ‘war on terror’ is wholly understandable. It was always an absurd idea: one can’t wage war against a tactic any more than one can argue with a hatstand.

But the struggle against totalitarianism, which entails the elevation of terror from a means to an end to an end in itself, is something all decent human beings can and should be committed to.

The conflagration that is the Islamic State is a standing affront to humanity. Coexistence with it is not just undesirable; it is, in the long term, impossible.

This is not to say, however, that the intervention should be extended. But in considering any intervention (or non-intervention) we should ask ourselves three questions: Is it morally urgent and in keeping with international law? Has a meaningful request for assistance been made? And is there a better than 50 per cent chance that an intervention will not make things worse? (Here, we may have to bring in some people who are used to dealing in ‘hypotheticals’.)

If the answer to all three questions is yes – and in the great majority of cases it won’t be – then the argument for intervention can be made.

Simplistic, I know; but as a general principle it strikes me as rather more coherent than insisting that the government declare its hand before all the cards are ‘on the table’.

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