Swiftly, with little public discussion, Australia has committed to another open-ended military intervention in the Middle East.
That’s the inescapable conclusion of yesterday’s non-debate in federal Parliament about the government’s dramatic steps to fly supplies and arms to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.
Officially, the mission is being described as an “international supply mission to Iraq,” which “will join international partners to help anti-ISIL forces."
ISIL is the now-notorious Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot that has taken over much of northern Iraq and Syria in the chaotic power vacuum resulting from the Syrian civil war and the failure of the Iraqi state.
Royal Australian Air Force cargo planes will fly supplies into Erbin in an attempt to bolster the Peshmerga, the Kurdish irregular militia. Given the disintegration of most of Iraq’s regular army in recent months, the Peshmerga is considered by many analysts to be “the only military power that is actually capable of resisting the Islamic State”.
The wisdom of this action has been little debated, and it is not clear the Abbott government knows what it is getting Australia into. Kurdistan is not even a true state, but in fact technically merely a province of Iraq – as the Iraqi ambassador to Australia has tried to point out.
Arming Kurdish forces is a calculated gamble that implies the effective recognition of an independent Kurdistan, and therefore the partition of Iraq.
It’s not known whether the Australian government has consulted the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is currently in peace talks with the Kurdish Workers Party – the PKK. The PKK is intimately involved in fighting IS in Syria and Iraq, even while Australia and the US proscribe it as a terrorist organisation. And yet now Australia will be running arms to the PKK’s allies.
Why is Australia getting involved in a chaotic civil war in the heart of Asia? Both the Coalition and Labor say it is because IS is so dangerous. The rhetoric about the Islamic State has been ramped up in recent days, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott calling the organisation “pure evil” and a “death cult” that could destabilise the entire region.
Yesterday, in contrast to Simon Crean’s courageous (and ultimately vindicated) decision in 2003 to oppose Australian involvement in the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Labor locked in behind the government, effectively shutting down Parliamentary debate.
Over the past few days, Labor leader Bill Shorten has argued that assistance to the Kurds is justified on the balance of probabilities. “The greater risk is to allow the IS to succeed in their war in northern Iraq,” he said on Sunday. “The Peshmerga are what stands in that part of the world between a whole lot of civilians getting terribly hurt and injured and that not happening.”
That may be true. But there’s no way Shorten can really know that. No-one can. Even President Obama has said that “we don’t have a strategy yet” when it comes to the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria. While he’s been criticised for such an honest assessment, he is merely stating the truth.
Neither Labor nor the Coalition’s explanations for the latest Iraq intervention seem particularly sound. Australia’s involvement in foreign wars has often been justified in the name of alliance loyalties and humanitarian goals, but the hard truth remains that Australia has very little at stake in the violent dissolution of Syria and Iraq.
In any case, is arming Kurdish forces really a humanitarian action? This is what Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was getting at yesterday when he pointed out that, with RAAF Super Hornets on high alert and plans to run guns to the region, “this has long since ceased to be any kind of humanitarian gesture”.
Moreover, if Australia is suddenly a force for muscular humanitarian intervention, why aren’t we doing something about the Syrian war? As James Brown points out in the Lowy Interpreter today, “if our concern is truly humanitarian, then we had better prepare to accept a lot of refugees from northern Iraq into Australia”.
The government has not mounted a comprehensive justification for the use of force so far. While it has continued to try and scare ordinary citizens with stories of foreign fighters returning to Australia to pursue terrorism, this is a separate and very distinct issue from the humanitarian fate of the people of Syria and Iraq.
Would stopping IS deter terrorism against Australia? The situation seems so unpredictable that such a claim is impossible to make in good faith.
The more important question is whether the long-term interests of Australia will be served by re-entangling ourselves in the Mesopotamian morass.
All sorts of risks loom. Islamic State forces could defeat the Peshmerga. The new Iraqi government could fall; Iraq could dissolve altogether. The Syrian civil war could continue to degenerate, as the Assad regime enters its final days. Intervention from any number of regional powers remains a clear possibility, either tacit or direct.
Civil wars have a nasty habit of drawing in surrounding nations hoping to protect their own interests. The conflict in Iraq and Syria also has a fundamentally sectarian character, pitting the Shiite government of Iraq and its ally, Iran, against Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf emirates. Given this, why is a country on the other side of the world getting involved again, and what do we hope to gain?
Perhaps the real answer to that question lies closer to home, in the cold hard calculus of political one-upmanship. The Coalition’s strategists clearly believe that national security is a vote winner. Labor’s timid reaction to the Prime Minster’s war mongering suggests that Labor believes it can’t afford to oppose the government on the issue. In the short term, the engagement will provide plenty of positive headlines, supplying many opportunities to wrap politics in patriotic bunting.
In the medium-term, the Coalition appears to believe that national security, like border security, is the kind of terrain that the Coalition can dominate. At the very least, it gets the budget off the front pages.
Hugh White writes today that there are undoubted political dividends for governments committing forces to combat. “They win praise for strong leadership, when often they are just doing what most of us want them to do, without really thinking about the merits and consequences of their decisions,” he observes.
But rushing to war can store up big risks for the future. John Howard assured us that Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 would be short and measured. Ultimately, Australia’s commitment to those conflicts spanned more than a decade and claimed dozens of Australian lives – not to mention uncounted numbers of Iraqi and Afghan dead and wounded.
And what was the outcome of those interventions? Afghanistan is as violent and unstable as ever, a virtual city-state of Kabul surrounded by a patch-work quilt of warlords and Taliban factions. Iraq is even worse: a failed state in the throes of partition, in the final denouement of the doomed Sykes-Picot settlement that took place in the wake of the First World War.
Islamic terrorism, meanwhile, remains a relatively minor threat to global peace and security, especially when compared to the more traditional concerns of diplomacy, such as the actions of great powers and the threat of general wars.
On a day in which Australia’s major parties offered only rhetoric and weakness, the most insightful comments made were by an independent MP, Andrew Wilkie.
“The decision to wage war is the most serious decision a country can make,” Wilkie said in a media release. “It must not be made by a few people behind a closed door because that’s just the sort of mangled process which helped to start this Iraq War 11 years ago and got us into the mess in the first place.”
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