There was a poignant re-enactment in Adelaide yesterday. Citizens commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I marched through the streets to the Glenelg waterfront.
According to the ABC’s Natalie Whiting, “it was history brought to life, a tangible picture of the sacrifice and commitment of Australians at the outbreak of World War I.”
“Dressed in full uniform, re-enactors made their way through the streets of Adelaide, marching in the footsteps of soldiers from 100 years ago.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. 100 years after Australians marched off to war on a distant continent, we are again about to send young men and women into harm’s way.
The Adelaide re-enactment came just days after Prime Minister Tony Abbott committed Australia to another military intervention in Asia, ostensibly to combat the Islamic State in Iraq. Around 600 troops and air crew will be sent to the United Arab Emirates in preparation for possible military action, along with eight Super Hornet fighter-bombers.
Abbott is not calling it a war; not yet. “What we did yesterday, as a Government, with the full support of the Opposition, was deploy an Australian force to the Middle East,” he explained at a media conference in Arnhem Land, where he is currently running the government of Australia out of a tent.
“Obviously, we have a mind to engage in combat operations against ISIL, should the circumstances be right, and we'll be in a position to make final judgments about that in the next week or so,” Abbott continued. “But this is a mission – it is a mission to be ready to join an international coalition to destroy this hideous death cult.”
Rather like the Great War a century ago, Australia’s head-long rush to intervention has been bipartisan and abrupt.
Little discussion has taken place about the national interest for Australia in intervening in a messy civil war in Iraq and Syria. With Labor under Bill Shorten apparently in lock step behind the government, meaningful political discussion of the action has been left to the Greens and independent parliamentarians like Andrew Wilkie. Nor is the media doing a particularly robust job of questioning the government’s motivations and actions.
Just like a century ago, the conflict in Iraq is being painted in overtly moral tones: a fight of good against evil, in which Australia must play our part on the side of the good.
Then, the enemy was Prussian militarism. Today is it Islamic extremism. The Islamic State, according to the Prime Minister, is a group of “ideologues of a new and hideous variety, who don't just do evil but they exult in doing evil”.
As we’ve consistently argued at New Matilda, the justifications for renewed Australian military intervention in Iraq are threadbare, at best. The rapid destabilisation of Mesopotamia is a geopolitical puzzle and a human tragedy. But it’s hard to see what threat it poses to Australia’s vital national interests.
There is a contradiction at the heart of the government’s justification for war.
On the one hand, the intervention is being painted as a humanitarian mission. For example, Abbott said yesterday that “the objective is fundamentally humanitarian and we realise that fundamentally humanitarian objective by helping the Iraqi armed forces to disrupt and degrade ISIL.”
On the other hand, the presence of Australians fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is also being advanced as a reason for war. In the very same interview yesterday, Abbott said that “it was one of the principal reasons for committing to the anti-ISIL fight that there are Australians there in significant numbers who wish to do us harm”.
These are two very different objectives. Indeed, they’re inconsistent with each other.
Combating Australians fighting with the Islamic State is not a humanitarian mission. It’s a counter-terrorism mission.
Helping the terrorised population of Iraq won't help keep tabs on Australian militants fighting abroad.
If this intervention is about combating Australians fighting with the Islamic State, it’s worth asking why we’re sending Super Hornets and special forces. The presence of Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq is a problem for our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, who are best equipped for the kind of patient police work required. Given that even ASIO admits that there are perhaps only 60 Australians involved, the threat is clearly limited, both geographically and numerically.
If Australia is embarking on a purely humanitarian mission, it’s not clear that bombing the Islamic State and assisting Kurdish ground forces will produce humanitarian outcomes. A truly humanitarian mission would feature medical supplies and food drops, not troops and planes.
Humanitarian missions are undertaken to save the lives of people in danger. They are not, on the whole, pursued for reasons of national security to do with foreign insurgencies.
It may be that Australia wants to intervene in Iraq for a range of moral and political reasons – for instance, because we believe that Australia has an obligation to do so as one of the original invaders of Iraq in 2003. If so, the government should state these reasons plainly, and distinguish them from any geopolitical and strategic aims that it wishes to pursue.
The really concerning thing about this intervention is how nebulous and open-ended it is. If the objective is the internal security of Iraq, as Abbott seems to be suggesting, then Australia’s mission will be lengthy and painful indeed.
When asked about this by the ABC’s Virginia Trioli yesterday, Abbott claimed that the mission had a “clear and achievable objective”.
That objective? Abbott explained that it was “to work with the Iraqi forces, to work with the Kurdish forces, to ensure that they are reasonably able to control their own country, to protect their own citizens, to disrupt and degrade ISIL operations inside Iraq”.
That objective is neither clear, nor achievable. What does it mean for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to be “reasonably able to control their own country”? Kurdistan is in fact a constituent part of the Iraqi state. Abbott is either confusing Kurdish sovereignty, or arguing for the effective independence of Kurdistan.
As for achievability: good luck. The United States spent a trillion dollars and thousands of lives trying to defeat a devastating insurgency and create a stable Iraqi state. It failed. The much smaller and more constrained operation currently being planned therefore has little chance of succeeding, even if “success” is measured merely as the repression of the most brutal aspects of Sunni extremism.
The glaring unmentionable in this sorry saga is the Syrian civil war. Ever since Syria disintegrated into horrifying internal violence, the west has had no solution for the internal problems facing Iraq. The two conflicts have demonstrably merged: there can be no medium-term strategy for the Iraqi crisis without some kind of settlement in neighbouring Syria. But the US and Australia have no easy answer for the Syrian civil war, because, as Abbott himself memorably put it, the situation there is “baddies fighting baddies.”
The Australian government has yet to explain what it can achieve in such a scenario, once all the geopolitical uncertainties are taken into account.
Degrading – let alone destroying – the Islamic State in Iraq won’t address the regional aspects of the conflict. If successful, it will only strengthen the hand of the Assad regime in Syria, and therefore, by proxy, Iran. But Tony Abbott and his ministers continue to pretend that it can ignore the wider aspect of the conflict, which in a very real sense represents a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states against Syria, the rump Shiite government of Iraq, and Iran.
By fighting the Islamic State, we’re also helping the Assad regime and its sponsors in Tehran. That’s a fact that Tony Abbott is choosing not to tell Australian citizens.
Abbott is right about one thing: the regional situation is a “witches’ brew” of complexity. But his determination to push ahead with intervention means Australia is again being dragged into a land war in Asia, with no clear geopolitical objective, and with no apparent exit strategy.
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