Australia must be sceptical. The US has no strategy in Iraq for us to support

2014-09-01 22:57:02 | Al Muslim News
Australia must be sceptical. The US has no strategy in Iraq for us to support


Having spent much of the past week extolling the need for Australia to involve itself once more in Iraq, the government and opposition yesterday balked on a parliamentary debate in the senate. When it comes to military action alongside the United States, an unnerving bipartisan consensus seems to have emerged around a policy of “shoot first, ask questions later”. The bashfulness is not hard to understand. Events are moving faster than beleaguered government (and opposition) staffers can rewrite the talking points, leading to some unsightly freelancing from the prime minister, including a clumsy Nazi analogy this morning. The task has been complicated by Washington. In a moment of candour over the weekend, Barack Obama owned up to having no strategy for dealing with Isis – in other words, no clear set of objectives, no sense of the scale or intensity of military effort on which the US plans to embark, and no coherent sequence to guide preparations. This is a stunning admission. The US has now been conducting air-strikes in Iraq for weeks. It has also begun assembling an ad-hoc coalition to help out, apparently with no overarching political benchmarks by which to measure success, or even to know what success looks like. All of this has left the Abbott government somewhat hamstrung. In its eagerness to get behind US policy in Iraq, it has discovered to its chagrin that no broader policy exists to support. In the meantime, the early stages of mission creep are already beginning to appear. Last week’s humanitarian mission, which involved dropping urgent supplies on an ethnic minority group besieged on a mountain in North-West Iraq, has this week taken on more traditional military dimensions. The RAAF has now been enlisted to deliver machine guns and ammunition to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, in the hope of using local proxy forces to check Isis along its eastern flank. Left to Canberra, it would not stop there. The government has made no bones about its willingness, even enthusiasm, to expand its mission, should a request be made. Whether the call does get made will of course depend on political machinations in Washington. A familiar process is in train. The demonstrable barbarism of Isis, symbolised by the beheading of US journalist James Foley, has intensified calls among conservatives and liberal interventionists for a wholesale escalation of the war. The pressure on Obama is steadily building. At the same time, however, Obama appears sceptical about the wisdom of such a course. He has learned the hard way that the use of force is a blunt instrument – a bulldozer, more than a scalpel – with unpredictable effects. In Libya and Afghanistan, he deployed military power against his better instincts. The violence and upheaval that followed in the wake of those interventions lays bare the limits of US power. It’s Iraq where the lessons are most salient. The current situation is, after all, the product of a reckless rush to war, urged on by the same groups now agitating for expanded military action. Let’s face it: once Saddam Hussein and his army were swept aside, a political vacuum enveloped Iraq, which was quickly filled with brutal sectarian bloodletting. Groups like Isis (formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq) turned Iraq into a morass, and the US and its allies were trapped. After eight years, $1tn dollars and more than three-thousand American casualties, Washington eventually called it quits. In Baghdad, a sectarian government, beholden to Iran and a number of powerful Shia militias, was left to run the show. When Iraq’s Sunnis were refused re-entry into the country’s political fabric, Isis seized the opportunity. It renewed an alliance with the Sunni tribes, and in June this year overran large swathes of north and central Iraq, with horrifying Australians should be deeply reticent about returning to Iraq. The emergence of Isis as a significant political force is ultimately an Iraqi problem. It reflects the deep fissures which have emerged in that country, as it dissolves along religious and tribal lines in the absence of strong central authority. Tony Abbott has been at pains to stress the differences between today and 2003. But if there’s any lesson to be drawn from the last decade, it is that we must be acutely sceptical about the ability of Western military intervention to re-engineer the kind of durable political order required to secure peace in the Middle East. The impulse for another foreign misadventure should be tempered by other considerations as well. Australia has no vital security interests in Iraq. For all its barbarism, even Isis poses no extreme danger to Australia. To the limited extent that it does pose a terrorist threat, Australia’s successful experience in dealing with terrorism in our region points to the appropriate response: vigilance, patience, good diplomacy, well resourced intelligence agencies, and most importantly, a law enforcement rather than a militarised approach. Finally, Australia should resist the urge to use the current crisis as yet another opportunity to bolster our credentials as a loyal and willing ally. This will be very hard; everything in our history and strategic experience inclines us to do just that. It’s worth taking the longer view: with a sprawling portfolio of global commitments, and with major power competitors in the wings, the last thing the US needs is another messy war in the Middle East. It’s Asia where we need the US focused, and Asia where our real value as an ally is measured. Canberra would do well to use its considerable influence with Washington to urge caution and restraint..

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