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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Rush To War Ignores How We Got In This Mess In The First Place |

The Rush To War Ignores How We Got In This Mess In The First Place |

The Rush To War Ignores How We Got In This Mess In The First Place

By Ben Eltham

two major parties' determination to avoid a parliamentary debate on
going to war in Iraq should ring a few bells. Ben Eltham explains.

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

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

The more important question is whether the long-term interests of
Australia will be served by re-entangling ourselves in the Mesopotamian

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

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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