Editorial Issue 78 The unseemly rush to a war without end
The unseemly rush to a war without end
Once again, we rush to war in the wake of a Great Power – all too early, too easy, too eager, too unheeding of the lessons of previous interventions in the Middle East.
The irony is seemingly lost on Tony Abbott and his ministers that those earlier interventions bear a large share of responsibility for the situation we now have. Those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, as the saying goes. But then the terrorist threat, and military and police campaigns against it, suit Abbott’s present political purposes, so he ignores the past and cares not for the future.
Most glaring of all in this unseemly rush is the lack of any sophisticated analysis and strategy that engages with the complex and volatile nature of the social and political forces at play, the shifting alliances, the limits of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, and the impossibility of imposing solutions from outside, no matter how good the intentions that pave the possible path to hell.
Highly complex and volatile forces are at work across the Middle East: economies that are stagnant at best; glaring inequalities and misappropriation of assets and income by wealthy elites; military and-or minority dictatorships; the Sunni-Shia divide with brutal fanatics on either side conducting jihads against each other as well as against secular and progressive movements; the feudal powers of royal families and clan and tribal chiefs; and the narrow self-interests of governments, to name just a few.
The long and ugly history of Western intervention in the region is a cautionary tale of messing with forces you don’t understand and can’t control, of unintended consequences sometimes worse than the original danger, of the firecracker blowing up in the face of the lighter.
Barack Obama, in an unguarded moment, put it honestly when he said in September that he did not then have a strategy for dealing with Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIL and ISIS). Pilloried by his right-wing Republican opponents, and confronted with the brutal and murderous dictatorship imposed by IS in the regions it now controls, Obama has launched US air assaults on IS forces and the towns and facilities they control. At the same time he has insisted that no US ‘boots’ will hit the ground, despite his armed forces chief, General Dempsey, telling a congressional hearing that it might be necessary.
Former British PM Tony Blair joined Dempsey in arguing that IS could in the end only be defeated on the ground. No doubt there was an element of self-serving justification for his appalling support for the Bush-Cheney 2003 invasion of Iraq, on grounds later shown to be completely false. However, that does not disprove the point: IS cannot be defeated simply from the air, no matter how massive the bombing. To that lesson of military history can be added another: bombing could bring with it civilian ‘collateral damage’ that might actually increase support for IS.
Many military chiefs, strategic analysts and politicians everywhere have reinforced the point and warn that the campaign will last at least many months, potentially years.
That the current mess is in large part of the West’s own making should have prompted some pause for thought. For that matter, nor does it prove that the military option will always be wrong, especially given the brutal, reactionary and obscurantist nature of IS. Forces such as IS more resemble fascism than anything else, and the left has to be clear that it wants them resisted and defeated – but by means that will be effective.
The left also needs to note the stance of the Kurds, the largest mass force in the region in which left and progressive movements are strong, who have called for both targeted bombing to assist their forces on the ground, and more military aid. Yet the West has delayed its provision of such aid to the only ‘boots on the ground’ prepared to stand and fight IS, probably because NATO ally Turkey has long resisted the national aspirations of its Kurdish minority. Indeed, Turkey’s military and police turned tear gas and water cannons on Kurds demonstrating in support of action to assist Kobane, the Kurdish town under serious attack from IS just across the border in northern Syria, while literally turning their backs on the plight of Kobane’s citizens.
This creates some dilemmas for the Left, as seen in a comment by the usually very left-wing writer Guy Rundle near the end of a recent Crikey article. While strongly condemning the current strategy under the headline: ‘Attacking IS will bring the caliphate into being’, Rundle also noted:
That not only creates huge headaches for the Right, whose neo-imperialist ideals of the last decade are now in tatters of tatters, but will create a series of difficult questions for the Left too, since there may come a time when a default anti-war position cannot be a given.
Ironically, the West is now being drawn towards a pragmatic recognition that, in the fight against the greater threat of IS, it might have to make at least temporary common cause with the Assad regime in Syria, other secularist forces, and even with the hated Iranian regime. Apart from the Kurds, there are few progressive, liberal or democratic forces with any real capacity to provide ‘boots on the ground’.
If the first casualty of war is truth, so often the second casualty is rights and liberties. Already Abbott’s government has used the fear of terrorism to introduce yet further draconian laws at the behest of the security and intelligence services. The many laws already on the books provided more than enough powers for police and other agencies to act against terrorism, but Abbott seized the opportunity to give them even more, and further limit democratic rights. Especially insidious are the proscriptions against journalists reporting ‘Special Intelligence Operations’, which will prevent the disclosure of operations gone wrong or even crimes committed during such SIOs.
Disappointingly, the Labor Opposition has gone along with all too many of these new powers, as indeed it has all too readily supported Australia’s military engagement on the grounds that it will not allow a ‘cigarette paper’ difference with the government on ‘national security’ matters. This is an understandable pragmatic consideration, especially given initial strong public-opinion support for Abbott’s policy. However, the logic was different when Labor courageously opposed the 1965 commitment of troops to Vietnam, and when Simon Crean told soldiers departing for the 2003 Iraq war that he opposed them going but would support them once there. Both stances were vindicated by history and probably contributed to Labor’s election victories in 1972 and 2007.
One option that Australia could have pursued was to stay out of the military campaign and to act as a political broker, consult with anti-IS governments and progressive or secularist forces, seek their views about immediate options and long-term strategies, and test what they were prepared to contribute ‘on the ground’. Other options would be economic and material sanctions, including trying to cut off money trails to IS such as through its reported sales of smuggled oil.
Then there are the really tough options for the West, such as pressuring its allies Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states that have funded and encouraged extreme jihadist movements, parts of which have now morphed into the out-of-control IS monster.
Now that we have joined what Abbott calls ‘the coalition of the concerned’ – boots and all so to speak – our capacity to play such an independent and constructive role is yet again compromised if not destroyed.
Unending war into an uncertain future: that is the danger of our hasty engagement.