As we head back to Iraq, I’m struck by the way in which those making the case both for and against are avoiding certain ideas which seem to me to be true:
This is not 2003 all over again. At least on a moral level, and at least as far as action in Iraq goes. We have been invited in by the Iraqi government, giving the military campaign a legal and moral basis for action that the 2003 war lacked, and IS is thoroughly dominated by murderous zealots. Tony Abbott has been careful to say that attacking IS in Syria would be very different to what we’ve signed up for so far, which it would, and he deserves credit for that.
IS is not an existential threat to Australia. No kudos to George Brandis, who claimed this week that IS “represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us”. Brandis’s statement avoids outright lying only by his addition of the phrase “or seeks to be”. This has strong echoes of the 2003 b.s. about how Saddam could threaten the world with nuclear weapons, It is not quite as stupid now as it was then, but that’s not saying much. Lots of loony zealots seek to be an existential threat to the Australian state. There’s a world of difference between the wish and the capability. IS currently appears weak on capability, though that could change. There’s more chance of Australia being seriously damaged by a mutated Ebola virus, and we react to that threat with a few million dollars every so often.
We have some responsibility to help make Iraqis’ lives better. In 2003 we invaded their country and failed to do what we said we’d do. The military did its best, but we needed other tools in the kit, didn’t have them, and like some blundering amateur, didn’t even know we needed them. We helped make their country vulnerable to the violent zealots. Those violent zealots are now trying to impose upon millions of Iraqis a particularly nasty brand of theocracy. We seem to have alarmingly little national shame about this, and remarkably little sense that by creating the mess, we created a lasting responsibility to fix it. This is what Colin Powell once explained to George W. Bush as the “Pottery Barn principle” – you broke it, you own it.
We will run into unintended consequences. The idea of unintended consequences is hard enough to keep in people’s minds in the economic debate. But in the foreign policy debate people seem ready to discard it at a moment’s notice. And when things go wrong, instead of reassessing, they defend the purity of their motivations. Chris Berg of the IPA has dubbed this the “it’s the thought that counts” school of humanitarian intervention. It is probably too much to expect, but we ought to conduct this debate with an honest acknowledgement that things are not likely to go to plan. To use Donald Rumsfeld’s admirable observation, we face both known and unknown unknowns.