Iraq: 10 things that seem to be true

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.

Our involvement will harm innocent people. This one we know about. One of the most shameful aspects of the 2003 war was the downplaying of Iraqi casualty figures, which almost all sources agree topped 100,000 just in direct deaths. There will be more civilian casualties now: IS is in towns and cities. In wars, civilians die a lot – caught in crossfires, misunderstanding soldiers’ shouted demands, walking past the wrong building as the missile hits. Recent technological advances really do seem to have improved our ability to target only the people we actually want to kill. But they have not eliminated “collateral damage”. Just ask the Pakistanis in the drone strike zones. If we are morally serious, we have an obligation to explain why success is worth this cost.

We still do not know how to turn Middle Eastern countries into successful states. Thus far our efforts in Iraq have brought remarkably poor outcomes. We said we would make Iraq better, and yet it is in a worse state than it has been for many a year. And we ended up without a great outcome in Libya – the action which this intended action most closely resembles. Yemen and Somalia have not been triumphs either. The US has spent an estimated $US1.6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Time for some realism about our capabilities to win hearts and minds with missiles and F88s.

We should beware “mowing the lawn”. Every time western forces take military action in the Middle East, they provide advertising material for extremist Islamic groups. Dead grandmothers and kids with missing limbs tend to affect people emotionally, and while our nightly news doesn’t show those things, the Internet and Middle East media will do so. Hence the term “mowing the lawn”: we cut down one bunch of extremists in the sure knowledge that the next lot will quickly take their place. As former John Howard media adviser Paula Matthewson more elegantly puts it, “it makes little sense to participate in a military campaign similar to the one that caused home-grown extremists to arise in the first place.”

IS will head for the houses. IS will likely adopt the strategy of Hamas, which blended in with the civilian population when the Israelis counter-attacked. This is indeed the logical, if horrific, response to the arrival of “smart” weapons and smartphones: melt into the towns and cities, and video-stream the civilian damage if your opponents’ smart weapons still seek you out. At that stage, this action may start to look a lot like the Israel-Hamas exchange, and an exercise in mowing the lawn. Right now we don’t seem to have any more of a plan for this than the Israelis did.

We should aim no higher than degrading and containing IS – and not aim to destroy it. No-one seems to want to use the “c” word – containment – since we decided back in 2003 that successfully containing Saddam Hussein was not enough. John Kerry recently declared “there is no contain policy”. Whatever; “degrade”, the first new term of this episode, will do nicely. Degradation and containment are aims which bring a chance of success, whereas the destruction of IS is unlikely. We simply do not know how to destroy an insurgency, and IS is in part an insurgency. (We should be looking for innovations in the art of degrading the power of such groups.) Kudos to Tony Abbott for emphasising degradation over destruction in at least some of his public statements.

We can act even if it makes Australia more dangerous. Notice how no-one is putting this case: that our involvement will make all Australians a little less safe, but we should involve ourselves anyway. No-one will say this because they think it would be political poison. There nevertheless seems a strong case that it is true: by acting, we can make ourselves a bigger target for non-Australians, and stir a few more home-grown extremists in the direction of violent action – but that would just mean that involvement is not painless for us, and it could still be the right thing to do.

Update: Sam Roggeveen at the Lowy Institute makes useful points about the rhetorical difference between casting events in Iraq as a Manichean struggle, and casting them as a law-and-order problem to be solved.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago

I think you miss the main one: can the West ignore the open challenge to its supremacy by Islamic extremists, ie is turning the other cheek and disengaging with any part of the Muslim world that takes offense at our existence a viable option? The answer of our military establishment is of course ‘no’, but the answer of most of our politicians and populations also appears to be ‘no’. Effectively, we the West are riding out these decades in the hope that this particular brand of Islamic ideology will lose its appeal and the tensions inside some Islamic countries will find others forms that do not involve challenging us, for instance by simply challenging their own home-grown regimes. This was our hope during the Arab spring, which our current ‘allies’ against IS suppressed with relish, but remains the hope for the future.

If you, like me, don’t think we can just turn the cheek then the issue is one of means and rewards. on top of the issues you mention I think a few others are: will our local partners compensate us for helping them fight this ‘insurgency’; is it easier to kill the leaders or do we need to go after all the fighters; can we track Australian-born jihadis; etc.

I have yet to hear the argument for turning the other cheek. Are you suggesting it?

Sancho
Sancho
7 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

Why the belief that Islamist militants pose a threat to western dominance?

That idea seems to be implicit in the disingenuous propaganda that drives these invasions, but evidence never materialises. No Taliban navy ever pulled up in Botany Bay, and even ISIS is clearly focused on winning territorial battles in the Middle East, not on international conflict.

The only Muslim power that rates is Pakistan, which, despite being a nuclear-armed menace that’s worryingly sympathetic to Islamist extremists, never gets a mention and is not regarded by anyone as a risk to western power.

Paul frijters
Paul frijters
7 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

That belief is certainly there, quite blatantly. I have it and our societies have it. I can give you my answer, but perhaps others wish to make the case?

Agreed on Pakistan. We the West are often not going after the right people. We should have gone after the Pakistani security agencies a long time ago, just as we should not have tolerated the money stream from the Arabian peninsula stirring up trouble elsewhere. Our political elite is curiously hesitant on both points.

john Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

The ISIS large scale territorial advances took place when there was no problem, for them, re their lack air-power .
Air power is a force multiplier, provided the kurds (or who ever) are on the ground and willing to fight, it will give them the edge re containment.
Therefore is is likely that ISIS will have reasons to try to use terror attacks to force the west to pull back its air forces.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

come now, David! Shining Path was the same threat as Islamic militancy now?

Let us explore the differences in the two threats by first thinking back to the times when the West thought it was in a Cold War with communist groups, like Shining Path: when communist groups were still believed to be a real challenge to the West, ‘we’ did all kinds of despicable things against that threat. Indeed, this time round we are much more restrained than that we were in the days of Vietnam, Cambodia, Mozambique and Angola, or have you forgotten the dirty wars we engaged in then and that pretty directly lead to millions to deaths? Compared to the death and destruction we were willing to inflict on large populations when we still thought there was a true challenge then, we are remarkably restrained now. As to Sendero Luminoso: it was a small group that emerged rather late (1980), left to the Peruvian governments to fight, and they thought it rather nastily, supported by the West, as I recall! As a remember, there were unofficial executions then too. But there was no large group that we were fearful was going to join Guzman, so ‘our’ involvement was more minimal.

And it seems fair to expect the same ‘tuning out’ in the case of radical islam too at some point: once we think it is clear to the Islamic world that there is no hope and no point in challenging the West so openly, the potential recruitment grounds for such challenges will dry up and we’d be left with a few nutcases that we quite possibly will just ignore and leave for local governments to deal with, much as we ignored it for decades past. Indeed, we were so oblivious to the threat that we helped to build it up to bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

But whilst there are close to a billion sunnis who might be pursuaded to think there is some hope in challenging the West? Well, until that ‘hope’ is quashed, we will minimally keep killing off the leaders of the militant groups that challenge us and that do have some success in appealing to this larger group-in-the-background, judging from the thousands of young Muslims in Europe who are joining IS.

I say ‘we’ because nearly all elected Western governments are supporting the Americans in their assassination program. Certainly the Australian government supports this, with clear bipartisan and overwhelming public endorsement.

Sancho
Sancho
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

That seems very post-hoc: we fought small militant groups during the Cold War, therefore fighting small militant groups is a good idea.

Bear in mind that if the World Trade Center attack of 2001 had been foiled, those billions of Arabs would still be out there, still thinking the same things about the west, but no one would care. It was that one event which made the public immediately switch its concept of Muslims from “funny brown people who have oil” to “army of unstoppable killing machines about to destroy civilisation and probably hiding under my bed right right now”.

How long do we have to keep making bad decisions to satisfy the right-wing amygdala?

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

David,

there is an enormous kaleidoscope of beliefs in the Muslim world, the vast majority of which is pretty peaceful. But radical anti-Western Islamism is certainly remarkably appealing, partly because many in the ‘mainstream’ Muslim world love to use the West as their favourite hate-puppy for all ills. A typical example is that of the Egyptian imam al-Tayyeb who was quoted last week by Agence France Presse as having said “These fundamentalist terrorist groups, whatever their names, and their backers are colonial creations that serve Zionism in its plot to destroy the Arab world.”

With ‘friends’ like that, it is clear to me that the appeal of the anti-Western message goes pretty broad and deep in much of the muslim world, which makes it important to kill off any group that has some success in tapping into this resentment.

You can of course demand a lengthy analysis of causes of this resentment; the breeding grounds for fanaticism that polygamy and dictatorial regimes provide; our optimal reaction to both this resentment and to the various different threats. Read my previous blogs on these issues if you want. In the long run, I am very hopeful that fertility declines, economic growth, and urbanisation will normalise the major Muslim countries, as is happening right now with Indonesia. But in the medium run, things don’t look that great. The restoration of the military junta in Egypt is bad news in that context, likely to generate lots more fanatics. I dont think that restoration was our fault and there is not much we can do about it: we are simply going to have to deal with the fall-out of the fanaticism that the Al-Sissi junta is creating.

As a general strategy, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to simply kill off the leaders of the fanatical groups that manage a certain level of anti-Western nuisance. We do this currently not just with IS, but also with Boko Haram and a dozen other groups around the world. We are getting rather good at it and it seems to work very well in that the ability of these groups to cause problems on Western streets has been kept to a minimum. Indeed, the latest Australian ‘scare’ seems to have been prompted by telephone calls to local jihadis begging them to do something here. That really is a sign of just how successful we have been in disrupting the ability of Islamist fanatical group in mustering anything organised and sophisticated against us: these telephone calls are pretty desperate! Our assassination program seems to have knocked out more competent adversaries, so let’s stick to it.

Is there any historical reason to think that investing in a reputation for killing off any militant group that threatens us might work? Plenty. Looking only at the Arab world, you will see that it has seen communism come and go as an ideology. It has seen Arab nationalism come and go. It has seen Baatism come and go. In some places, Islamic militancy has come and gone (I am thinking of Algeria here). These ideologies gradually faded in appeal as it became clear to the larger populations that it wasn’t delivering. Indeed, show me the converse: what ideology has not faded with persistent failure?

john Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

If you believe that your culture/faiths unhappy situation is in the first place, caused by it not being pure enough, then military defeat will be a prod towards efforts to being even purer.

One interpretation of the roots of the current situation was given by Naipaul in a speech made in 1992:

…Muslim fundamentalism in places like Malaysia and Indonesia seems new. But Europe has been in the East for a long time, and there has been Muslim anxiety there for almost all of this time. This anxiety, this meeting of the two opposed worlds, the outgoing world of Europe and the closed world of the faith, was spotted a hundred years ago by the writer Joseph Conrad, who, with his remote Polish background, his wish as a traveler to render exactly what he saw, was able at a time of high imperialism to go far beyond the imperialistic, surface ways of writing about the East and native peoples.

To Conrad, the world he traveled in was new; he looked hard at it. There is a quotation I would like to read from Conrad’s second book, published in 1896, nearly 100 years ago, in which he catches something of the Muslim hysteria of that time—the hysteria that, a hundred years later, with greater education and wealth of the native peoples, and the withdrawing of empires, was to turn into the fundamentalism we hear about:

“A half-naked, betel-chewing pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless, empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips; a cry that, had it come out, would have run through the virgin solitudes of the woods as true, as great, as profound, as any philosophical shriek that ever came from the depths of an easy chair to disturb the impure wilderness of chimneys and roofs.”

Philosophical hysteria—those were the words I wanted to give to you, and I think they still apply. They bring me back to the list of questions and issues that the senior fellow of the Institute, Myron Magnet, sent to me when he was in England last summer. Why, he asked, are certain societies or groups content to enjoy the fruits of progress, while affecting to despise the conditions that promote that progress? What belief system do they oppose to it? And then, more specifically: why is Islam held up in opposition to Western values? The answer, I believe, is that philosophical hysteria….

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago

I’ll certainly suggest turning the other cheek, because in this case an eye for an eye policy will very likely result in an awful lot of eyeless people. That’s for precisely the reasons David lists (in fact I think he understates the difficulties). Wars for concrete goals can sometimes end well but historically wars to avenge affronts to national honour have a dismal record.

As I keep pointing out ISIL want a western military reaction, else why would they have deliberately beheaded Americans with a fluent English-speaking beheader on prime-time TV. Is it wise to do what these crazies want?

And if we do try a military solution, using air power against an insurgency is the worst possible way to do so, combining minimum political effectiveness with maximum collateral damage. Have we learnt nothing from past failures?

Michael
Michael
7 years ago

“Have we learnt nothing from past failures?”

Simple answer – no. There is no political accountability for lying, misrepresenting and creating situations that will lead to blowback. There is no need to learn when there is no price to pay – for chicken hawk politicians anyway.

The warnings were given before the last 2003 invasion – the intelligence was cooked and the invasion force totally inadequate – and these warnings came from inside the US military. The hysteria continues.

GuruJ
GuruJ
7 years ago

I agree that they want a Western reaction DD; but I am yet to figure out why. Is it overconfidence in their abilities, a calculation that the invasion will produce a net gain in their forces, or something else?

john Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  GuruJ

It is possible that the reaction they seek is from the wider Islamic world (and not from the West). ISIS is the modern ‘grandchild’ of a movement aimed at purity (of Islam).

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago
Reply to  john Walker

Nope, John, if it was Arabs they were trying to provoke the beheading would have been of an Arab with an Arabic speaking beheader and the video given to al-Jazeera. Anyway they are already fighting non-Sunni Arabs (plus of course the Turks, Kurds and Persians, Sunni or not).

Mel
Mel
7 years ago

I agree that they want a Western reaction DD; but I am yet to figure out why.

Because you can’t sustain the West v Islam narrative that is a prime motivator for Jihadi recruitment if the West decides not to play ball.

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.

We got rid of a dictator and helped establish a democracy. Most Iraqis are happy Saddam is gone (according to the opinion polls I’ve seen). It is hardly the West’s fault that the locals still want to behave like brutes from the Dark Ages. Any further intervention should be minimalist and humanitarian eg. stopping genocide the Yazidis.

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago

David,

“You seem to be assuming targeted assassination will be the central plank. Or am I misreading you?”

yes, I do think it will be a central plank. The American coalition is probably making up its strategy as it goes along. It is probably fair to say they have no idea yet what they will end up doing: the announcement to arm and train moderate Syrians looks like a no-goer to me, at this stage. They should have done that years ago, as I assumed they were going to and as Hillary Clinton apparently wanted to, but now it is too late as I doubt they will find moderates left to train. So what they will end up doing is probably quite different from what they have announced and what Obama thinks he has signed up for. Targetted assassinations have worked well in the past and is the obvious thing to keep doing. We will probably also arm a few groups on the ground. The ‘Peshmerga’ seem to be the favoured group at the moment. The Germans and the Americans seem to be arming them and the Europeans in general seem ok with the idea that Kurds living in their borders go back to fight IS. It will be interesting to see whether we rent ourselves out to anyone. Payment would seem proper.

I do expect our main actual involvement to be the systematic assassination of the IS leadership and the disruption of its control apparatus.