The most consequential demonstration of power by the so-called Islamic State has not been capturing territory in Iraq and Syria, but rather the capture of global political, military, and media attention. Australia has reacted, and now finds itself once more joining US-led military action in the Middle East. In so doing, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has yet to demonstrate he has learned the lessons of Australia's previous Iraq commitment.
In a rare television interview, former Prime Minister John Howard recently reflected on his decision to commit Australia to the 2003 Iraq invasion. He admits feeling 'embarrassed' for believing faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, but again avowed he had never 'taken the country to war based on a lie.' That claim has withstood scrutiny, but Howard's true failing was always one of judgement, not integrity.
Critics have drawn a connection between the destruction of political authority wrought by the 2003 invasion and the rise to power of ISIS. Howard disagrees, arguing that because 'so much of the Islamic State operation comes out of what's occurring in Syria', it is a 'false reading of history' to draw an association with the war he advocated. Outside intervention cannot be seen as a meaningful cause, given ISIS consolidated its power in Syria, a state 'not involved in any outside military operation.'
This analysis is wrong as a historical matter, but more specifically contradicts Howard's own past reasoning.
The genesis of ISIS can be directly traced to the group 'al-Qaeda in Iraq,' which rose to prominence in 2004 as the most potent insurgent force battling the US-led coalition. The group was partially degraded from 2008 after a surge of US troops assisted by local Sunni tribesmen, but continued to engage in sectarian attacks.
It was in the Syrian civil war that ISIS re-emerged to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, eventually eclipsing the power of local opposition groups. Its leader in that fight, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is now the head of the purported Islamic State that straddles the Syria-Iraq border. So Howard is correct that the power of the group was consolidated in the Syrian civil war, but the evidence is clear that ISIS traces its lineage to the 2003 invasion.
It would be implausible, however, to attribute current instability entirely to the rupture in regional order caused in 2003. Such a catastrophic breakdown is inevitably the result of a confluence of factors, the most significant being the Arab Spring. That event saw the unravelling of established governance throughout the region, starting in Tunisia in 2010 and now continuing in the unresolved Syrian war.
It is here that the incoherence of Howard's position is laid bare.
On the tenth anniversary of the invasion Howard addressed the Lowy Institute speculating that the Arab Spring, and the liberal values it was said to promise, were enabled by the US-led war. In Howard's view it was 'implausible that the events we now know as the Arab Spring bear no relationship of any kind to the overthrow of Saddam's regime in 2003.' He thereby made claim to the breakdown in regional stability as evidence of success.
The root of the Islamic State problem has always been the fracturing of political authority in the region – through both the unlawful invasion and domestic turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring. Radical groups have seized the moment when established political power has been weakest. Howard must take credit for contributing to those circumstances in Iraq, and appears willing to take credit in the region. In either case the strategic miscalculations of the former prime minister are inextricably connected to the rise of the Islamic State.
Understanding these dynamics matters deeply as Australia commits military force to an operation repeatedly labelled 'humanitarian' but which is in substance a military intervention grounded in national security. Abbott warned early of the danger of 'unintended consequences' and yet remains an unwavering supporter of Howard's strategic miscalculations, which ignored that principle. A government minister said recently that it was 'a very misplaced thing for us to be going back and revisiting that history.' To the contrary; that task is critical.
The significance is in distinguishing between the proper objective of defending Iraq's territorial integrity and the improper objective of attempting regime change in Syria. This Iraq campaign is distinguished from the previous one insofar as the Iraqi government itself requested military assistance, which will allow for some likelihood of success. Current strategy in Syria is in contrast to degrade what little political authority the Syrian government retains, relying implausibly on disparate 'moderate opposition' groups to both defeat and replace the current government.
If US air strikes in Syria extend beyond the defence of Iraq to a form of regime change in Damascus, the outcome can only be the end of fragile coalitions across sectarian lines and the further fracturing of political stability. A consistent principle has been demonstrated in the region: the Middle East, as much as nature, abhors a vacuum. Howard has not learned that lesson. Abbott must do so quickly if Australia is to avoid a military commitment that again clears the ground for violence and disorder.