There's a lot to be concerned about in the way Australia is approaching the decision to intervene militarily in the civil war engulfing northern Iraq and Syria. There has been scant debate of the decision to go to war in parliament: traveling war-memorial exhibitions were more closely examined in Question Time last week than the war ADF personnel are now risking their lives in.
The rhetoric on both sides of the debate has gone straight to 11, with terms like 'genocide' and 'humanitarian catastrophe' being bandied about. Critics quick to rule out any intervention at all are making simplistic and mostly erroneous comparisons between this crisis and that of 2003. Sycophantic journalists, apparently briefed on background by the Prime Minister or his office, are detailing the military tools to be used before any public articulation of strategy has occurred. There is a real danger that by a process of incremental tactical adjustments, Australia ends up committing to a multi-year military campaign without articulating a strategy or building the political consensus necessary to support it when the going gets really tough.
I'll have more to say at a later date on the strategic options Australia might consider, and the threshold we need to cross before committing to joining the US military campaign against Islamic State. But right now, here are the top five fallacies I've seen so far in Australian thinking on the Iraq crisis.
Fallacy 1: There will be no boots on the ground
Since this crisis began our political leaders have pledged that there will be no boots on the ground. This is political code, communicating the implicit promise that there will be no Australian body bags returning from this war. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes, politicians use this phrase instead of frankly discussing the costs and risk calculations of going to war: 'we're not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be. We turn to abstraction'. Such abstraction is dangerous, effectively masking the spurious political promise that a country can go to war and pay no cost.
Promising no boots on the ground is a fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, even a military campaign designed around limited air strikes to contain ISIS will require some ground combat presence: to determine what and who is to be targeted, to foster intelligence networks, to assess battle damage, and to recover any downed pilots.
More importantly though, the destruction of Islamic State cannot be achieved from the air. As the NATO experience in Libya showed, air strikes can stop insurgent forces from massing and conducting conventional military operations. But air power alone cannot destroy an insurgent group or its leadership. If our intent is to stop ISIS from catalysing barbaric violence and destabilising the Middle East, then someone will eventually have to commit ground combat forces. If Australia, the US, and other partners are unwilling to shoulder this burden then it will fall to our proxies like the Kurdish peshmerga.
Fallacy 2: This is solely a humanitarian mission
One of the Australian Government's clear talking points in the past fortnight is that Australia's military intervention in Iraq is necessary for humanitarian reasons. I can only assume the political strategy behind this is that it will distance the current operations from the Iraq conflict of the last decade. This political strategy is problematic. If Australia's pressing national interest in the region is to prevent the slaughter of civilians, then we should have intervened in Syria when civilians were gassed and children struck with barrel bombs. We should also be intervening in Burma, where more than 250,000 people have reportedly been displaced by conflict this year. And if our concern is truly humanitarian, then we had better prepare to accept a lot of refugees from northern Iraq into Australia.
The reality is that our mission is to destroy ISIS as an organisation. That means killing its fighters, dissecting its financing and recruiting operations, and negotiating political power sharing for the disaffected Sunni Muslims giving life to the organisation. None of that will be easy. But better for the Government to be upfront about what our national calculations on Iraq are, rather than seeking to change the narrative by sprinkling humanitarian dust over public statements.
For Australia, this is also about playing an active part in an alliance that helps preserve our national interests and maintains the global order necessary for us to live our lives safely and prosperously. Though I am not yet convinced that contributing to this US campaign is the most effective way Australia can share its alliance responsibilities, it is good to see that the Government has been upfront about this aspect of our national interest.
Fallacy 3: This is just an extension of the 2003 invasion of Iraq
The current crisis in Iraq has given oxygen to all the ideological arguments of the last decade surrounding the US-led intervention. Political wars are being dusted off and refought in some quarters.
But this is not 2003 redux. For proof, look no further than the fact that France is a member of the forming military coalition against Islamic State. George W Bush is no longer in the White House, Iraq is no longer a dictatorship, and there are no grand plan for regime change in Syria. The haunting 2003 ideological strains among the analysis of Iraq operations in 2014 are not always helpful. Simplistic comparisons between the military campaigns obscure detailed analysis of the motives of the Government in intervening, and the strategic options it should be considering. Let's deal with the issue of what Australia's strategy on ISIS should be, and then we can return to resolving all the lingering issues of the conflicts of the last decade.
Fallacy 4: Military action will increase the domestic threat of terrorism in Australia
I've heard this reasoning mentioned by a few commentators now, and it doesn't stand up for me. Firstly, behind it is a logic that Australia can just tuck its head down and the evil currents in the world will wash around us. That seems unlikely. We have important interests in good global order and the security of our allies and partners from terrorism, and responsibilities as a global citizen. If we think ISIS is a threat to the global order, we shouldn't duck the fight against it (though that doesn't automatically mean we should deploy military forces into Iraq). Secondly, the terms of the conflict between ISIS and Western countries like ours are already set and there is little we can do to change them or appease Islamic State leaders. ISIS is against the rule of law, and for the rule of bloody violence. We are not.
But there is also little evidence to date that ISIS fighters plan to return to Australia and carry out acts of terrorism. Yes, Syria and Iraq are providing a terrorist university in which extremists, Australians among them, are learning advanced military tactics and developing skills in urban fighting. But, as far as I am aware, in the three years since the conflict in Syria started not a single arrest has been made of an Australian who has returned to this country with the intent to conduct a terrorist attack. Australian military contributions are not likely to significantly increase the domestic terror threat. ISIS already knows we are an ally of the US.
Fallacy 5: This problem can be solved without a strategy for Syria
Air strikes in northern Iraq can contain ISIS and limit its advance into Iraqi Kurdistan. But to deny terrorists safe haven, to destroy Islamic State as a group, to stop civilian slaughter and restore relative order in Iraq, ISIS positions and strengths in Syria need to be targeted. That means a decision to intervene in Syria's civil war and alter the power balance between the Assad regime and the forces arrayed against him. That's something Obama and his allies have avoided for three years, despite a number of provocations. And the complexity of determining a strategy on Syria is why the US has not yet formed a comprehensive strategy to deal with this current crisis.
It will not be easy, but if a case for a US military campaign against ISIS is to be made next month it will have to include a strategy for Syria. Australian decision-makers should be thinking beyond just northern Iraq to determine our view of the best outcome in Syria, and what burden we might be willing to shoulder in order to achieve it.