ISIS's dramatic seizure of Mosul last week has caused much geo-strategic hyperventilation. Commentators are variously predicting the collapse of Iraq and eulogising (once again) Middle Eastern borders as defined by Sykes and Picot. The prospect of the US – and perhaps allies such as Australia — going back to Iraq is being contemplated, and the wisdom of doing so debated.
The moment requires, however, a measured assessment of the problem, great modesty in evaluating policy options and even greater prudence in the execution of a response.
There is no question that the problem is serious. Unless it is handled deftly – and the government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has shown itself to be anything but deft – it could reignite a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Such a war will inflame already volatile sectarian tensions and conflicts around the Middle East.
An ISIS-led statelet straddling the Syria-Iraq border will be of enormous consequence to the regeneration of the global jihadist threat. Syria is already providing an easily accessible training ground for jihadists around the world. Its dramatic gains will both encourage jihadist groups elsewhere and, if they are sustained, provide new training opportunities for foreign fighters.
This matters to Australia. A significant number of Australians are already fighting just over the border in Syria, some with jihadist groups including ISIS. Indonesians are there too. As Sidney Jones tweeted over the weekend, many ISIS statements are being translated into Indonesian, underlining that events in Iraq are being closely followed.
Having said that, Iraq is not about to collapse, Baghdad is not about to fall to ISIS and the borders of the Middle East will probably prove more durable than most pundits seem to think. ISIS will face a real challenge in controlling the territory it has taken – or more accurately, the territory ceded to it by a poorly-led Iraqi army.
It is true that ISIS's advance demands a swift response. But it also demands a cautious one. Rushing Shi'ite militias into Mosul and its surrounds could provoke the sectarian conflict everyone fears. If the US does launch air strikes it will need to exercise even greater care than normal about civilian casualties, as they would invariably be exploited by ISIS in its propaganda campaigns.
In fact, what the situation in Iraq demands of the US (and its allies) is sustained re-engagement, not knee-jerk responses. The Obama Administration is right to rule out sending ground troops (although it will be interesting to see if this also applies to special forces). But the situation in Iraq will still require a more serious Administration re-think of its policies in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
Since being elected, Obama has pursued his ambition to recalibrate America's Middle East policy with grim determination. He wants to be the president who ended America's wars in the Middle East and shifted its geo-strategic focus to Asia and a rising China.
Fair enough, but strategies and doctrines cannot be made in a vacuum. It is Obama's misfortune that he inherited wars he did not begin and a Middle East in the throes of its greatest turmoil since World War II. But it is his responsibility to look after American interests in the world as it is, not as he might wish it to be. Sometimes you've gotta do what you've gotta do, strategies and doctrines be damned.
Much has already been made of how the situation in Iraq is the fault of the Bush Administration's decision to invade. True to a degree, but it is also true that Washington took its eye off the Iraqi ball under Obama. It had the leverage to ensure the Maliki Government pursued a more inclusive politics and built a professional Iraqi military – both shortcomings are at the heart of the Iraqi state's failure to stop ISIS.
It is true that the Administration has cajoled the Maliki Government from time to time. But you get the impression that, as with the Administration's response to other crises in the Middle East, Obama's heart and the power of the presidential office was not really in it. It is as if, on the Middle East, the President has drawn himself red lines that only he fears to cross.
That has to change. The US has to go back to Iraq, not with boots on the ground but with a more focused and sustained engagement using all the wit and clout it can still muster. It needs to set aside pivots and rebalances and deal with the serious threats to its interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Obama may have felt that America is done with the Middle East; the problem is that the Middle East is not done with America.
There is a lesson here too for Australian strategic planners. What is really interesting is that despite all the talk of how Australia is intently focused on the looming strategic challenges in Asia (and how this will be reflected in the forthcoming Defence White Paper), the Australian Prime Minister's instinctive reaction was to not rule out any Australian involvement in Iraq in support of the US.
This is not say Abbott was wrong to imply we might go back to Iraq. His cagey response might even be considered prudent and unsurprising, given the US probably has not yet even asked him for assistance. It is also noteworthy that since the Prime Minister's comments last week, Foreign Minister Bishop seems to have ruled out any participation by Australian ground troops.
In fact, if the immediate US response is airstrikes, there is little Australia could provide in support. More interesting, however, is what Australia could and in my view should provide to support the building of a more effective and professional Iraqi army (something we have done in the past). The fact that Indonesian jihadists are already traveling to the region for training underlines that we still have significant interests at play.
Abbott's instinctive response also highlights once again the need to avoid being captured by abstract strategies and doctrine. As the White Paper drafters beaver away in some airless bunker at Russell Hill, they need to keep in mind that good planning needs to allow for surprises, even if what is now happening in Iraq, or the fact that we might one day go back to the Middle East, is hardly surprising. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you are making strategic plans.