Anthony Bubalo's Why the US (and Australia) Should Go Back to Iraq deserves your attention. In the most direct sense, it is a call for renewed diplomatic and political engagement in Iraq. But in arguing that the Middle East continues to demand American (and Australian) attention, it also questions the Obama Administration's Asia pivot and the Asian focus of this and the previous Australian government. It might even be read as a critique of Australia's foreign policy establishment, which on the whole has enthusiastically embraced an Asia-first vision (though they disagree about its implementation).
I am one of those Asia-first enthusiasts. I am also a reformed Iraq war supporter who came to realise the profound strategic and moral folly of the enterprise. It should never have happened and I'm ashamed of the fact that I did not see that at the time. From a personal perspective, that just makes it all the more urgent to see that the same mistakes are not made again, even on a smaller scale.
And to be clear, Anthony Bubalo's proposal is a modest one. He endorses Obama's pledge not to re-introduce ground forces, but he wants sustained US political re-engagement, and he wants Australia 'to support the building of a more effective and professional Iraqi army'.
Yet even on a small scale, such a policy would represent a victory for hope over experience. After all, the US and its allies have been trying to rebuild Iraq's security forces for over ten years now, at vast expense. I suppose it could be argued that the Iraqi army's failures against ISIS demonstrate that even more effort is required, but equally, it could be evidence that something else entirely is amiss, something more fundamental which can't be fixed by training the army (eg. Kenneth Pollack argues that the army has in recent years become a tool in Iraq's political and sectarian conflicts).
Anthony is rightly worried that an ISIS-controlled region straddling Iraq and Syria will become an incubator for Islamist terrorism that reaches our region.
But re-entering Iraq and training local security forces is not necessarily the best way to address that problem. Surely the biggest lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the broad-canvas approach to counter-terrorism (rebuild the security forces and even the entire political system in places where terrorism incubates) is much too ambitious.
As for the terrorist threat to Australia, we know what works: intelligence and policing cooperation with our friends in the region, which has brought impressive gains against al Qaeda affiliates such as Jemaah Islamiya. The outstanding success story of Southeast Asia's fight against terrorism has been Australia's cooperation with Indonesia, an effort that 'has yielded results that have exceeded all expectations', according to Greg Barton, a researcher at Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre.
Anthony also wants the Obama Administration to 'set aside' the pivot and refocus on the Middle East. He argues that the crisis in Iraq is a warning that governments 'need to avoid being captured by abstract strategies and doctrine'.
But whatever the merits of America's pivot to Asia, it is surely a response to evidence, not a denial of it. It's not 'abstract' to craft a national strategy in reaction to a once-in-a-century economic shift like the one we are witnessing in Asia. In fact, it would be rather obtuse for the world's leading superpower to simply carry on with its Middle East policy as if nothing is happening in Asia. It's clear that the Iraq problem is urgent, but Anthony has not made the case that it is more important than the strategic and economic shift we are seeing in our region.
Which brings us back to the problem that has plagued Western strategic policy since 9/11: threat perception. The terrorist groups which target Western countries have never come close to posing an existential threat, yet resources have been thrown at the problem as if our very survival depended on it. In fact, the West's response to the terrorist threat has been far more costly in lives and treasure than the terrorists themselves. We're beginning to overcome this problem, but a re-commitment to Iraq would reverse this progress and lead to a further misallocation of resources.
The single exception to the judgment about the terrorist threat would be if terrorist groups acquired nuclear weapons. Then they really could destroy nations. For that reason, Obama's Middle East policy has wisely focused on counter-proliferation. He has made almost entirely unacknowledged progress in Iran, and as a bonus, he has convinced Syria to give up its chemical arsenal. Not too shabby, and a good reason to reinforce the counter-terrorist policies that work (policing, intelligence, diplomacy and occasional surgical strikes), and to leave behind the mistakes of the past.
Photo by Flickr user US Army.