John Tulloh. Canberra’s fork in the road – the humanitarian way or the warpath?

What interesting, fraught and changing times we live in. This month marks the 75th anniversary of the start of World War Two. Britain and France with little ado told Germany to get out of Poland or else. Three days later King George VI made a radio speech to the British nation that good must prevail. Robert Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister, did his ‘melancholy duty’ via ABC radio and without further ado off went the men of both countries to war again. It all seemed so straight forward.

But today we face another fearful dilemma about another occupying force:  how to handle the Islamic State (IS) insurgents whose barbaric behaviour in Iraq has been as evil as that of the Nazis. The need for humanitarian assistance by the West for IS’s victims required no debate. But then what? Another invasion was out of the question, of course. But clearly, IS cannot be left unchecked when its followers roam elsewhere in Iraq like primitive bandits imposing their brutal rule in the name of Islam.

Other Arab countries have shown little or no interest in intervening, while Iraq’s own army appears not up to the task despite the billions of dollars the U.S. spent in training them. That leaves the West. In fact, it’s the West’s biggest and most acute predicament: how do what are essentially Christian democracies deal with Islamic extremism?

Tony Abbott has been characteristically cautious in discussing any plans beyond the humanitarian air drops in conjunction with other Western countries and now the delivery of military supplies to friendly forces. But he has confirmed what is obvious: that he has already discussed with Washington a wider military role.

Mr Abbott might care to refresh himself about what happened in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion. Neither conflict incurred Australian casualties as a result of warfare. The Gulf War was a UN-sanctioned operation to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait which they had invaded the previous year. Bob Hawke, the Australian Prime Minister then, restricted our involvement to helping patrol the Persian Gulf and demining operations.

In 2003, Mr Abbott’s mentor, John Howard, was in charge and more accommodating of Washington’s interests., He kept the public and the media guessing right up to the last minute. Once he had decided or rather confirmed that we would join President George W. Bush’s plan to invade, Australian SAS troops were operating in western Iraq with considerable success two days before the bombing of Baghdad began.

Our intention to be part of the coalition of the willing was never in doubt despite all the ducking and weaving by Mr Howard. A few weeks before the invasion, the Sydney Morning Herald, ran a memorable cartoon showing an enthusiastic George Bush waving his Stetson and a grinning Tony Blair aboard a rocket bound for Baghdad with an alarmed-looking John Howard sitting on the tail and saying something to the effect of ‘Seriously, though, we haven’t decided yet’.

Greg Sheridan, the well-connected foreign editor of The Australian, is in little doubt in the current case. He says Canberra is ‘considering deploying SAS soldiers, F18 Super Hornet jet fighters and sophisticated airborne early warning and control aircraft as part of a military contribution to US-led efforts in Iraq’. Here we go again.

Our military involvement to date has been the delivery of weapons to the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga (‘One who faces death’). The U.S. are looking to these fierce fighters as a kind of first line of defence in Northern Iraq where IS followers have been rampant.

Then what? How will the West deal with IS units terrorising communities elsewhere in Iraq? The era of ground troops is over. The new battles are being fought from the sky by warplanes and drones. As the Americans discovered 40 years ago over North Vietnam during that war, relying on just bombing is a futile exercise.

The most the West could hope for is to drive IS followers back into their original sanctuary, Syria. Then what? You can almost imagine President Obama saying ‘I wish I knew’ when to date he’s had no idea how to deal with Syria and its nasty Assad regime. It would widen the conflict with who knows what consequences for Australia as well as the other participants.

James Brown, a former Australian military officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a fellow of the Lowy Institute, claims that Mr Abbott is using the military as ‘a tool of international policy’. He cited not only the Iraq developments, but now Australia’s startling involvement with faraway Ukraine. He told ABC radio that staff in the Prime Minister’s office are talking about an Abbott doctrine. ‘It’s a doctrine that’s reactive, it’s a doctrine that leads with the military and it’s a doctrine that’s very values driven’.

For now Abbott’s biggest worry is the possibility of jihadists slipping through the cracks with the potential to cause mayhem to our safe and comfortable way of life. There is also the unthinkable: a fellow Australian – a media person, an NGO or even a soldier – being taken prisoner and beheaded. However, Mr Abbott can take some comfort from the fact that the overwhelming Moslem community in Australia feel the same way about IS as he does.

The conflict has thrown up some developments which future historians will pore over.

One is that the Kurds, having been ignored by the West for years, cannot believe their good fortune in finally being the centre of favourable attention and in such demand. But they know there will be a limit to the West’s attention lest their long-held ambitions for an independent homeland lead to the break-up of Iraq.

Another is the steady exodus of Christians from the Middle East where they have existed since the first century. Many are fleeing brutal oppression, such as from IS. Others see little future when sectarian differences and hostility dominate daily life. It is estimated that the region’s 12 million Christians will drop to 6 million by 2020.

For Mr Abbott, he now has more rapidly changing developments than ever before to take into account in determining Australia’s future direction in foreign matters. While still playing a humanitarian role anywhere, it might be safer and more practical to focus on where our future really lies – East Asia.

FOOTNOTE: In late 2002, the notoriously secretive Defence Dept in Canberra called a meeting of all media representatives to discuss accreditation in the event of a potential conflict, i.e. the looming Iraq invasion. The rules had been drawn up by a leading Australian legal company for some bizarre reason. They included censorship of all news reports. So much for ‘live’ reporting. The location of the UAE base where RAAF jets might be stationed was never to be mentioned despite them presumably being visible to passers-by. Violators of the rules would have their accreditation revoked. All this was part of what was code-named ‘Operation Chad’. As the RAN was also involved, the brigadier in charge of the briefing was asked why such a name was chosen. ‘Why not?’ he replied as if this were a stupid question. Chad is land-locked, he was informed. He still look puzzled. Needless to say, the media were unanimous in rejecting the terms of accreditation.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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