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Rundle: Iraq on the brink will change the world, for good or ill

Crikey’s writer-at-large ponders the next stage in the crisis unfolding in Iraq — a situation where the world will not come out as it went in.

The dissolution of Iraq came a step closer today — and Syria, and maybe eventually Jordan as well. With the first American airstrikes taking place in the corridor between the advance of IS troops and the Kurdish northern Iraq autonomous province, the collapse of the country’s sovereignty and very territoriality has now been acknowledged in the most dramatic means possible. By the same token, the airstrikes — which, it has been announced, will continue for months — have re-affirmed the de facto independence of Kurdistan, an extraordinary development.

It does not appear to be an outcome that Obama particularly wants. While airstrikes are being rolled out, the Kurds are not being directly armed by the United States — all arms requisitions are going though Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Or what was the Maliki government — as he appears to have been deposed by the Iraqi supreme court, with Iraqi President Fuad Masum asking the deputy speaker to form a government. Whether Maliki’s departure was a matter of genuine judicial process or a condition imposed by the US will presumably become clearer in the coming days, but for the moment they are sticking to the fiction that Iraq exists.

Militarily, it might well be wiser to fully arm the Kurds, who have defensible territory and a great deal of oil. But there’s one obvious problem with recognising the Kurds as fully autonomous — it would confer on the self-declared Islamic State a reciprocal de facto recognition for the swathe of territory they command. With that, what remains of Iraq would come apart even faster. It may well anyway, leaving the US with a dilemma: does the US begin airstrikes to defend Baghdad?

Politically, it’s one thing to defend Kurdistan, which appears to be a success — but quite another to go back into Baghdad, even by air. Northern airstrikes will be pretty much ignored by the American public, just as they ignored the Libya campaign — and were more or less unaware of the fact that the US was bombing Iraq through the ’90s to enforce a no-fly zone in the same, northern area. Politically, there seems no good option.

But to prevent Baghdad falling to the IS, Western powers will do almost anything. Newsreaders have been saying “there is no chance of boots on the ground” so often that there is, obviously. It is more than possible that thousands of “advisers” would be dropped in, to goose up what remains of the army. But who would they be working for? As I write, it is being reported that Maliki has refused to accept the change of government imposed by the court and the President, and has claimed continued legitimacy, and that the US has now decided to arm the Kurds directly.

This is a defining situation, and the world will not come out of it as it went in.”

If true, and if the arms are in significant amounts, it represents a new stage of triage in the process. In the US it is being taken as a reversal of policy, but it is less of one than is being portrayed. Obama’s strategy, as it has evolved through his presidency, is that of gradually replacing a failed nation-building strategy with one of containment by no/low-risk (to Americans), bombing and drone strikes. The policy seems to be to simultaneously lower Americans’ expectations about what can be done while seeking to minimise risks to them, even at the cost of innocent lives.

In Australia, the Right are still banging on about the idea that Obama somehow lost the “victory” in Iraq, as if the place had not been continuously set by car bombs and everything else from 2003 onwards. It is asinine, in any case. Maliki used the cover of US occupation to consolidate Shiite power, refused a forces agreement with the US, and removed the Sunnis from such power as remained to them. Whatever was going to happen in Iraq was always only going to happen once the US left — and the same will be true of Afghanistan. The “lost the victory” is so delusional and dishonest that only Bolt is managing to do it with a straight face.

In the US, the Right has pretty much discontinued this line, transfixed by the utter failure of the Iraq project and the further horror of what is to come. In particular, the Right has been genuinely challenged by the rapid destruction of the Iraqi Christian community. Iraqi Christians, who had a measure of protection under Saddam, have been under pressure from 2003 on — when we were “winning”. Now they’ve been killed, exiled and dissipated in weeks, and it appears that the US Christian Right — empathy-challenged so far as brown Muslims go — has been gripped with genuine guilt, which has acquainted them with reality.

They are further disadvantaged by the growing isolationism of the Tea Party and the remainder of the Republican Right. Initially a minority trend in the Right, they are now dominant, and the neocon imperialists have been all but squeezed out — with John McCain their only serious representative. The leading proponent of a re-projection of US power is Hillary Clinton, who is effectively running against Obama and aiming for an immense 2016 victory.

On the Left, there’s a forceful argument that fresh involvement in Iraq is overwhelmingly to do with oil (Syria has none) — which seems to ignore both the political import of Iraq in US memory, and also the greater ease with which a frontier can be established in Iraq, unlike Syria. There seems little doubt that this latest episode will further split the previously (pre-Libya) fairly united anti-war Left. If, as is highly possible, the US begin to arm the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK), then the situation will take on a, erm, complex character.

Everyone is going to have to make a decision. Will, knowing the war aversion of Australians, the Coalition commit Team Australia to military support — when the captain gets back from pointless busywork in the Netherlands, where he’s hiding, as always, from real meetings and duties, in this case with oh, only the US Defence and State secretaries, as a decade of Anglosphere foreign policy comes apart? Will Labor risk being out of it, if the humanitarian plays? Which way will the Greens jump? This is a defining situation, and the world will not come out of it as it went in, and neither will we.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    The Right - blaming Obama - in their one size fits all transferable transitory guilt?
    God help civilisation if this fetid carcase could be traced back to their Neo-con portals?

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Always hard to write sense about a chaotic situation.
    But that’s a pretty good attempt Guy.
    “Interesting times” for all concerned.
    Poor bastards.

  • 3
    Liamj
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    GR jumps the shark, Iraqs fragmentation is not new or unexpected, tho the US arming the communist Kurds has its lulz - lucky they’ve got oil eh? The murder of Iraqs xtians is sad but no sadder than same in Syria & Ukraine, and pity the poor bloody Palestinians who can’t even run away. Cui bono: did the Kuwaiti & other Arabian Gulf donors to ISIS (back when they were “freedom fighters” in Syria) know that it would lead to less conventional but more black market oil?

  • 4
    ianjohnno
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    How is Turkey viewing all this? Is Erdogan feeling frisky after his election?

  • 5
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    why is our leader(no I don’t mean Rupert) overseas when the two most powerful US politicians after the president are out here for meetings…meanwhile he’s chasing cadavers in the Hague and no doubt meeting Geert Wilders to discuss his problems with certain brownish citizens in Australia….ohoo and then its off for a quick visit to the country he really thinks is home… wtf..

  • 6
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Why is the Right always so wrong?

  • 7
    rhwombat
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Venise: “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative.” John Stuart Mill 1866.

  • 8
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    You can’t blame Obama for the hospital pass thrown to him by the F***witted frat boy George W Bush.

    But when Empires collapse lots of shite happens. When Empires appear weak and loathe to act, ISIS happens.

    There seems little risk in Obama conducting an air war against ISIS in what appears to be pretty open country where targeting should be good.

    I am sure the Israelis have some good intelligence which they might share with the US against ISIS. Arming the Kurds to defeat ISIS seems like a pretty low risk option too. But Obama is almost a lame duck President, so seems inordinately risk adverse.

    Who wants to be the President who lost both Iraq and allowed the rampage of ISIS - the worst of the Islamist crazies?

  • 9
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 13 August 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    As you stated, under Sadam Christians had the freedom to worship without interference from the Government or other faiths. Now, Bush and co (and don’t forget Howard’s part in the war crime of invading Iraq) changed the power base and the country is a basket case and innocent’s are being murdered for the cause of religion.
    Iraq: No WMD’s, no peace and no hope…the right has a lot to answer for in the US, UK (Blair was a neo-Labour, read more right than left) and Australia.
    Jaybuoy (5) the classic was this AM where our PM; now overseas strutting the world stage; had to speak to David Cameron on the telephone because he is on holiday. I think we have telephones in Auistralia.

  • 10
    Posted Wednesday, 13 August 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    RHWOMBAT: I like that a lot, and, damn it, it is so gut wrenchingly true.

  • 11
    Posted Wednesday, 13 August 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    JAYBUOY: Surely you do not expect ‘our Tone’ to front up to a place where all the cameras will be focused on America’s representatives???? That would be too soul destroying for Tony Abbott.

  • 12
    Posted Wednesday, 13 August 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    KEN LAMBERT: Irrespective of Barack Obama’s performance as President surely you can’t blame him for the creation of the Islamic State?

  • 13
    aghast
    Posted Thursday, 14 August 2014 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Regarding the PMs absence from this nationally important conference…Defence Minister met US Sec of Defence..no problem.Foreign Affairs met US Sec of State..no problem.All relevant business seems to have been discussed.All the right noises made.Importantly no suppositories were dropped..no Canadadia were expressed and no Shit Happened.Tony will have time to put any comments he may have in writing…and he had a chance to speak to the British PM on the phone…probably the recommended way of the future for Abbotts leadership.

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