The parallels between the current path to intervention in Iraq and Syria and the Iraq War 11 years ago are uncanny and discomfitting.
It’s a good time to be in defence stocks in the US currently — they’ve all outperformed the market: Lockheed Martin shares are up 8.4% since President Obama announced airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq. Raytheon is up 8%. General Dynamics is up over 8%. Northrop Grumman is up 6%. The Dow’s only up 4%; the Nasdaq 5.4%, the S&P 500 just 4.7%. All the companies’ shares have hit historical highs this week. And rightly so: we’re on the cusp of another major intervention in Iraq, and most likely in Syria as well, one that even Barack Obama says will be an extended effort.
As part of that effort, the New York Times revealed, Britain and Australia would be expected by the US to join an air campaign against Islamic State militants. Thus are all the pieces falling into place for a re-run — albeit, for now, on a smaller scale — of the misbegotten Iraq venture, that US$2 trillion exercise in significantly reducing both Iraqi life expectancy and the safety of Western citizens. The parallels are fascinating:
Hyping the threat The attack on Saddam Hussein was justified with a series of elaborate “sexed up” fictions about his weapons of mass destruction and the direct, 15-minutes-away threat they posed. There are no WMDs this time around (yet); instead, IS’s brutality is hyped instead. Chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Martin Dempsey claimed IS had an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said IS was “beyond just a terrorist group … beyond anything that we’ve seen” and while in Australia said “ISIL is a threat to the civilised world, certainly to the United States, to our interests, as it is to Europe, it is to Australia”.
The eager allies UK Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the establishment of a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean. Australian defence minister David Johnston claimed pictures of severed heads from the region showed the need for more anti-terrorism laws here, while Prime Minister Abbott claimed the militants were an “extraordinary problem, not just for the people of the Middle East, but for the wider world”.
What’s missing in all this is specific evidence that IS, which we have helped create via the destruction of Iraq as a viable state, and which is funded by our Gulf State allies in the War on Terror, poses any threat beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq, or that it is engaged in or has the resources to launch a program of violence in Western countries. This was the reason why the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security last week stated that the militants posed no specific or credible threat to the US, contrary to Hagel’s hysteria. Indeed, even the brutality of IS is hardly unprecedented: the gruesome theatre of beheadings has long been a tool of al-Qaeda and for that matter any regime that wants to instill fear, regardless of ethnic background. And our ally and valued trading partner Saudi Arabia has beheaded nearly two dozen people this month alone, including one for the crime of “sorcery”.
The role of News Corp The company whose newspapers famously supported the Iraq War worldwide (the Hobart Mercury honourably excepted) has led the way in hyping the threat of IS, with neoconservative Greg “George W. Bush will be judged one the great presidents” Sheridan cheering on a military role for Australia in the pages of the Coalition newsletter. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch still hopes another Iraq war will at long last deliver his prediction during the last one, that it would see oil prices fall to US$20 a barrel. Sadly for the company, its newspapers are now read by only a fraction of their readerships of even 11 years ago.
The warmongers Like rats hearing the Pied Piper, warmongers have come tumbling out into the media in response to the possibility of more conflict in Iraq. Former Army chief Peter Leahy demanded a “long war” against “political Islam”. The ABC’s 7.30 has hosted two this week, with Peter Jennings of the militarist, taxpayer-funded think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, lauding Abbott for seeing the “strategic risk” of IS and calling an attack on IS “imperative”. Jennings managed to display both remarkable ignorance of the impact of the Iraq War on terrorism and entirely contradict himself in the space of a sentence when he said “the British are as aware of the threat of home-grown terrorism as Australia is in terms of their own domestic populations. And really, that is one of the chief concerns that is created by the creation of the Islamic State caliphate, which is that it becomes a magnet for jihadism around the world, where both the UK and Australia are at risk”. But Jennings looked relatively sane compared to the buffoonish former RAAF head Geoff Shepherd, who last night said that joining an attack on IS would be “good experience for our young Air Force men and women”.
The legal uncertainty The attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime was illegal under international law. Now, the same question arises about attacks within Syria given the Syrian government has warned against unilateral air strikes — bearing in mind that such airstrikes would in effect be in support of the Assad dictatorship that Western governments were contemplating attacking mere months ago. A discussion of the possible legal bases for an attack within Syria is at the well-respected Lawfare blog.
The claims of special personal relationships Last time around it was the “special relationship” between Tony “I’m With Stupid” Blair and George W. Bush, then between Bush and John “Man of Steel” Howard; this time around it’s the “unlikely but effective alliance” of Abbott and Obama, according to Sheridan.
A key difference, of course, is that thus far there is no willingness on the part of the US to commit troops beyond humanitarian relief; if anything, the Australian government is keener to commit troops than the Obama administration. Instead, this is likely to be a long air campaign. That, however, doesn’t rule out any troops on the ground. As a Labor figure told Crikey, one of Australia’s roles during the last Iraq War was providing Special Forces support for US airstrikes, operating behind enemy lines to identify targets. The US itself likely already has Special Forces/Green Berets inside Syria training and coordinating operations by moderate rebel groups (a technique used in Vietnam).
What’s unlikely to be different is the impact of another round of military intervention. Last time it led to the break-up of a country and a significant increase in the terrorism threat to Western citizens. There’s no evidence exactly the same won’t happen again.