Last Friday morning American time, when the New York Stock Exchange opened, the share prices of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon and L3 Communications all immediately spiked between 1.5% and 3%. The night before, President Barack Obama had announced that the United States would be using airstrikes against ISIS forces in Iraq. They’re the biggest defence companies in the United States, and war is always good for business.

Indeed, over the last year, as the situations in Syria and Iraq have steadily deteriorated, US defence company shares have all strongly outperformed the Dow and the Nasdaq, with investors apparently convinced, even after the abortive threat to use military force against Syria over chemical weapons earlier this year, that the goods and services produced by the US military-industrial complex would be needed. So it turned out to be.

A new round of military intervention in Iraq, however limited, won’t help the US budget, but it’s rare for fiscal hardliners to apply the same austere mindset to the security establishment and its contractors as they do to everyone else. For that, look no further than our own government announcing it would be lavishing an astonishing $630 million in additional national security spending despite the “budget crisis” it insists the country is in the grip of that justifies big — and politically painful — cuts in other areas of spending. The government’s priority is Australians’ safety, it insists — by which logic, lavishing similar sums on health or infrastructure spending would be far more effective. But our capacity to think rationally when anyone starts using the word “terrorism” in public debate is minimal.

Meantime Australia’s Defence Minister, the gaffe-prone David Johnston, this week directly linked events in Iraq with the need to pass a series of national security law reforms that would significantly expand the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies at the expense of individual rights, reforms that invoke the advice of the former Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) where convenient but ignore it, and indeed specifically contradict it, where inconvenient.

“Iraq isn’t just a neoconservative gift that keeps on giving for military contractors. It demonstrates the self-perpetuating nature of the War on Terror, with a terrorist threat that we ourselves have generated …”

Recall that the 2003 attack on Iraq was sold — on the basis of fictitious weapons of mass destruction — as making the West more secure. As reports from US intelligence agencies and MI5 made clear, that war — cost, nearly US$2 trillion and counting — in fact made Western citizens significantly less safe, a view famously supported by then-AFP head Mick Keelty. But subsequent increases in the terror threat created by the Iraq invasion were used to justify further extensions of security agency powers in Australia, to protect us from the threat that they themselves had helped create via the attack on Iraq.

Now, with the US client regime that replaced Saddam Hussein falling apart, a situation for which Western governments are directly responsible is again being invoked as a security threat that requires more powers and further curbs on basic rights. Included in the government’s package are proposals to make permanent what were temporary powers for “preventative”, incommunicado detention (AKA abduction) by security agencies introduced in response to the Iraq-induced terror threat the first time around. Those are exactly the powers that the INSLM recommended be abolished, not strengthened.

Iraq isn’t just a neoconservative gift that keeps on giving for military contractors. It demonstrates the self-perpetuating nature of the War on Terror, with a terrorist threat that we ourselves have generated via that war used to justify endless extensions of national security powers and curbs on basic rights even as we return to fight the terrorists we’ve helped create. In the same way, US drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan helped enrage and radicalise future generations of militants, a point made by senior US military figures. This is a process that will ever wind down — it is specifically intended to be permanent. A senior Australian military figure wants a “century-long war” against radical Islam. Obama himself flagged that the current intervention would be a “long-term effort.” Everyone wants to see the brutal monsters of IS halted in their tracks, but interventions always start off black and white, with the “good guys” clearly delineated from the “bad guys”, in Tony Abbott’s parlance, before rapidly veering into morally unclear areas. What happens when civilians begin dying in air strikes, when governing regimes fall apart, when unintended and disastrous consequences emerge?

As the last 11 years tells us, they just become the justification for more military spending and more draconian security laws. It will never stop. There are too many powerful interests that benefit from it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey