An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter near Mosul
Like more or less everything this government does at the moment, its attempt to hype the threat of terrorism has been noticeably cack-handed. Data retention proved a debacle for both the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, one from which, humiliatingly, the government had to be rescued by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull — the very person Abbott had excluded from input on the policy.
Since then, the government’s friends at News Corp have moved into top gear to spruik the terrorist threat as justification for more anti-terror laws, three (count ‘em) “tranches” of them according to George Brandis, who pronounced the word a la francaise (because things sound so much cleverer in French). Peculiarly, that’s at the same time that News Corp signed on, along with all other local media outlets, to a warning that the “tranche” (say me like one of your French words, George) currently before Parliament would have a chilling effect on journalism. What’s good for readers, it seems, isn’t necessarily good for Murdoch.
Nonetheless, on Saturday, the government smoothly — or about as smoothly as this one can manage — moved to complement News Corp’s campaign on Aussie jihadis receiving welfare payments, the kind of concept that must have made tabloid editors short out their keyboards with salivating. Not just a Muslim, not just a terrorist, but a dole-bludging Muslim terrorist — a kind of peak derp that could probably only be topped if one turned out, improbably, to be Julian Disney in disguise.
The government would be stopping payments to Aussie jihadis, declared a media release, issued not merely by the uncannily lifelike Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews, but by the Prime Minister himself. As is the way of this government, no one had bothered to read the media release properly, and it contained three separate explanations for what was happening. “Australians engaged in terrorist activities” would not be “receiving taxpayer funded welfare payments”, the release began, but it then changed tack in the second par to say that “people identified by national security agencies as being involved in extremist conduct” would have payments stopped. The release managed a third par without a new definition, but the next told us people “assessed as a serious threat to Australia’s national security” would have payments stopped.
“We didn’t just make ourselves less safe by attacking Iraq; our military endeavours in the War on Terror have helped enrich the very countries that are now pumping money into Islamic State.”
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Those three statements mean very different things. So who knows what the threshold for having payments stopped will actually be, or even if it’s designed to ever actually happen? Maybe that’s just the old public servant in me having a whine, but when I drafted media releases BACK IN THE DAY — often for some of the people who now work in the Prime Minister’s Office — I’d try to keep the deliberate confusion to a minimum.
But anyway, the government wanted to ensure taxpayers’ money is not being used to undermine Australia’s national security. And that’s a laudable goal, as Australia has devoted a great deal of taxpayer money to undermining its own national security. We spent $2.4 billion on our participation in the attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a decision that, as then-AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty explained, ended up making Australians less safe. At least we got out of that without spending too much money. The Brits spent US$14 billion making themselves, as MI5 explained, less safe because of Iraq, while the Americans have spent US$2 trillion so far doing the same, as their intelligence agencies note.
But that’s old news. Let’s move on. The greatest sources of funding for what now styles itself the Islamic State are wealthy Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who have helped IS amass a warchest estimated to be $2 billion, certainly enough to do a better job of photoshopping faked massacre photos designed to intimidate opposition forces.
Most of that wealth being donated to IS is of course oil wealth. Since 2004, the economies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have all accelerated rapidly due to the surge in oil prices (Qatar is also now a big natural gas producer). The price of oil doubled from its pre-Iraq War price of $30 a barrel by 2005, and then doubled again by 2008, before the financial crisis sent the price, along with the oil sheikhdom economies, tumbling — though both have since recovered to pre-GFC levels. It wasn’t merely the Iraq War that, contrary to Rupert Murdoch’s lunatic prediction that it would lead to $20 a barrel oil, caused oil prices to surge, but the extended military commitment by the US and other allies, like Australia, in Afghanistan over the last 13 years. Western troops in combat now require around 100 litres of fuel a day; the Australian Defence Force bill for fuel, for example, rose from $340 million in 2006 to $440 million in 2010, despite the GFC-induced fall in oil prices.
As a result, we didn’t just make ourselves less safe by attacking Iraq; our military endeavours in the War on Terror have helped enrich the very countries that are now pumping money into IS. And IS, in turn, is being used to justify both new anti-terror laws here and new military intervention in Iraq. It’s yet another example of how the War on Terror is a vast, self-perpetuating mechanism, and not in some nebulous, rhetorical or political way, but on the ground, in terms of money and weapons and the people prepared to use them.