The current intervention in northern Iraq is about as overdetermined a political-media event as you could get. A radical and ruthless insurgent group, heavy on the branding, with a highly efficient video distribution system, has made it impossible for the West not to intervene. In the United States the possibility of an intervention is being minimised, since it is deeply embarrassing to President Barack Obama, and the UK remains resolutely opposed to any sort of military adventures.
In Australia, of course, it has come as a godsend to Tony Abbott, who has played up the ruthlessness of the Islamic State (also called ISIS) in a manner that IS would find deeply gratifying — why else would they release their videos? The group is no more than common-or-garden ruthless, executing some hostages, killing captured soldiers, massacring whole villages of “apostate” civilians. Yet the group’s theatricality and slick video skills have made it possible to turn it into a force of “radical evil”. Abbott has already described IS as “worse than Nazism”. That’s Mr Motormouth again, getting all excited and telling people what they want to hear, as in the Liberal party room last week. He should have kept something back, just in case RAAF personnel are captured or killed.
With the rhetoric stepped up, the political-media elite have fallen into lockstep. The commentariat are currently engaging in a competition to out-sententious each other. IS are very, very bad, Gareth-Gareth Evans and Peter Hartcher tell us in the op-ed pages today. Perhaps you knew this already. The pompous, pointless bluster in which high-profile commentators urge us on to do something we were going to do anyway — and that even those opposed to practically all interventions have taken up a tactical silence concerning — is simply a substitute for analysis of the region and the complexities of the politics.
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The first and most obvious point is that we aren’t doing anything comprehensive about the ruthless violence of IS overall, we’re simply pointing it away from Iraqi Kurdistan and some northern groups. South of Mosul, the group has free rein. Indeed, the current intervention will strengthen IS’s hand there, since the direct supply of arms to the Kurds further weakens the Iraqi state. Indeed, this current intervention may be the death blow — at some point the Kurds will go back on their word to the US and unilaterally declare their independence. The US-made military aid contingent on its continued commitment to Iraq, but what could the Americans do if the Kurds make the declaration mid-mission? Their newly declared independence would make the mission more strategically necessary, not less.
Steering your foreign policy based on the video presentation of beheadings is not a good idea — and it’s not one the US or its allies are pursuing. Media and public interest in the IS’s grisly snuff shots would quickly fade among the public if we chose to do nothing about them — and we would choose to do nothing about them if the territorial integrity of a future ally were not under threat (quite probably a somewhat exaggerated one). The US and allied intervention is also about forestalling further Iranian expansion into the affairs of what was previously Iraq. The Western Americophile rhetoric — why does the US always have to be the good guy? — is misplaced here, as always. Former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki had already made clear that he would invite the Iranians in if he did not receive sufficient support from the US — and the Iranians made it clear they would be willing to oblige.
Meanwhile, one side effect of the West throwing itself into action in the north is that Shia violence is legitimised in the south. Last week, near Baqubah, 75 kilometres north of Baghdad, around 70 Sunnis were killed by a suicide bomber and machine-gun militia in a massacre staged by a Shia group with links to elements of the ruling Dawa party. Had IS done this, it would have played for days. But it has passed unmentioned, as will any and all subsequent massacres by our new Shia allies. The omission is particularly significant because the attack caused the withdrawal of the Sunni parliamentary bloc from the Abadi government — an ominous step towards further sectarian conflict in the southern part of Iraq. It didn’t make the news, because there was no video, and it didn’t get a mention among the commentariat because there was no opportunity to parrot Churchillian rhetoric.
Whatever compelling moral argument there might be — emphasis on the might — for a very limited assistance/intervention in the north, dressing it up as a cosmic battle is the least helpful thing that anyone can do. The likely effect of this latest move will be the further destabilisation of non-Kurdish Iraq — and the stability of Iraqi Kurdistan itself is not a given. By the time any of that happens Tony Abbott will have moved on, just as he moved on from MH17 and from MH370, from 18C and “Team Australia”. None of it appears to be convincing an electorate with a bad case of buyer’s remorse, but it is perhaps putting a floor under the fall. This is a government to make the Rudd era look like the first hundred days of FDR. That is of itself of little importance, except insofar as it affects the question of who will live and who will die — and the government should be held to a more cogent argument for its case. We should hold them to account, rather than providing a chorus for the latest fanfare.