The contradictions at the heart of the return to Iraq continue to emerge and continue to illustrate what appears to be a complete lack of either broader strategy or focus on national interest goals. Barack Obama’s speech yesterday (Wednesday evening US time) — declaring the United States was stepping up its campaign against Islamic State militants — was noteworthy for his downplaying of the IS threat to the US.
“ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East — including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”
According to Obama, IS currently poses no threat to the US, and “could” only “if left unchecked” — the sort of language senior intelligence and security officials have been using. It’s language entirely contradictory to Obama’s own Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, who declared IS an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and even his Secretary of State John Kerry, who appears to vacillate on the IS threat, but who has described it as a “severe threat” to the United States.
For Tony Abbott, there’s no such equivocation. He portrays IS as a major threat to Australia, saying yesterday it is “at least as much a domestic security issue for us as it is an international security issue”. He does this by an artful sleight of hand that links the activities of IS in Iraq and Syria with those of any Australians fighting with them who might return to Australia — a number that appears to have now been downgraded. In June, Crikey was told by one intelligence community source the number of Australians fighting in Syria might be 200. The estimate of “150-300” was frequently used. That number is now 60, according to the Prime Minister yesterday, with 100 (whether a separate 100, or including the 60, is unclear) “supporting terrorist organisations in the Middle East”. It’s also unclear whether — given the Australian government is now providing weapons that will reach the PKK, a proscribed terrorist organisation — that 100 includes personnel involved with running weapons to the Kurds.
Meantime, the intervention in Iraq has slowly but steadily expanded from a humanitarian mission with “no boots on the ground” to full-scale training and equipping of anti-IS forces and the use of special forces troops (apparently their boots don’t count), and now expanded from Iraq into Syria, despite the objections of the Damascus regime — the US and the UK, of course, were preparing to bomb that very regime a year ago. What the legal basis is for bombing inside Syria isn’t clear: there is certainly none in international law, and the White House is improbably relying on two Congressional authorisations: one granted to George W. Bush immediately after 9/11 that allows the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons”, the other granted in the lead-up to the attack on Saddam Hussein to address the “continuing threat posed by Iraq”.
Thus, legally speaking, the US is claiming IS is either Iraq, or helped carry out 9/11, although officials are relying for the latter on the connection between IS and al-Qaeda despite the active feud between the two groups. You may recall that the Bush administration encouraged Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to 9/11 as well.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
As for what legal basis Australia has for participating in any bombing in Syria, the government doesn’t appear to be too worried about that.
It isn’t merely lily-livered, cheese-eating surrender monkeys who are concerned about the return to Iraq: Israeli officials, who have worked long and hard to use the threat of Iran’s nuclear program as a mechanism for driving sanctions against Tehran, are concerned that having Iran on our side in the fight against IS — Iran has committed both air support and boots on the ground in helping Baghdad fight — will cruel their agenda. Don’t worry about a few head-lopping extremists, Israel is in effect saying, Iran is the real game here.
As that New York Times piece notes, this is an apt metaphor for the broader way in which the US’s “pivot to Asia”, which was losing strength under John Kerry anyway, has now been almost entirely abandoned as the US returns to the scene of its greatest strategic blunder. A similar observation may be made of the Abbott government, which insisted it would switch its foreign policy focus to be “more Jakarta and less Geneva” and has promptly engaged itself in a fight in Iraq and, inexplicably, is also getting involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. What our region will see is more of the “deputy sheriff” act of the Howard years, in which Australia’s genuine national interests are subordinated to a willingness to get involved in conflicts unrelated to those interests at the behest of Washington.
Meantime, defence company shares had a big week: Northrop Grumman shares were up nearly 2% and touched their highest ever price just before close of trading on Wednesday, ahead of Obama’s speech. General Dynamics also touched its highest ever price, as did Raytheon, which is up a splendid 4% this week alone. Lockheed Martin, which also hit a new high on Tuesday, had to settle for a mere 0.75% rise, which was still ahead of the Nasdaq and well ahead of the Dow. The chief business of the American people, after all, is business.