Tony Abbott is a man in a hurry. There’s a blue on, and he wants in. The Prime Minister has regressed from statesman to pugilist. He’s back to Punchy Tony, the Rocky of the Right, a bloke who’s up for any fight, even if he has to start it himself, the former boxing “blue” and front rower ready to deck anyone (including a young Joe Hockey), if they get in his way. Or even if they don’t.

The enthusiastic embrace of a war against Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL) militants, along with the now-relentless hyping of the terrorist threat, of course are partly to distract from the government’s continuing domestic woes. If nothing else, journalists, the few voters who pay attention to day-to-day politics, and the government itself must be grateful for not having to read and write yet another story on how key budget measures remain mired in the Senate. But they also reflect Tony Abbott’s aggression, a trait he laboured hard to keep under wraps as opposition leader and harder still in his early days as Prime Minister — remember that parliamentary transition to the soft-voiced Prime Minister from the often shrill Abbott of the Gillard years.

But bit by bit it has re-emerged — the boyish grin sitting in the cockpit of a mocked-up F-35 (appropriately, on the ground, where the F-35s spend all of their time), the near-hysterical rhetoric about the threat of Islamic militants, and now dispatching tonnes of military hardware and some of our best troops to the United Arab Emirates, there to await whatever America wants them to do.

But quite what they’re actually doing isn’t clear. After initially struggling with the term, US Secretary of State John Kerry has now called the return to Iraq a “war”, saying “in terms of al-Qaeda, which we have used the word ‘war’ with, yeah. We were at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates. And in the same context, if you want to use it, yes, we’re at war with ISIL.” That line was used by both the White House and the Pentagon: “The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way that we are at war with al-Qaeda,” a White House spokesman said. “We know we are at war with ISIL,” said a Pentagon spokesman.

So, that’s clarified that: we’re at war with IS.

Except we’re not. According to Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia isn’t at war — not even war in the “against al-Qaeda” sense. “It’s a humanitarian mission with military elements,” he said this morning. The Prime Minister seemed yesterday to have it both ways, referring to the deployment to the UAE as being “to counter the ISIL terrorist threat”, in response to “a specific request from the United States Government to contribute forces to possible military action in Iraq,” but also as “essentially a humanitarian operation”. A similar semantic confusion has attended the claim that there will be no “boots on the ground”, which most reasonable people would take to refer to troops, but apparently it only refers to regular infantry; special forces and military adviser boots don’t count. As with the Prime Minister’s frequent invocation of the support of Bill Shorten, such word games give away a nervousness within Abbott that this is not being seen by voters in quite the light he would like it to be.

And how we will know when the war/humanitarian mission has been won also isn’t clear. Obama has said he intends to “destroy” IS, as has David Cameron — although Cameron hasn’t committed any military forces as yet, unlike Abbott. Abbott’s markers are “if the ISIL forces inside Iraq have been defeated, dislodged, if the Iraqi government is once more reasonably capable of maintaining control over its own territory, maintaining internal security, that will be certainly a success.”

Success — not a word one hears used in reference to Iraq very often.

On that basis, we could be spending a very long time in Iraq, given its government is profoundly dysfunctional and unlikely to ever be able to secure its own territory, any more than the Afghanistan Army is capable of securing its own territory after years of training and assistance. As for “destroying” IS, that may end up having about as much credence as Donald Rumsfeld’s commitment to “destroy the Taliban” in 2001, something we’re still waiting for.

Meantime, it’s unclear exactly what countries in the region, other than Iran — which is doing the heavy lifting against IS outside the north of Iraq — are doing. These are countries that notionally are under greater threat from IS than countries rushing to the fight, like Australia. But Turkey has outright refused to join the coalition (variously “core”, “broad”) against IS, and won’t even let the US operate air missions from its territory. Given the PKK group, which is at war with Turkey, is one of the direct beneficiaries of the West’s intervention in Iraq, that’s not especially surprising. Qatar, one of the key sources of IS funding, hasn’t even agreed to put a proper stop to the flow of money.

Another key source of IS funding, Saudi Arabia, has offered to help train moderate Syrian rebels (which helps with its goal of destroying the Assad regime) and allow its bases to be used to launch airstrikes, but is strangely reluctant to commit its own military resources, which are substantial enough to be used to invade Bahrain in 2011 to crush pro-democracy protests. Meantime, late last week the Saudis beheaded another prisoner, the 46th this year.

Why a band of barbaric religious extremists beheading people is considered casus belli when an entire government of barbaric religious extremists beheading people goes unremarked is one of the many confusing characteristics of the bizarre tragedy into which the Prime Minister is enthusiastically leading us.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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