Tasmanian Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic certainly has a distinguished career: an impressive senior military service record in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as stints as a military academic and as a senior bureaucrat in Defence. All that helps explain why he was appointed to the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
On strategic matters relating to the Middle East, however, you might be left a little confused if you tried to follow the path travelled by Nikolic over recent months at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute blog. ASPI is a taxpayer-funded military think tank whose purpose isn’t particularly clear given we spend a very large amount of money on a vast defence bureaucracy, but Nikolic writes a monthly-ish blog there on matters strategic.
It’s fair to say the decorated veteran is a security hardliner: his participation in JCIS hearings into the current batch of national security reform bills has mostly consisted of badgering critics of the bills and feeding soft questions to security agency witnesses. But he hasn’t always been so gung-ho. In July, Nikolic was calling for calm over the threat posed to Australia by “Aussie jihadis”. Australia should respond in a “measured way”, he wrote, urging that:
“… we must guard against exaggerating and sensationalising this issue for three important reasons: first because the threat is in reality quite small; second because we don’t want to draw even more (usually) young hot heads to the cause; and finally, because we have relatively strong institutional structures to address the threat.”
Indeed, Nikolic claimed, a “much greater threat is the risk posed by Southeast Asian fighters who go to Syria, and then return to regional transnational organisations like Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group”.
Well, that moderation didn’t last long. In his September blog post, Nikolic had changed his mind entirely about the nature of the threat from Australian fighters. In a furious attack on the Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie for daring to urge a parliamentary debate about the government’s return to war in Iraq, Nikolic warned:
“The ISIL clarion call to aggrieved young hot-heads will be a serious security threat for Western democracies for the next decade. No nation will be immune … The threat is close and imminent, and is increasing exponentially. Its proximity includes the possibility of ‘blooded’ ISIL fighters returning to their countries of origin to, in effect, decentralise the mayhem.”
“Seems, John McCain-style, Nikolic never saw a Middle Eastern country he didn’t want to bomb or invade.”
In fact, the threat was now so great that Nikolic believed the mere act of having a parliamentary debate was dangerous. “The time for action is now,” he wrote: “it’s action now which will save lives — not more talk.” Indeed, actual debate might even give comfort to the terrorists — Wilkie and Greens leader Christine Milne’s “opaque and uninformed commentary” would “give comfort to Australia’s international protagonists,” he warned — albeit graciously allowing such comfort would be “unwitting.”
The overblown rhetoric didn’t stop at declaring the mere act of democratic debate to be a victory for terrorists. “ISIL is not just another terrorist movement,” he wrote. “Rather, it’s an ‘aggregated terrorist corporation’ looking to cement and grow a fundamentalist terrorist home or state. The world has not seen or faced down such a challenge in our lifetime.”
Oh, and this unprecedented threat “appears to have emerged from nowhere,” Nikolic suggested, reflecting either an extraordinary naivety for someone with his track record, or a convenient bout of amnesia about the role of the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, in which Nikolic played such a prominent role, in creating first al-Qaeda In Iraq and then IS.
As The Guardian reported earlier this week, Nikolic’s most recent blog relates to Iran — a country he wants to portray as even more dangerous than the unprecedented threat of IS, thus making Iran unprecedentedly unprecedented. Inconveniently, given Iran is itself fighting IS, this makes for some contortions for Nikolic. “[D]epending on how current to mid-term events unfold in the Middle East, Tehran might see a pretext, or reason, to initiate military action against ISIL in its own right,” says Nikolic. Erm, not sure if you’ve been keeping up with events, Andrew, but Iran was doing much of the heavy lifting against ISIL before the West intervened — deploying 500 Quds soldiers and a fleet of drones in June and operating joint airstrikes against IS with Iraqi personnel in Iranian aircraft.
Still, for Nikolic, Iran is a worse threat than IS and needs urgent attention:
“The wider world was finally roused to the true menace of ISIL by its evil mix of malevolent atrocity exported by social media. But replace the ghastly spectre of ISIL’s severed heads and slain thousands, with an Iranian nuclear device used somewhere in the Middle East — and the mind is concentrated wonderfully, about the broader potential for a worse crisis. It’s time the international community took Iran off the backburner.”
Seems, John McCain-style, Nikolic never saw a Middle Eastern country he didn’t want to bomb or invade. Thank goodness he’s on JCIS, where cool heads and strategic vision are required to assess national security challenges.