For a secret visit, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Christmas/New Year drop-in on Iraq sure does have a lot of well-organised publicity surrounding it. The entirely unnecessary visit had all the usual palaver — reviewing the ridiculously clad troops, and holding a press conference with a harassed Iraqi businessman-turned-politician, in the sort of chairs that suggest a buying expedition down Sydney Road, Brunswick is underway.

Abbott announced an extra $5 million in military aid for the Iraqis. To call such a sum “chicken-feed” is an insult to kibble — there wouldn’t be much change out of a million or so for the visit itself. But it permits Abbott to hit the ground running in 2015 with a renewed attempt to put the battle against ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State at the centre of an attempt to regain legitimacy and authority at home.

The desperation of this strategy is obvious. Since their initial upsurge, and their media-savvy mass executions, IS has already started to fade from the global consciousness. Now contained within an area of territory centred on the Iraq-Syria border, clear limits have been placed on their expansion. That doesn’t mean they’re no longer a threat, since reports suggest that US bombing has helped them gain recruits. Nor is there any guarantee that the Syria/Iraq zone will be the focus for the next radical Islamist break-out — something far more likely to occur in northern Africa this year.

But IS functions as a useful foil at a time when almost all antagonistic meaning has been leached out of the conflict. Islamic State is happy to play up to the “barbaric” image that Western powers wish to present themselves as the opposite of. Three or four years ago, when we were lined up against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a representative of Russian interests, “barbarism” consisted of using chemical weapons (i.e. high-tech means to accomplish violent ends).

Now that we are in a de facto alliance with Assad against IS, it is the particularly low-tech and medievalist methods of IS that mark off true horror — and allow Tony Abbott to give yet another speech about the challenge they represent to all that is good and right etc. Meanwhile, in Syria, the wholesale killing goes on, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, a volume of death IS could only dream of, but now absent from the front pages.

That the eruption of IS has changed the nature of the Middle East and set it on a new trajectory is unquestioned. The claim they represent a major threat to us is absurd. Abbott and co. have been assisted in putting IS front and centre by the Lindt cafe siege, of course, and News Corp has devoted all its energies to enforcing a simplistic view of this event (and getting very shirty when anyone dares to question it).

But the Lindt cafe siege can’t bear too much weight. For all but members of the addled commentariat who append their opinions to such articles, it’s obvious that Man Haron Monis’ desperate and egotistical act was hardly a work of smooth and focused propaganda. Rather than being austere and one-sided violence (a la the London 7/7 attacks) Monis’ attack was provoked by a failed case before the Australian High Court. Having sought recognition from the Australian state, he then got it from the tabloid media, who were happy to do his propaganda for him.

The inevitable effect of trying to turn such a messy and futile act into a meaningful one is to paint one’s own culture as hopelessly weak and vulnerable, while at the same time braying endlessly about how superior it is. Push that act too hard, and people simply stop listening to you. Team Abbott probably knows that, but they have nothing else. The pre-Christmas reshuffle appears designed to limit the opportunities for Abbott’s leadership rivals, with the inevitable effect of weakening rather than strengthening the government.

Still, an open-ended national security emergency will keep the show (sort of) on the road, for a few months, forcing Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to say “we support the government” over and over, until someone cracks. It will be good news for the media monitors too — with the Abbott government spending half a million dollars on media services in one three month period. So they can know how that five million bucks donated to contest the global terrorist menace is going, presumably. It’s going to be a hell of a year.

Peter Fray

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