On Sept. 18, more than 800 Australian police officers in three jurisdictions (federal, Queensland and New South Wales) conducted a series of counter-terrorism raids in Brisbane and Sydney to foil a plot by supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as just the Islamic State.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, backed by opposition leader Bill Shorten, has been calm, confident and reassuring in describing the threat and the steps being taken to deal with it. This extends to Shorten supporting Abbott in the deployment of Australian military forces as part of a growing international coalition to take war to Islamic State.
The military response to Islamic State is unexceptionable in principle, given their existential threat to Iraq, ideological threat to religious pluralism, and celebration of “the extravaganza of brutality” in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Action against it is also uncontroversial in Iraq at the government’s request. Action in Syria however raises legal difficulties.
Attempts to isolate Russia and demonize President Vladimir Putin are not going to help Washington win Russian cooperation in the U.N. Security Council for dealing with President Bashar Assad.
Absent that, in yet another example of normative inconsistency, having harshly criticized Moscow for violating international law, Washington will attract charges of doing the same with attacks on Islamic State targets in Syria that began on Sept. 22 without the Syrian government’s consent.
It is not clear that the really hard questions have been addressed. While some are specific to Australia, most apply just as much to all members of the international coalition.
First, who is the enemy?
The West seems to be picking fights with several enemies simultaneously without ranking and prioritizing them. If Islamic State is the No. 1 threat, it might make sense to concentrate on fighting the jihadists.
Yet Congress has just approved the president’s request for $500 million to aid the “moderate rebels” in Syria fighting Assad. This is policy incoherence verging on strategic stupidity.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria were among the most secular as well as most brutal regimes.
Toppling and destabilizing them in pursuit of regime change has let loose the monster of Islamist extremism in the region whose tentacles are spreading to Western societies directly.
It would seem better to turn attention and put pressure instead on the regional regimes that bankroll, arm and support the jihadists, starting with Saudi Arabia. A Faustian bargain has helped the al-Saud family to rule domestically while the Wahhabis are allowed to propagate Salafist Islam through mosques in the Arab countries, Pakistan, Central Asia and even Europe.
Can Riyadh continue to fight Islamic State while feeding the fundamentalist ideology that nourishes it? The proclamation of Islamic State as the caliphate is a direct challenge to the Saudi claim of being the epicenter of the faith.
Second, what is the military strategy?
Islamic State cannot be degraded and destroyed — the declared U.S. goal — by air power alone. Senior administration and military officials have given contradictory answers to whether U.S. boots on the ground might be required or has been ruled out.
Islamic State cannot be defeated if the Arab countries’ will to do so is less than the West’s. Will the Arab regimes (especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) provide the boots on the ground? Perhaps the Egyptian military could put on hold killing its own people to take on Islamic State fighters instead?
Third, what is the political strategy?
The U.S. response gives every appearance of being uncoordinated, confused and chaotic. Nicholas Kristof argues that Washington is returning to war in Iraq with an uncertain mission, unclear objectives, unknown timetable and unreliable allies.
The commander-in-chief risks demotion from General Confusion to Major Disaster from lack of policy clarity. Without clear goals and means, there is serious risk of creating more jihadists, including on the home front, than are being killed, captured and neutralized. Terrorist killings spiked across Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the aftermath and as a result of Western military interventions and drone strikes.
There is the further risk of the war on terror mutating into a self-perpetuating permanent war against a continually expanding list of enemies.
The political goal should be to marginalize the radicals until they shrink into extinction; wrong military means can instead radicalize the marginal and increase support (and recruits) for the jihadists by allowing them to paint the war falsely as one of the West on Islam.
Australian police officers and political leaders have been explicit in delinking extremists from the wider Muslim community, and Islamic community and religious leaders have been prompt and forthright in condemning Islamic State brutality. Yet unease remains as to why Islamic State set out deliberately to provoke precisely this sort of military reaction with their gruesome videos.
Fourth, is the sense of déjà vu all over again, or the Einstein moment of repeating the same mistake over and over in the hope of a different result.
The Middle East has been a favorite site of Western political interference, military intervention, airstrikes and regime change for decades. The balance sheet of abiding instability, volatility and anti-Western sentiment seems rather more substantial than illusory or transient gains. It might be worth considering a progressive disengagement and the alternative of noninterference as the default policy setting, especially as the Euro-Atlantic community’s capacity to bully, bribe and inspire the Middle Eastern rulers and peoples fades.
Let the local leaders and people clean up their own mess.
Finally the U.S. as a global power has global responsibilities.
Fair enough. But Australia is a regional power and the Middle East lies beyond its region. Especially if the Arab countries themselves are not going to contribute militarily, it is not clear why Australia should be involved there in any military operations instead of limiting its support to political and diplomatic backing, for example voice and vote in the U.N. Security Council.
Australian participation makes it a target of jihadist attention. For action in its own region, this will always be a price worth paying. For action outside its region, the added risk is not as obviously defensible.
Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University.
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