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Let’s learn from the mess-in-potamia

The hawks were wrong about every aspect of Iraq, so why on earth should we still listen to them?

What a mess Iraq is! And how dangerously close Tony Abbott has come to compounding Australia’s contribution to it with his loose and ignorant talk about sending in Australian forces to help the United States ‘save’ the Maliki regime and prevent Iraq becoming a ‘terrorist state’.

Much of the current tribal and religious slaughter in Iraq and Syria originated in the artificial boundaries created a century ago by three great powers. The Sykes-Picot agreement was negotiated in secret in 1916 between France and Britain to divide up the Ottoman Empire if the allies won the first world war. Russia, the third member of the Triple Alliance, barracked from the sidelines. In essence, Britain would get Jordan and southern Iraq; France northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; and Russia some maritime spoils including Istanbul. Lines were arbitrarily ruled, and tribal and religious boundaries were arrogantly ignored. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, giving Jews a homeland while recognising the land rights of Palestinians, compounded the postwar confusion and complexity that persists to this day.

The illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 by American, British and Australian forces removed the tyrant Saddam Hussein, but it also destroyed his secular regime. Oblivious to history, the invaders breached the Baghdad containment and let loose extremist Islamic forces, of which ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has become one of the more potent.

Suddenly ISIS, otherwise known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), a force of minority Sunnis, poses a major challenge to Iraq’s cohesion. Funded from Saudi Arabia, it wants to destroy the Sykes-Picot boundaries between Syria and Iraq and form a new Sunni caliphate spanning both countries. It seems to have broken ranks with al-Qa’eda, but has links to other jihadist movements. It has slaughtered hundreds of surrendering Iraqi troops, most of them presumably Shia. ISIS’s battlefield triumphs are reminiscent of the headlong rush of the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong to Saigon after the American withdrawal in 1975.

ISIS continues to push south to Baghdad. But many seasoned observers believe ISIS could not take the capital even if they wanted to, and would not seek to overthrow Maliki if he cedes them the Sunni territory in the west and leaves them alone.

What reason has Australia to be involved in this mess? None.

We weren’t one of the countries that carved up the Middle East a century ago. In spite of various wars, we gradually built good relations with all countries in the region. Certainly, our illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 helped to spring the sectarian jacks out of Saddam Hussein’s locked box, and their current punch-up results from the US-led overthrow of a secular state and its replacement by the ruling Shia majority. But Australia cannot sort out Iraq’s political and religious differences. This is a conflict between Muslim sects and their militarised sub-groups, which Iraqis understand much better than we do, and as Europeans learnt from their centuries-long religious wars, ultimately only Iraqis can resolve it.

Yet the Prime Minister once again offers Australia’s support for whatever the United States decides to do in Iraq. Given the American nod, we’d go in again. Abbott, who was a member of the Howard government, admits no more regret or guilt for the 2003 invasion than Howard does. Labor is eerily quiet. The Lowy Institute’s Anthony Bubalo urges Australia to invade again: ‘Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, strategies and doctrines be damned.’ How easily they ignore international law and the very principles of democratic governance that Australia urges upon Fiji, Thailand, China or North Korea. How forgetful they are of the disastrous lessons of past undeclared wars, undertaken on dodgy pretexts in support of nasty rulers with no clear purpose, strategy or post-conflict plan.

But Australians are more alert now. Andrew Wilkie wants a Royal Commission into the Iraq war and is calling for no further Australian deployments to Iraq. Adam Bandt is reintroducting a bill requiring parliamentary approval for any deployment of Australian troops overseas, saying ‘military intervention won’t necessarily make things better’. Scott Ludlam has been campaigning since 2011 for ‘war powers’ to be reviewed. Defence Minister David Johnston, no less, has denied that Australia plans to put boots on the ground — although we heard that in 2003 from Howard too. Retired Major General John Cantwell has deplored any such move as ‘absolute folly’. An Australian group of ex-service people agrees, as do former diplomats, defence staff, international lawyers and physicians: this time, Australians are better prepared. Even UK Foreign Minister William Hague has distanced his government from involvement saying it is ‘far too ambitious and unrealistic’. President Obama appears to agree.

A week is a short time in Middle East affairs, and this may unexpectedly turn out to be the right moment for Malcolm Fraser’s manifesto, Dangerous Allies. Published two months ago, it was greeted with the bipartisan political silence that always greets a challenge to the unquestionable US alliance. As the former Prime Minister pithily says, ‘We need the US for defence, but we only need defence because of the US’. As drafting proceeds on our 2015 Defence White Paper, is a complete, fundamental rethink of the alliance out of the question?

Australia and the US are committed by treaty to consult in the event of a threat to either of them in the Pacific area; not to interfere in the internal affairs of Asian countries, nor to threaten them with force; and under the UN Charter all states are similarly obliged not to invade (nor reinvade) others unless in self-defence. When President Obama and Prime Minister Abbott declared they both opposed ‘the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression to advance any country’s aims’, we must assume that included aggression by them in the Middle East, not just by China in the South China Sea. Australians should hold our government to its words, before it is too late. The sudden crisis in Iraq presents Australia with perhaps our last best chance to get our defence and foreign policy right. With proper leadership, we could take the plunge, and become a non-dependent nation at last.

Alison and Richard Broinowski, former Australian diplomats, are members of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry.

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