Defence analysis is my core business, so I thought I’d share my views about Australia’s decision about going to war again in the Middle East. As I’ll argue below, I think we’re doing the right thing, but I’m far from sure. Beware of ‘expert predictions’—I’m already on the public record with one observation on this conflict that was at the least premature, and may yet prove to be just plain wrong.
The reasons for my uncertainty are many. When I came to set out my thinking, it became painfully obvious that I’d have to include a long list of caveats: I’m not an expert on the Middle East, I speak none of the relevant languages (something that’s important when trying to understand the motives and thoughts of other people), and I have little understanding for the underlying cultural and religious issues. And I fear that those characteristics are shared by many Western decision makers—which would go a long way towards explaining the litany of policy failures in the region over many years.
At the risk of producing a piece that’s too even-handed to be interesting, let’s start by setting out the pros and cons of Western involvement in this conflict. Starting at the strategic level, preventing ISIS from getting its hands on the full suite of capabilities provided by a reasonably modern industrialised state is a sensible goal. And having a geographically-significant part of a region already riven with sectarian tensions under ISIS’ control is surely worth avoiding.
Set against that is the difficulty of predicting the consequences of either success or failure against ISIS. I’ve yet to hear anyone articulate a coherent view of what the future looks like for Iraq or Syria, and then there’s the uncertainty of the impact on Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. And can the West avoid being caught up in other nations’ political manoeuvres—such as Turkey’s positioning with respect to the Kurds? I don’t know how to evaluate the strategic cost-benefit balance.
Operationally, things are more clear-cut, at least for now. Adopting a policy of ‘air strikes only’ allows the West to intervene confident of being able to do so without loss and to engage and disengage as it sees fit. Of course, that changes dramatically if Hugh White’s right and there’s an escalation to the deployment of large-scale land forces.
My judgment last week was that air strikes would be able to limit the ability of ISIS to continue to overrun large areas of Iraq and eventually take effective control of the state. I said there’d already been a strategic win in that respect—clearly an error. In any case, I never thought that air power can defeat an opponent who can cease to be a conventional combatant and become an insurgent at will. Even if it can’t wrest control itself, through a mixture of conventional and unconventional attacks ISIS can render Iraq ungovernable (Syria already is.)
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the moral side of the balance sheet. I see two moral arguments for involvement. The first is that we can. If we stand by and watch atrocities of the sort we’ve been seeing lately, then we’ve decided they’re less unacceptable than becoming involved. The argument that the West only intervenes selectively to protect innocents, while true, doesn’t sway me. Stopping some bad things from happening is surely preferable to stopping none. I don’t go as far as subscribing to a ‘responsibility to protect’—that could turn into a heavy burden to bear—but every time we don’t there’s a moral downside. The second moral argument is that we helped create this situation, though I think we can go too far with that argument. Those events are now in the past and present-day decisions should be made only on the basis of our best assessment of potential future outcomes.
The only moral reason against intervention is that we could, again, end up making things worse. Perhaps it’s a failure of my imagination, but I don’t really see how much worse it could be than to have ISIS in control of Syria and Iraq—and potentially other areas later.
Bad things are happening, and regardless of what we do, bad things are likely to continue to happen—though if we act we could make things less bad. Intervening has a cost; the risk of an act of violence in Australia is probably higher than before the commitment, and there’s a clear danger of mission creep, escalation and entrapment. But not intervening has a cost too, and we could face a dreadful future enemy if we do nothing.
I think we’re doing the right thing, but I can’t be sure. These are profoundly difficult issues, and take my pondering for what it’s worth. But I only have to write about it. Decision makers in Canberra, Washington and elsewhere have to make these calls knowing that history will judge them. I don’t envy them.