Eager to send Australian troops to war in Iraq, doubtless for perceived benefits to himself and his government’s electoral standing, Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott appears to have less appetite for due diligence. Or is it a matter of political will and instinct?. Whatever his motives, he is failing the nation in his responsibility as PM and courting electoral disaster for his party in his haste to commit us to Iraq.
Abbott’s attraction to Iraq is, no doubt, complex and ultimately unfathomable, even to himself but the following elements appear clear. He appears energised somehow as if he believes that combat itself enhances his leadership stature. War engages his political and personal instincts, including his impatience with detail and depth. It also resonates with his moral view of the universe as a struggle between good and evil. At the very least it can be presented in this attractively over-simplified yet electorally appealing manner. The ‘pure evil’ of the ‘death cult of ISIS’ then leaves him with no alternative but to intervene on the side of the forces of good.
Yet it is far more than this. And yet so often, it will appear rather less: Abbott the political animal loves appearing at the centre of the action. Photo-opportunities beckon with men in uniform, men with arms. Soon images of Abbott in a flak jacket, Abbott sighting a rifle, Abbott inspecting troops will displace the current costume of hard hat and hi-vis vest. Yet there is more to it than appearances. War appeals also, no doubt, to Abbott’s macho man of action’s sense of himself. In some matinee theatre complex of his mind he is a type of antipodean Spider-Man, ever-vigilant over the rise of evil, ever-ready to stamp out wickedness and moral depravity.
Yet surrender to any of the charms of war could be the undoing of Tony Abbott and his party. The stakes are high – higher than he appears to recognise, at least publicly. Regardless of its innate appeal to the ‘fight before flight’ psychology of the former Oxford boxing Blue and irrespective of his shrewd political intuition that a war leader can be a popular leader, a commitment to war is not to be rushed into. Even putting to one side for a moment his almost indecent eagerness to follow the US leader like a pack rat, boosting US-Australia relations, as he may see it, or ingratiating himself as might appear to others, being over eager to play the war card is a risky strategy. Make war in haste. Repent at leisure.
The Australian people deserve better leadership from their Prime Minister than hasty and ill-conceived military misadventures. What we need in a time of international crisis is a responsible leader whom we can depend upon to exercise due diligence before acting. Before entertaining any notion of military intervention in another country’s bloody civil war, Abbott must reveal a rational strategic plan which is based on more than impulse and intuition. And he must be prepared to publicly unpack his thinking. It is his responsibility. It is expected of him, not unreasonably, by the population at large and especially by those whom he is committing to war on their country’s behalf. Neglect of this step in maintaining trust, in vouchsafing his compact can only hasten his decline, and could easily be his government’s death warrant.
Due diligence would involve Abbott knowing what he was getting us into, and openly sharing what he knows. It would also involve a clear plan for aims and objectives as well as the nature and extent of combat. So far what we have been fobbed off with is neither open nor realistic. Abbott’s explanation that we have kept our troops back until we have got the Iraqi government to sign an indemnity for Australian forces to operate as ‘trainers’ in Iraq ignores the political reality that such a signature would not be worth the paper it is written on. Iraqi politicians are drawn from those who were victims or who are relatives of Saddam Hussein’s Baathists. At best they represent a quarter of the population. Eighty per cent of government jobs, moreover are filled with members of this group who are often ill-equipped and unqualified for the positions and responsibilities they are expected to discharge. Most Iraqis are not happy to have foreign troops on their soil, despite what the political classes might claim. The signing of an indemnity by a yet to be appointed Defence Minister has been compared to signing his own death warrant.
Last Tuesday Iraq’s political leadership, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; President Jalal Talabani; Mr. Maliki’s chief rival, Ayad Allawi; and several other high-ranking officials evaded the ‘deal-breaker’. Government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh’s statement, said the leaders had agreed that there was “no need to grant immunity to trainers,” instead of the clear commitment which Abbott and the US were insisting was essential to deployment. We have yet to hear Abbott’s comment or indeed yet to have the PM share his setback with the nation. There has been no announcement that Australian troops are coming home.
‘Degrade and destroy’ is a slogan not a plan. Getting the Iraqi forces trained up to fight on their own is beyond any external agency. The US could not do it. Hundreds of billions of US dollars have already been wasted in pursuit of this chimera. And as for ‘helping the Iraqi government’, little research is required to reveal that this is a fool’s errand. The Iraqi government is severely compromised in its lack of political and military authority, its appearance as a puppet of the US, its dependence on embedded jihadi terrorists as capable of atrocities as ISIS and its record of Sunni persecution. Above all in a theatre of war riven with factions, shifting alliances, multiple flashpoints and against a determined, skilled, well-financed and well-equipped adversary with a commitment to fighting not matched by any outsiders, it is likely to be protracted difficult and long. For our troops’ sake for our country’s sake, Australia’s Iraq war III plans must contain an exit strategy, some idea of how and when we might get out. For, as modern history should show us, as in Viet Nam, or Afghanistan or Iraq 1 and 2, it is easier to get into an international fight than to get out of it. Above all, whatever their initial popularity, protracted engagements are likely to prove ruinous to any government in the end.
When news of the prospect of Australian military intervention in Iraq first broke, Prime Minister Tony Abbott appeared to jump to attention and salute the opportunities this might provide to boost his standing with an indifferent or alienated electorate. He’d already had a bit of win on the world stage although to some he seemed to be over keen on chasing ambulances, air disasters and other media opportunities to promote and stage-manage his statesmanship. Some of these wins proved illusory as in the free trade agreement with China which that country has not broken. Similarly unfulfilled were his promises regarding recovery of bodies of victims of the MH17 disaster and his advice regarding MH 370’s imminent discovery. Yet it was not for lack of trying: Abbott almost upstaged himself, such was the energy and lack of reserve with which he threw himself into the new role. Many spectators were unnerved rather than reassured by the newly minted desperately international statesman Abbott crashing about on the world stage.
At home it was toned down Tony who played to captive domestic audiences. Soberly, steadily, slowly enunciating the compass of our likely involvement, his new performance values allowed him full rein to practise in public the advice of his vocal coaches whilst inwardly basking in the warm after-glow of the self-invited, over-sharing partner to the righteous in an international crisis rich with opportunities to moralise. Dickens would have loved him.
Public office demands high performance and high performance standards. In leading our intervention in Iraq Abbott has been working himself into the role. As ever, his instinct is to play to the gallery. Or else he patronises audiences, talking down to the little people who on other occasions he claims gave his party a mandate. Little matter that even to close friends he has all the credibility of a dodgy funeral director. Or that he risks appearing self-indulgent, inconsistent, or inauthentic. Or all three. At his worst, Abbott resembles a method actor in continual rehearsal for a work in progress. The act threatens to undo him, unravel the very fabric of his presentation of self, the fibre of his political being.
Events will quickly conspire to unseat Abbott’s lazy complacency and lack of due diligence. The myth of one united Iraqi people allied with us against evil will quickly be shattered by the reality of battle. It will become apparent that the Iraqis we say we are defending have a tenuous grip on power and are a diverse group, many of whom resent our presence. Many Iraqis are conflicted with intersecting allegiances to competing religious, tribal and political identities. Much of the government, and its administration has to be negotiated with factions . The negotiations are not going well. Many political commentators believe that the government has lost legitimacy and any real authority. The Iraqi government is now resorting to trying to persuade Sunni armed factions and tribes to help it fight ISIL but Sunni leaders want greater rights and representation in government. In brief, we are backing up the US in its ‘pick a winner’ strategy but invest it as we may with moral justification as Abbott has our fight against pure evil is much closer in reality to fighting alongside troops who comprise a range of groups and affiliations many of whom are as evil or slightly less evil than ISIS itself. The propaganda war has to be laid to one side. Abbott has to share fully the complexity of the theatre of war before Australia is bogged down in a costly, protracted war of attrition between forces who may change sides at a moment’s notice.
Success would bring only another power vacuum. So embedded is ISIS and those factions who have allied with ISIS for the meantime to hitch a ride into a more promising political future that victory against ISIS would not usher in any period of peace and stability but rather just mark the next stage of an increasingly desperate and bloody civil war.
Abbott’s gambit of risking his fortunes and the fortunes of his party on an overseas adventure in Iraq will quickly prove costly. The ‘humanitarian mission’ will fail as it becomes wrecked on the rocks of political realities which it will become all too readily apparent, realities which could and ought to have been foreseen at the outset. There will be a huge cost to the nation in terms of all of the resources of war, as military strategists like to see them men, materiel and money. But greater than these losses will be the rapid disintegration of the theatre of integrity with which the Abbott government has sought to bolster its legitimacy. Australia is not an international moral policemen scrambling to mobilise against evil but an over-eager US catspaw rushing headlong into a doomed battle without a real plan. An already alienated or at best disaffected and doubting electorate will find even greater reason to mistrust the Abbott government and to resent being taken for a ride; resent its sordid descent into political expediency at the price of integrity and democratic responsibility and accountability.