Mungo: If there was not enough evidence already that Australian policy in the Middle East is failing, surely the pointless murder of an innocent and unarmed police worker by a fanatical teenager has confirmed it.
Malcolm Turnbull has already moved; he is reaching out to the local Muslim community and endeavouring to dismantle the mindless alliteration of the dogmatic determination to degrade and destroy the Daesh death cult, beloved by his predecessor.
But it will take more than removing the jingoistic slogans to repair the damage that has been done to the Australian body politic. It is time to admit that we have once again charged impetuously and perhaps quixotically into a situation we could not control; we may have done so with the best of intentions but we have got it wrong. To be blunt, it is time to get the hell out of the Middle East altogether.
That will involve a monumental backflip; it will cause a major rethink for the defence establishment and it will disconcert and dismay our allies, particularly those in Washington. But the facts can no longer be ignored: as long as our troops remain on what is seen as Islamic lands, they will be a constant provocation to all Muslims, and most particularly to the disaffected within our own community.
There has been much talk about “foreign fighters,” Australians and others taking up arms in Iraq and Syria on behalf of Islamic State. But by all logic, it is the Australian troops fighting against them who are the foreign fighters. They can have no legitimate national interest in the battle; they have become participants because of politics, through the perceived need to strengthen Western ideology and dominance. They are, if you like, mercenaries, hegemonists.
That is not to denigrate the soldiers, airmen and support staff who have been sent to the conflict: they may well believe that their case just, and they may be convinced by what they have been told by Canberra, or Washington. They are, by and large, brave and unselfish men and women.
But it is generally conceded that they make little military difference; if IS is genuinely to be degraded and destroyed, it will have to be from a massive effort led by the United States, and that is not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, the jihadists provide constant and priceless propaganda material to the avowed enemy, resulting in the risk, and at times the reality, of terrorism and death in Australia. Tony Abbott’s excellent adventure has, self-evidently, failed.
And we should not be surprised: Australian incursions into foreign lands have seldom succeeded, and almost never in the Middle East. Since the disaster of Gallipoli, this should have been the lesson for all governments of all persuasions. There have been a couple of isolated exceptions: the siege of Tobruk and the charge at Beersheba have been widely celebrated. But there were instances of wider and more justified World Wars. When we have volunteered to fly the flag for our allies in the region, it has invariably ended in tears.
Since their defeat in Vietnam, the United States has ventured four times into the Middle East. They have adduced as their justifications to repel aggression, to avenge terrorism, to replace regimes of which they disapprove, to eliminate putative weapons of mass destruction, to nurture Western-style democracy and to ensure their own commercial interests, notably oil supplies. Their motives have been confused and at times contradictory, but that has been their business. It has never been ours, and as our various leaders have attempted to master the script, it has invariably come back to the basic fact that Australia has been in there because Washington has asked us to.
There has never been any legitimate national interest in pursuing wars in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq (three times) and now Syria. There has certainly been rhetoric, along the lines of the need to combat aggression, terrorism or pure evil, the importance of being an active and involved international participant, and more recently an echo of the Vietnam excuse: if we don’t stop them over there, they will somehow reach into our own country and destroy our open way of life.
And it has happened, hasn’t it? We have seen the emergence of local protagonists, most notoriously in Man Haron Monis and in Farhad Khalil Mohammed Jabar. But it can be convincingly argued that they have appeared not in spite of our belligerence in the Middle East, but because of it. The most important duty of a government is to protect the safety of its own citizens. Our actions in Iraq and Syria are demonstrably not doing so.
And in any case, it is time to embark on that quintessentially free market exercise, accost-benefit analysis. What, if anything, have we achieved through the fear, division and angst that have been the result of our military endeavours – not to mention the carrier loads of money poured into them? Not a lot, and definitely no more than could have been achieved by working domestically to restrain and pacify the radicals, admitted by the government and all its agencies to have been very few.
They have never been coming after us, and they are not now. To suggest that the misfits are a serious threat to our society is mistaken and to claim that somehow bombing targets half way around the world will fix any worries that exist is frankly absurd. The Middle East has always been a cauldron; intervention by the Western powers has invariably been misguided and most often counter-productive. And now the Russians have intervened, attacking not only those we say are the enemy but also some we say are our friends.
For Australia to deny that there is nothing more to be gained and a great deal to be lost in the ongoing confrontation is clearly deluded. Tony Abbott’s position was always more metaphysical than rational; to him the fight was not about strategic objectives, it was a personal crusade, perhaps even a prelude to Armageddon. Malcolm Turnbull has the potential to bring us back to reality – to focus, as he and his colleagues are always saying, about outcomes.
And that being the case, it is time to cut our losses, and tell Washington that we have tried, but enough is enough. It is time to take a deep breath, bite the bullet and grit our teeth. It is time to get the hell out.