It is easy to be cynical about the outcry over the corpse of four-year-old Aylan Kursi, found washed up on a beach just a little over a week ago.
He was just one of many victims of the wars in Syria and Iraq, but he was the one that mattered: suddenly there was an surge of international compassion which eventually engulfed Australia, changing Tony Abbott’s stance from yet another repetition of his slogan ‘Stop the Boats’ to an unexpected outburst of decency and generosity towards refugees – well, some of them, anyway.
But there was another, perhaps more profound, movement in the government, as the magnitude of the exodus from the conflicts became a rout, and media finally took notice. The defence minister Kevin Andrews acknowledged to the Fairfax press that the West needed what he called ‘a clearer strategy’ for the Middle East. What a good idea, even if it has been along time coming.
Australia became embroiled in the region some 24 years ago, when the Hawke government sent a contingent to help the Americans oust the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait. Then a decade later, the Howard government offered support for Shock and Awe, an American invasion of its own against Iraq. And now, of course, Tony Abbott has involved us in an escalating and open-ended war in both Iraq and Syria.
In the interim we have had six prime minsters, eight foreign ministers and 12 defence ministers, and not one of them have bothered to tell us just what we were trying to do there.
A ruthless but stable secular despot was replaced by a corrupt and dysfunctional sectarian puppet, so we declared victory and went home, leaving the remaining Iraqis to try and clean up the mess.
Admittedly in 1991 it was relatively straightforward: we were there to help ‘liberate’ Kuwait – in other words to restore the brutal dictatorship of the ruling al-Sabah family. The exercise benefitted no one except the monarch and his plutocratic cronies, but they were the ones protecting the oil interests, so it was judged a success.
But then when George Bush decided to topple another dictator, Saddam Hussein, once again we were in it with our ears back. This was first justified to a sceptical public as destroying Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, but that was not very convincing, so there was talk about the need to promote democracy (by which was really meant Western capitalism) in the region.
After a longer and bloodier struggle Saddam was duly toppled and eventually killed; a ruthless but stable secular despot was replaced by a corrupt and dysfunctional sectarian puppet, so we declared victory and went home, leaving the remaining Iraqis to try and clean up the mess. Unsurprisingly they failed, and after years of instability, terrorism and something very close to civil war, Islamic State moved into the vacuum; so of course we went back — once more at the Americans’ behest, as conveyed by the most recent Iraqi government.
This time we are aiming to degrade and destroy the Daesh death cult, and for many months this has been deemed sufficient; what happened next was just too hard to contemplate. Our great war-leader basically admitted this: when he called the imbroglio a fight between baddies and baddies, he may have been oversimplifying, but he was conceding that whatever the outcome, there would be no good guys left to take over.
The various quarrels involve not just the defined factions, but different tribes and sects: Sunnis and Shi’ites and Alawites, not to mention Christians and other more or less innocent bystanders. Then there are the Kurds, the Yazadis and various other clans jockeying for their own independence. The sponsoring states include the United States and their (our) allies, among them the Saudis and other Arab nations as well as sections (but only sections) of the west.
Then there are the Russians, the Iranians the Turks, all of whom have their own agendas. And within Syria itself the baleful presence of Bashar al-Assad, another thoroughly unpleasant but stable and secular dictator who started as another candidate for toppling, but is now a kind of dormant being, certainly still a baddie but a less worsie; if we can ever get around to it, we may have to deal with him in due course. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
According to a report in The Australian, Abbott and his foreign minister are preparing a plan to take to Washington and London about ‘ramping up’ diplomatic efforts to remove Assad and his regime; well, good luck with that. In the meantime, we will just have to keep on bombing any IS targets we can find (not a lot, apparently) and hope something turns out.
Andrews has opined, somewhat optimistically, the war will take two or three years; Abbott, more realistically, won’t put a time on it: however long it takes. Given that we first walked into the mess nearly a generation ago, you wouldn’t want to hold your breath. So why, really, are we there? What is our strategy? The only common factor seems to be that we are supporting the United States, much as we did in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan – wherever. And it should be said that none of these could be claimed as real successes; Korea ended with a country split in two after stalemate,, Vietnam with a defeat, and Afghanistan with a retreat.
Iraq and Syria could well be the worst of all, longer, messier, and in the end without any real solution: a bloodbath preceding chaos, a mass exodus of displaced people deserting the ruins of at least two, perhaps more, ungovernable countries. The situation may be retrievable; somewhere, sometime, there may be a genuine strategy, a master plan to produce a kind of peace, even allowing the return of some of the millions of refugees and preventing more deaths like that of Aylan Kursi. But if there is we have seen no sign of it so far; things are quite simply blundering on, from the appalling to the unthinkable.
So Kevin Andrews is right: we need a clearer strategy. But wouldn’t it have been a smart idea to have thought of that before we jumped in?