Sunday, August 17, 2014


The pictures are terrible. No one can argue about that.

Refugees in Iraq

So what to do? Wring our hands? Deploy force?

The point of this column for the Canberra Times is simply to suggest that war has changed and the old idea of sending in bombers is as irrelevant today as the idea of sending in a gunboat to over-awe the natives . . . 


“It’s the vital ground you want, everything else is irrelevant.” This has always been the key message drilled into soldiers through the centuries. Hold the critical terrain and you’ll dominate the battlefield. The enemy will be forced to fight on ground of your choosing. As long as the commander can decide what this is and grasp it, hey presto! Victory is yours.

Today, that’s all changed. Although western military superiority is technically dominant, it’s far from decisive. That’s because the Vital Ground is changing. It’s no longer a hill, or some physical feature you can point to on a map. It’s shifting. One day it’s the desperate Hazara minority in Afghanistan, another it’s the Christian refugees being massacred by ISIS. Anywhere non-state actors are involved, and everywhere where foreign (normally Western) troops are being deployed to restore order, the decisive ground will not be found in some corner of a foreign field. It is, instead, around the television sets and at the ballot booths of the democracies that are being urged to intervene in other peoples’ wars. That’s why the old strategic formulations aren’t working any more, although this doesn’t mean the calls to action on behalf of vague notions of responsibility are correct, either. 

It’s extremely simple for those who don’t understand the intimate mechanics of conflict – people like former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, who this week barely stopped short of calling for Australian boots on the ground in Iraq – to demand decisive intervention, but easy answers just aren’t available. Short of Evans and Barack Obama both wrapping bandannas round their heads, clutching daggers between their teeth and charging ISIL single-handed, there just aren’t military answers. Our own laws forbidding people from engaging in overseas conflict would, anyway, prevent their brief adventure before it began.

So what alternatives are there? France has shown the way with the use of decisive force in Mali. The only decisive action is deploying troops, putting boots on the ground, and leaving them there until the enemy is routed. The idea that it’s possible to stabilise the situation by dropping bombs from above is nothing more than wishful thinking; so unless you personally are willing to see other Australian’s die for a mission you are utterly confident can be achieved – don’t bother contributing suggestions for action. It would be nice to think that foreign intervention could sort things out, but our record of doing so in this region isn’t particularly hot. European men with beards in fact sowed the seeds of most of these conflicts when they began drawing random lines across the map in 1919. It’s the height of hubris to believe they can settle ancient problems now, just because they possess some jet fighters with guided missiles.

Yes, what’s happening is terrible and yes, it should, must, be stopped. The problem is how many soldiers; for how long; to do what? Evans traversed many of the arguments for intervention. The key one he failed to address was effectiveness – how are we going to do the job.

Pushing pallets of food out of the back of transport planes is wasteful, barely more effective than scattering wads of money. Government only have so much money and there’s a responsibility to ensure it’s spent effectively. There are alternate, equally legitimate demands on the public purse. What’s the cost of a life in a Northern Territory aboriginal community, or a New Guinean village? I rarely expect to find myself agreeing with Clive Palmer on these pages, but on this point he’s correct. The government’s squandering money. It’d be different if we could bring back the lives lost from the plane crash in the Ukraine, but we can’t. A cult’s emerging that sees ‘bringing our bodies home’ as being remarkably important. It won’t bring people back to life.

Rational calculations aren’t at work. It’s the same in the middle-east. ISIL won’t be “deterred” because fanatics work on different time-lines. When someone’s objective is to go to heaven (instead of making the most of their earthly life) finding a starting point to begin negotiations is massively problematic. Nor, unfortunately, does ISIL appear to possess a supreme leader who has authority over its forces. That’s because there simply is no organisation: power is a shifting dynamic.

This is why pulling punches won’t work. The idea that carefully targeted missions can protect refugees is na├»ve and dangerous. Bomb the white pick-ups and the militants will carry women and children in them as hostages. Cut off fuel and those purveying terror will destroy the vestiges of civilisation as, infuriated, they kill those they can find. This, like the Khmer Rouge, is an organisation dedicated to the destruction of modern society. Normal rules don’t apply.

That’s why American generals are telling Obama he can’t act and why even Tony Abbott will soon have to recognise there are limitations to what we can do. Instead of pandering to those wringing their hands about how (genuinely) terrible what’s happening is, he needs to spell out the truth. Involvement is too costly in both financial and human terms. The distribution of power has already changed, and we don’t have as much as we’d like to think we do. It’s time to enter the world of the grown-ups.

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