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Third time lucky ?

September 17th, 2014

So, it seems, we are signed up for our third Iraq war in 20-odd years. Obviously, this isn’t because the last two turned out brilliantly. So, what is the reasoning here? More precisely, given that Australia’s policy is just to follow the US without question, what is the reasoning of the world leaders, most importantly Obama, who are pushing this war? There seem to be two main points here

* ISIS/ISIL are barbaric terrorists who behead hostages. That’s a good reason for trying to capture and try those responsible, and perhaps for trying to kill them if that’s not possible. But there’s nothing special about this particular group. There are plenty of barbaric terrorists out there. And one of our leading allies in the fight, Saudi Arabia, routinely beheads people for such crimes as apostasy and “sorcery”. None of this justifies a war that is going to cost tens of billions of dollars (Australia alone looks to be up for several billion, assuming a long war) and an unknowable, but potentially large, number of lives.

* ISIS/ISIL threaten to take over large non-Sunni areas of Iraq and undertake ethnic/religious cleansing. That threat looked like a significant a month or two ago. But some limited air support for Kurdish and Shia militias appears to have turned the tide. As far as I can tell, ISIS/ISIL are now confined to Sunni areas where they have a fair degree of popular support. Changing that will be a costly and bloody business.

I expect most readers here will agree with me, and don’t plan to argue about with those who haven’t learned from the past. But I would like a pointer to any serious analysis making the case for a new war.

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  1. kevin1
    September 17th, 2014 at 06:37 | #1

    The “plague on them all” attitude of isolationism except where our own direct national interest is at stake would lead to no involvement here. But choosing national interest as a higher value over a human needs-based policy is itself an ethical compromise, and callous and inhumane in my opinion if applied rigidly. Discrete and confined interventions to rescue groups from imminent slaughter, such as the recent Yazidi example, seem to have “just war” features to me, but these are the exception.

    This “responsibility to protect” doctrine (R2P) promoted by Gareth Evans and others sounds good in principle, but led to bombing Belgrade to save the Kossovars IIRC. William Shawcross’s book Deliver Us from Evil was a shocking book about UN deficiencies.

    Makes you wonder now if the Yazidi rescue was just to provide a halo effect for the resulting decision, as our own Defence Minister a couple of days ago was making comments which sounded like he was promoting a new Crusade.

    Intervention from outside as an application of power by forces with disingenuous motivations is no solution.

  2. kevin1
    September 17th, 2014 at 06:51 | #2

    David Johnston the Defence Minister said on 7.30 Report on Monday night, “we will disrupt and potentially destroy what is in the minds of the leadership of ISIL, and that is, to set up a separate caliphate state that is ruled by sharia law and all of the things that go with that. Now, we have legitimate states in Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. …They have slaughtered and crucified, if I might say, a number of people…all of these sorts of atrocities must be dealt with by right-thinking nations.”

    Syria is a legitimate state? “Crucified”?

  3. frankis
    September 17th, 2014 at 07:39 | #3

    Depends on your tastes a bit doesn’t it? We’re just idiots here in Oz because we elected an idiot PM. No future in trying to defend idiocy.

    otoh Obama is not a fool, his own speech (edited of the politically motivated emotive nonsense) makes the case well enough, and Michael Tomasky agreed yesterday: thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/15/please-let-s-not-destroy-isis.html

  4. Ikonoclast
    September 17th, 2014 at 07:49 | #4

    Can someone explain to me how we can lack the money to help poor people here but suddenly we can find a lot of money to kill poor people over there?

    These wars have ruined, for many more decades to come, the chances of positive economic and social development in the Middle East. At home, the cost of these wars in terms of economic development opportunities must be enormous.

    I suspect that the three or four trillion dollars, at least, spent on these wars would have made a noticeable difference to renewable energy and humanitarian aid (not military aid) to to poorer nations.

    I read somewhere that the cost of 1 modern jet fighter would build and run for a year a small hospital in Africa. The sticker cost of the average jet fighter in the NATO area was US $112 million in 2006. We could say now it’s US $125 million. I assume US $125 million would build and run a small hospital in Liberia for a year. US/NATO combined would have something like 3,000 jet fighters or more. I imagine 2,000 would be enough if they didn’t keep attacking the Middle East. That alone could mean 1,000 new hospitals in Africa. Shave off 1/3 of the rest of the military budget and if that didn’t allow building of 10,000 hospitals in Africa I would be surprised.

  5. Salient Green
    September 17th, 2014 at 08:59 | #5

    Try a search for “who is arming isis” for an interesting perspective.

  6. Ken Fabian
    September 17th, 2014 at 09:00 | #6

    It looks to me like it’s about appearing strong and in control for the home audience – aided and abetted by excessive optimism in military superiority and force and the outcomes of arming of enemies of our enemies. There is little interest in learning from the unwanted, but entirely predictable consequences of previous interventions. Including the consequences of external powers providing an abundance of military hardware – that doesn’t stay where intended or get used with sound judgment and restraint that the believers in good violence hope or expect.

  7. September 17th, 2014 at 09:21 | #7

    An Australian FA-18 Hornet skims over the desert. Its mission is to help our Kurdish allies repel the malign forces of ISIL. Far below it sees a knot of soldiers – ISIL forces mortaring a group of Peshmerga over the hill. The Australian fighter swoops in and unleashes a smart bomb that blinks out the mortar and its platoon of artillerymen.
    That’s the kind of thing that’s going to be happening a lot from now on. And, leaving out of it any consideration of strategy or tactics or ethics or politics, it’s an example of dealing with a problem by throwing money at it, and an example of how governments have absolutely no objection to that provided somebody gets killed in the process.
    The plane itself ticks off $2,800 dollars an hour, every hour, in capital costs just sitting on the ground, so I suppose the extra $15,000 per hour it costs when actually moving isn’t as wasteful as it seems. The smart bomb, on the other hand, cost $55,000, while the mortar cost only $10,000 (not that ISIL actually paid for it, either) – sledgehammer, meet nut.
    We’re all familiar with the metrics that are brought out when we bring forward proposals for social improvement and ask for funding. What’s the cost per life saved? Where’s the logic model that shows this is going to work? Where are the bloody committees to weigh up competing proposals? Where are the calls for outsourcing to the more efficient private sector? Not, evidently, called for here.
    Next time we’re asking for government funding it’s worth remembering that Australia is an immensely rich country, with enormous resources to put behind anything it considers important. We just have to persuade the government that some things can be important without also being lethal.

  8. Michael
    September 17th, 2014 at 09:21 | #8

    Australia is in an interesting position. None of the action we take are of our own initiative – even if there is a politically driven eagerness to get involved – we can’t do it outside of US leadership. The question then is what responsibility do we have for failures and what credit can we take for any success on a mission we have little control over?

    Politically it is a no-brainer for the coalition because there isn’t any accountability for the past catastrophic failures which have created the situation. Unless that is fixed then we will inevitably be involved in future conflicts there. Someone should be on trail for misleading the population over the bogus WMD’s.

  9. Calyptorhynchus
    September 17th, 2014 at 09:32 | #9

    I guess like most people here I was very disappointed that bill shorten immediately backed the war. I had an amusing thought, granted that bill shorten has a CIA minder constantly whispering in his ear to do US bidding, perhaps what he should have done is said “although we support US strategy we do not support Australia’s imvvement at present as we we have no confidence in the judgement of the current PM. When Labor is next in power we will join the coalition of the willing”.

  10. September 17th, 2014 at 09:46 | #10

    Have you read the magazine Tabiq? These guys are different, they have a coherent philosophy and strategy, they are heavily armed and ambitious, and they seem to be able to recruit wherever they go. Their goal is the “liberation” of Mecca and Palestine and the extermination of Israel. They have taken a border crossing with Israel and (briefly?) captured 40 peacekeepers from one of our allies. They have murdered citizens of one of our allies. They have captured Syrian fighter jets, and a rival Islamic militant group has outflanked Damascus to the south – you can bet that rival group will be absorbed soon enough. These guys consider Hamas to be apostates and boast about terrorizing their enemies and herding them to their deaths. Their magazine has a photo spread depicting the destruction of all Shia holy sites in Mosul, and the mass murder of Syrian and Iraqi captives. Their propaganda is sophisticated and aimed at presenting a vision of self improvement and liberation to young Muslim men. They reject suicide bombing of civilians and considered terrorism as practiced by al Qaeda et al to be cowardice.

    They openly boast that they would not exist but for the us invasion of Iraq. Surely it is the responsibility of the people who created this beast to destroy it? Or are so irresponsible that we won’t even try and fix the damage we have done?

  11. Ken_L
    September 17th, 2014 at 09:55 | #11

    As I’ve observed a few times in the past, Rudd’s failure to hold a full public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding our involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was one of his most serious disappointments. If we had had one, even if only along the lines of the British inquiry, our politicians might now be a bit slower to jump again on the American bandwagon.

    It’s fascinating that we will once again be “training and advising” the Iraqi military. I thought The Most Powerful Nation the World Has Ever Known (h/t John Howard) had been doing that for the last 10 years, so it’s hard to see what more a few Australians can do. What I want to know is: who is training and advising IS? Who trained and advised the Viet Cong? Who trains and advises the Taliban? Whoever they are, the Iraqis should try to get a few pointers from them, because they are obviously way more capable than our mob.

    Or just possibly, no amount of training and advising will make an effective military force out of people who don’t believe their cause is worth risking death for.

  12. Nick
    September 17th, 2014 at 10:11 | #12

    Because oil interests in Kurdistan (Exxon, Chevron etc) are under threat.

    Why else?

  13. Paul Norton
    September 17th, 2014 at 10:16 | #13

    There was a famous WWW wrestling match in the 1980s in which three baddies were beating up a goody and the commentator yelled “The referee’s gotta do something even if it’s the wrong thing!”. This seems to be the current Middle East policy doctrine in Western capitals.

  14. Paul Norton
    September 17th, 2014 at 10:35 | #14
  15. September 17th, 2014 at 10:46 | #15

    I reckon its fine, as long as we (read the US) don’t put *any* troops on the ground. Just do the bombing for the Kurds and the Iraqi government, but let them run the show. Put foreign soldiers into Iraq? No. Just support the locals who we like more.

  16. Nevil Kingston-Brown
    September 17th, 2014 at 10:50 | #16

    Isn’t ISIS’ story pretty much exactly the same as the Wahabists who founded our close ally Saudi Arabia ~100 years ago? The local historical dynamic is famously “from the deserts prophets come” – every hundred years a new movement arises, condemns the decadence of the old movement, kicks out the current power structure, settles in, becomes decadent themselves, and so on. Is there any reason to assume ISIS wouldn’t follow the same trajectory?

  17. Paul Norton
    September 17th, 2014 at 10:58 | #17

    John, your comment touches in an important issue. If US/Western policy defines ISIL as “our enemy” and seeks to empower “the enemies of our enemy” to defeat it, it will almost inevitably have the effect of empowering “the enemies of our enemy” to achieve other agendas that they have (such as establishing an independent Kurdistan) that may well not be to Western liking or that of the West’s regional allies, and/or may considerably complicate the politics of the region. The question then becomes whether “the West” is prepared to accept such consequences as a price worth paying for defeating ISIL, or whether some people have the idea that the intervention should be finessed to try to maximise US/Western control over the wider political outcomes.

  18. frankis
    September 17th, 2014 at 11:01 | #18

    Great comment could we have the source please? – I tried three search engines on it.

  19. jungney
    September 17th, 2014 at 11:02 | #19

    Here the logic of this action: budget? What budget? There’s a war on and any dissent against the Australian government, on any grounds, is treasonous or if it isn’t yet it will be soon. Now line up and wave the flag for our brave boys and girls. Oh, and Tony too, because he does his morning workout with the army chaps up in the NT camp.

  20. September 17th, 2014 at 11:02 | #20

    I don’t think bombing alone will work for two reasons. 1) their strongholds are in Syria, which we can’t bomb, and wehre they appear to have just shot down their first fighter jet – having captured airforce bases, they have probably also captured anti-aircraft defenses; and 2) in Iraq they are fighting a war of movement. Their main weapon is the Toyota technical, which is cheap and ubiquitous, and a typical attack involves hundreds of these things moving at speed, backed up by stolen tanks and heavy weapons. We can’t stop them at anything remotely resembling a cost-effective rate. Furthermore many of their victories appear to have occurred with little actual engagement – their reputation for brutality precedes them and fighters flee (the Peshmerga have done this a few times). We can maybe stall their momentum in major attacks with bombing, but they’ll simply shift to a new front inside Syria where we can’t get them.

    Eventually Assad is going to see the writing on the wall and flee. Then Syria collapses and ISIS take control of the air force and border crossings into Israel. That is clearly their mid-term goal, and there is no evidence that Assad has been able to stop them in that path at any point – they have barely even slowed down in order to capture half of Iraq. Today’s media are saying we have “expanded” our air war into south-west Iraq near Baghdad – did we expand this by choice or because ISIS have expanded to a new front?

    In my opinion we need to admit we cocked up and just leave them to it without wasting money on bombing them, or go all in. And since we created this situation in the first place, I can’t see how we can be morally obliged to do anything but. However, before we do that, we need to stop lecturing the Iraqis about inclusive govt and ask ourselves what *we* want to do about our support for Assad. If we don’t believe Syria is a legitimate state, why do we care about ISIS taking over Syria? If we don’t care about that, why care about Iraq? The west has no sense of its own goals in Syria, and can’t decide if it is pro- or anti-human rights there. This confusion opened the way for ISIS in the first place – we need to make a coherent policy decision, and then stick with it regardless of the “incidental” human rights consequences of that decision.

  21. Jim Birch
    September 17th, 2014 at 11:03 | #21

    “But there’s nothing special about this particular group” except that they put their beheadings on Youtube. Oceans of invisible brutality don’t count.

    It seems to me that bombing people until they develop a European modernist tradition is a totally whacky, self-defeating strategy with an extremely low chance of success. A smarter strategy would be rigorous containment of ISIS until their psychopathic government develops it own internal opposition. This is unfortunate for their constituents in the meantime – and for western politicians who want to survive by deploying aspirational geopolitical policies – but it actually has a chance of working, in the long term.

  22. Ikonoclast
    September 17th, 2014 at 11:05 | #22


    These guys (ISIL/ISIS) are not different. They are not going to get very far. If they seriously annoy Turkey and/or Iran they will get pummeled without being shown any nicities. I doubt they can fly those jets and if they did they would be shot down staight away. They have no modern heavy armour, artillery or standard infantry divisions. They are fierce small-band fighters, good insurgents and not bad at small unit tactics. That’s about it.

    They have no economy worth talking about. They have little in the way of resources other than what they have scavanged and pilfered. They have some loot it’s true. Even this would be useless if they were denied arms supplies. The fact they are getting some supplies means somebody is dealing with them. I wonder who?

    This concern about ISIS/ISIL is just hysteria and a beat up to cover (as usual) the USA’s real agenda. Mind you, I am not sure what the USA’s real agenda is. What they do these days has no logic about it.

  23. Ken_L
    September 17th, 2014 at 11:21 | #23

    “Mind you, I am not sure what the USA’s real agenda is. What they do these days has no logic about it.”

    That’s pretty typical of any massive complex system that is in decline. The system tries to maintain itself in the condition it reached at its peak, but no longer has the resources to do so. This results in a series of irrational actions in response to threats. A sensible long-term strategy is not feasible because the only acceptable long-term objectives involve continuation of a dominating role for which the capabilities no longer exist. A time usually comes when the system goes into crisis and either fragments or evolves rapidly into a very different kind of system.

    The Bush and Obama presidencies have been classic case studies of the way executive power can be crippled by the characteristics of the system which the executive is trying to manage.

  24. Gaius X
    September 17th, 2014 at 11:43 | #24

    I’m much more interested in the thousands of western Jihadists joining ISIS/ISIL and similar groups. Fortunately Abbott is taking this issue seriously.

    Meanwhile the reliably weird Greens are worried that calling ISIS/ISIL terrorists is a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act. Senator Peter Whish-Wilson says we must not demonise these people and that its prejudicial to call them terrorists.

    Entering stage Left, Senator Milne suggests we gather the aggreived parties together in a circle for a workshop complete with butcher’s paper, crayons and a facilitator named Mandy.

    I love our sunburnt country.

  25. September 17th, 2014 at 11:59 | #25

    Ikonoclast, almost everything in your comment is wrong. They do have heavy armour and artillery – there is video footage online of their capture of the 121st division(?) base in Syria, where the tanks and APCs are lined up in their dozens. They have rocket artillery, light and heavy mortars, huge quantities of lightly armoured but mobile humvees and similar vehicles. This is why the RAAF is flying weapons into kurdistan – because they are outgunned and outnumbered. The US told us weeks ago that they had recaptured the dam near Mosul but they still report bombing raids on it – why? And when they destroy military units they report 1-5 destroyed or damaged. As ChrisB notes above we’re spending $15,000 an hour and $55,000 a weapon to blow up toyota pickups with a couple of guys on. You think that’s sustainable with no one on the ground to retake the land?

    They also do have an economy and resources. In the towns they have full control of (e.g. Raqqa) they’re distributing Islamic aid, collecting taxes and enforcing laws. They have pictures in their magazine of the execution of drug dealers, highway bandits and adulterers. They have possession of oil fields and it is well documented that they are making money by trading oil. And if someone is giving them supplies then obviously they are trading, they have an economy. They also have a centralized command and control structure (they explicitly reject traditional small-cell terrorist tactics and destroyed other Islamic terrorist groups that employed this method). Amongst their ranks are cryptographers, interpreters and publishers – why do you think they don’t also have merchants, logistics dudes, civil engineers? Do you think doctors in Raqqa are refusing to cooperate with them?

    If you think that it’s all just a beat up to cover US agenda, but you don’t know what the US agenda is, your analysis has failed. The US doesn’t have a functioning agenda in the middle east now – Obama’s agenda was to get out of Iraq and avoid further trouble, and he was telling the truth when he said they don’t have a strategy for ISIS. His desire is to return to isolationism, but strategic reality won’t let him. And he absolutely doesn’t want to redeploy ground troops, but if he doesn’t do something drastic we will lose Syria and Iraq to this mob. There will never be a functioning army in Iraq and the Shiite militias will collapse when this bunch of crazies has finished stabilizing the North. Obama has a very short time period in which to drive them back, or we are going to be seeing truly terrible things happen in Baghdad. ISIS gives Sunni soldiers an opportunity to repent and convert, but that courtesy won’t be extended to the Badr militias. Without real military support Baghdad will fall, and then we will have been responsible for a period of slaughter that will put Hussein in the shade.

  26. TerjeP
    September 17th, 2014 at 12:20 | #26

    I’d like to put on record that I agree with the analysis offered by John Quiggin.

    ISIS are a bunch of bastards. That does not mean it’s our job to sort them out. The core purpose of the entity called “the Iraq government” ought to be to defend Iraqi territory and citizens. It is their duty not ours to deal with ISIS. If they are unwilling or unable to defend their territory and citizens then the last war was an even bigger failure than we assumed. Our government should defend our territory and our citizens not squander taxpayers money on foreign aid.

    That said if Australians want to go as private individuals and fight alongside the Kurds or privately donate arms to help them then I don’t think our government should be obstructing that. And so long as they stay within the laws of war I don’t think we should punish them for doing so.

  27. John Quiggin
    September 17th, 2014 at 12:38 | #27

    As ChrisB notes above we’re spending $15,000 an hour and $55,000 a weapon to blow up toyota pickups with a couple of guys on. You think that’s sustainable with no one on the ground to retake the land?

    I believe the cost of keeping one US soldier on the ground is $1 million a year. That’s consistent with Abbott’s recent estimate.

  28. sunshine
    September 17th, 2014 at 12:45 | #28

    The biggest estimate of the cost of the 2 wars to the USA I have seen is 11 trillion $ .Thats 4 in direct borrowings plus the future medical costs of returned service people and interest on the debt (assuming it eventually gets paid back I guess) .

    Only 2 possibly good reasons I can think of for some involvement are 1) we helped create IS ,and 2) maybe IS is like the Nazis and need to be handled now . If involvement is deemed necessary killing should not be the first way of helping we try.

  29. September 17th, 2014 at 13:12 | #29

    That’s a huge cost isn’t it John? And pointless without strategic and tactical objectives. Obama talked about re-establishing the border between Syria and Iraq. How is that going to work with a few Peshmerga irregulars? You can’t bomb a border back into being, you need soldiers. Air war in a situation like this is just like burning money. If our military establishment seriously believe the Peshmerga and the Badr militia can repel ISIS, then aerial support is fine. But they obviously can’t, and our military leaders can’t seriously believe it, so all they’re going to be doing is bombing their way to a brutal status quo. The idea that the new Iraqi govt can form a functioning military capable of standing up to ISIS, when they know that defeat means torture and execution, is silly. Today US military figures are saying it will take 8 months to train a cadre of 5000 anti-govt rebels in Syria. In 8 months time, ISIS will have absorbed the factions fighting south of Damascus, captured new swathes of territory, doubled their military strength and have reduced the Syrian govt to a small space around its capital. Those anti-govt rebels will probably melt away and take their training to ISIS, who by then are going to be the only game in town.

    Gaius X (Watkin Tench?), ISIS are not terrorists. They explicitly reject terror tactics. They are a rebellion, or as the Guardian put it a proto-state. They don’t, for example, use suicide bombers against civilian targets the way that other actors do, and they seem to reserve suicide attacks only for military objectives as part of military operations. So calling them terrorists is just a silly mistake, and demonising military actors with moral, strategic, political and religious goals is both strategic idiocy and a philosophical (and perhaps moral) failing. Read their articles – these guys have a serious moral mission that we should take seriously.

    TerjeP manages to present the classic immoral position of the right – we went in and destroyed a state, supported the creation of chaos in another state, and when the chickens come home to roost it’s “their duty not ours.” Funny how libertarians eschew all moral standards in political discourse until they have an opportunity to talk about other peoples’ duty…

  30. Ken_L
    September 17th, 2014 at 13:39 | #30

    “We” didn’t help create IS any more than “we” will be responsible for further mayhem in Iraq. Suggestions that “we” have the power or obligation to control events in the Middle East for Good are just as misconceived as the hubristic imperialism of the PNAC neo-cons. The intra-Islamic conflicts and killings are the work of Muslims who need neither our permission nor our assistance. “We” are only involved because we have chosen to insert ourselves in a complex situation which we have no hope of even understanding, let alone managing.

    What “we” have done, meaning the USA and a movable feast of satellite supporters, has been to act as a change agent: to “unfreeze” the force field, in Kurt Lewin’s terms. The predictable (and widely predicted) result has been regional instability. We can no more reverse the chaos that has been let loose than we can control or even anticipate the direction of future change. The best thing we could do from a moral perspective would be to “cut and run”, as Alexander Downer used to imply was such a caddish option. We will do no such thing of course because American interests are involved. But let’s see the situation for what it is and not keep trotting out fairy tales making out we are still shouldering the white man’s burden, trying to lead the benighted savages into the enlightened condition of Liberty and Democracy.

  31. TerjeP
    September 17th, 2014 at 13:50 | #31

    TerjeP manages to present the classic immoral position of the right – we went in and destroyed a state, supported the creation of chaos in another state, and when the chickens come home to roost it’s “their duty not ours.” Funny how libertarians eschew all moral standards in political discourse until they have an opportunity to talk about other peoples’ duty…

    Well then at what point is it the duty of the Iraqi government to defend Iraqi territory and Iraqi citizens? Next year? Next decade? When? What is the point of having a government at all if it does not provide the most essential of services such as defence?

    we went in and destroyed a state

    I didn’t. But yes the allies did and the US setup a new state at great cost. That new state then asked us all to leave. So we left. We should stay out. We should have stayed out in 2003.

  32. Ikonoclast
    September 17th, 2014 at 14:01 | #32


    I agree. You gave a very good summary of the phenomenon.

  33. September 17th, 2014 at 14:03 | #33

    Ken_L, ISIS explicitly state that the conditions for their ascension were set in 2003 by the US invasion of Iraq. We destroyed the state of Iraq, leading to the killing of a million Iraqis and the internal displacement of 2-4 million more. Don’t put that we in quotation marks – we did it. That makes us directly responsible for what happens there, and pretending that it’s all just Islamic infighting is a cheap cop out. As is the pretense that the state we erected to replace Saddam was a real state and not a figleaf over our failure. The same applies to the Syrian uprising: some oily bastard from Europe in a cheap suit rocked up to tell the Syrian rebels we had their backs, and as a result the country became a failed state. As is now also painfully apparent in Libya, another state we helped overthrow. Have you not noticed that major alternative governments pop up in every country where Europe and the US has supported uprisings? And that these people are often Very Very Bad? Have you seen what is happening in Afghanistan this summer, the collapse of the fragile peace in Helmand province and reversal of years of redevelopment and stabilization in that region? These areas all have in common that a relatively stable state was smashed by us and replaced with a corrupt, incompetent, brutal and nasty crony state (or no state at all).

    If you want to continue with the “we aren’t responsible” idea, then you should admit you’re happy sharing rhetorical space with Tony Blair. Go for it.

    TerjeP, you can’t eschew responsibility for what your govt does because you’re an immoral libertarian or you voted against it. It was the duty of the Iraqi government to defend Iraqi territory and citizens in 2002. We destroyed that state and replaced it with a joke, after years of internal upheaval and destruction. That country is our responsibilty. Not theirs, not the people who voted for war – all of us.

  34. Savvas Tzionis
    September 17th, 2014 at 14:14 | #34

    @ Paul Norton,

    The exact comment (and I cannot believe someone other than myself and my friend remember this) was “Either disqualify (the bad guy) or call off the match (and award the match to the bad guy). Make a decision. Even if it’s wrong!”

  35. TerjeP
    September 17th, 2014 at 14:22 | #35

    TerjeP, you can’t eschew responsibility for what your govt does

    Yeah I can.

    But I’m intrigued. Are you responsible for everything our government does? Because if you are then I have a bone to pick.

  36. Ken_L
    September 17th, 2014 at 14:28 | #36

    Faustusnote I already noted that America and its helpers created the instability in the region. However it does not follow – in fact it is a complete fallacy – to argue that having screwed things up so comprehensively, America now has the means to make them all better again. It ought also to be remembered that the Middle East was hardly an oasis of tranquility prior to 2003, or indeed 1903, and it’s quite possible that if “we” had refrained from invading Iraq, events might have turned out equally badly or even worse. My point is that we had and have neither the capability nor the moral obligation to influence events in any particular direction.

    I have written and campaigned consistently against the Iraqi invasion since it was first mooted. I’m not going to accept collective responsibility for something I opposed but could not prevent, but load yourself up with guilt if it makes you happy.

  37. Ikonoclast
    September 17th, 2014 at 14:35 | #37


    Get a grip on yourself mate. You need to consider some geostrategic and realpolitik realtities. You say “we” will lose Syria and Iraq to this mob. Who is “we” exactly? Is it our Syria and Iraq? Do we own them? Are these countries ours to dispose of? I think their own people own them and we messed up Iraq so badly it is now not an integral functioning state. This leaves aside the issue that the borders in that area are a colonial hang over anyway.

    With respect to militaries and military hardware, ISIS/ISIL is not a serious player. It’s all relative. I was comparing them to a coherent nation state which knows how to field and operate an army in a theatre of war. Compared to even Turkey or Iran, ISIS/ISIL is a big joke.

    Global Firepower (GFP) ranks nations on conventional military strength (i.e. without nukes). According to GFP, Turkey is the 8th largest conventional military power in the world.

    Turkey – Manpower

    Total Population: 80,694,485
    Available Manpower: 41,637,773
    Fit for Service: 35,005,326
    Reaching Military Age Annually: 1,370,407
    Active Frontline Personnel: 410,500
    Active Reserve Personnel: 185,630

    – Land Systems

    Tanks: 3,657
    Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs): 8,532
    Self-Propelled Guns (SPGs): 961
    Towed-Artillery: 2,152
    Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems (MLRSs): 646

    Total Aircraft: 989
    Fighters/Interceptors: 254
    Fixed-Wing Attack Aircraft: 254
    Transport Aircraft: 437
    Trainer Aircraft: 245
    Helicopters: 418
    Attack Helicopters: 36

    I won’t bother listing their navy.

    Iran is listed as the 22nd most powerful military in the world. Vietnam is listed 23rd and look what happened to the last major power that tried to mess with them.

    With respect to ISIS/ISIL, in August 2014, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that the number of fighters in the group had increased to 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq, while the CIA estimated in September 2014 that in both countries it had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. So estimates of fighters run from about 30,000 to 80,000 total.

    “Weaponry that ISIS has reportedly captured and employed include SA-7 and Stingersurface-to-air missiles, M79 Osa, HJ-8] and AT-4 Spigot anti-tank weapons, Type 59 field gunsand M198 howitzers, Humvees, T-54/55, T-72, and M1 Abramsmain battle tanks, M1117 armoured cars, truck mounted DShK guns, ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns, BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers and at least one Scud missile.”- Wikpedia.

    This might sound impressive until you compare it Turkey’s military or even Iraq’s remaining military. We don’t know how much of this equipment they can maintain and run. It takes a lot trained men, equipment, parts , workshops, oil and fuel to maintain and run that stuff.

    Vox sums it up in Iraq:

    “ISIS cannot challenge the Iraqi government for control over the country. On a basic level, it’s simple math. Estimates of ISIS’ fighting strength range from 10,000 to (at the extreme upper limit) 50,000 combat troops — the CIA estimates the number to be between 20,00 and 31,500. It can also occasionally grab reinforcements from other extremist militias. The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops, plus armed police. The Iraqi military also has tanks, airplanes, and helicopters. ISIS can’t make a serious play for the control of Baghdad, let alone the south of Iraq, without a serious risk of getting crushed. But the Iraqi army is also a total mess, which explains why ISIS has had the success it’s had despite being dramatically outnumbered.”

    I doubt that Iran would stand by and let the Shia of south Iraq get slaughtered. If anything, it is the responsibility of Shia Iraqis, the Kurds, Turkey, Iran, Jordan and (ironically) Israel to contain ISIS/ISIL. I’ll leave Syria out of it as it is a total mess. We should never have started the Iraq GW 2 and the more we stay involved the bigger mess we make it. We need to get out and declare it a regional problem for the regional powers to deal with.

  38. Gaius X
    September 17th, 2014 at 15:18 | #38

    Is faustusnotes on the turps? ISIS/ISIL beheads civilian hostages such as journalists, executes and rapes civilians who aren’t Sunni Muslim like the Yazidis and conducts suicide bombings in marketplaces etc. If they aren’t terrorists, no one is.

  39. September 17th, 2014 at 15:27 | #39

    that’s right Ken, it does not follow that because we broke Iraq we have the capacity to fix it. But it does follow that we have the responsibility. We can choose not to use our capacity to address our responsibility.We may not be able to address our responsibility.

    Ikonoklast, Global Firepower ranks Syria 26th in the world. It has more tanks than Turkey and half the aircraft (473); frontline personnel of 170,000. How’s the war against ISIS’s 30,000 frontline personnel going for Syria? Well? You think they maybe aren’t trying? You have any idea why the world’s 26th most powerful army has failed to defeat an insurgent band of 30,000 soldiers who are so confident in their control of their Syrian territory that they have opened 2 more fronts (Iraq and Kurdistan) while also fighting another insurgent band (and winning) inside Syria? And destroying/absorbing other terrorist groups in the process?

    You ask “is it our Syria and Iraq”? It is most assuredly our Iraq. We broke it, we re-armed it, we own the government, it is our failings that opened this little backdoor into hell. Until Iraq has a functioning state of its own, yes we own it. It’s just childish and petty for Australia, the UK and the US to walk away from protecting and rebuilding a nation that we destroyed; and more than that, it’s a great shame on us, and a crime, such as we haven’t seen in generations. Truly, this and the previous generation of politicians (and by extension, voters) are a sordid and pathetic lot.

  40. TerjeP
    September 17th, 2014 at 15:37 | #40


    So what exactly is the Iraq government responsible for? Anything?

  41. September 17th, 2014 at 15:41 | #41

    Well for starters TejeP, forming.

    Gaius X, I didn’t say that they don’t terrorize people (I pointed out that they declare this openly!), but that doesn’t make them terrorists anymore than WW2 fliers were terrorists for doing terror bombing. Words have meaning, you know. They are soldiers. Also they explicitly reject marketplace suicide bombs, and have had points of doctrinal difference (resolved quite unpleasantly, I think) with terrorist groups that do this. They don’t seem to view what they do to the Yazidis as terror: they seem more inclined to call it genocide.

    If you can’t put these organizations in their proper perspective and assess them based on their purpose and principles, you won’t get very far understanding what they’re doing or how to handle them.

  42. Gaius X
    September 17th, 2014 at 15:42 | #42

    Lol. Iraq was already broke. Removing a dictator and trying to help the locals set up a democracy doesn’t make us liable for the misdeeds of the locals. The locals wasted an opportunity that was handed to them on a golden platter and must now live with the consequences. The only thing we are arguably responsible for is allowing Australian citizens to join the bloodbath.

  43. Ikonoclast
    September 17th, 2014 at 15:52 | #43


    If I hung out a shingle to say I was a surgeon, despite having no medical qualifications, and then proceeded to horribly botch an operation on someone, would it be “my responsibility to fix it up” by further surgical intervention? No, I would criminally responsible but it would become perforce someone else’s responsibility to correct my botch-up if possible. Very likely if I had a house and some money, when I went to court I would be ordered to pay for all medical costs, exemplary damages and be sent to jail. That very possibly is what should happen here. G.W. Bush, T. Blair, J. W. Howard and their advisers, cabinets etc. should go to the Hague to be tried. Part of such a case should determine reparations and exemplary damages from our nations and how these are to be applied to the injured nations. That’s if you want justice.

    Of course, that will never happen. The next least worst course would be for the West to stop interferring and leave the Middle East to sort itself out. Well targeted non-military aid would help but we should stop all military aid and exports to all M.E. countries including Israel. That will never happen either. So, the fools that run the West will follow (more or less) your policy prescription of more insane intervention. I guess we will see how that turns out.

  44. Fran Barlow
    September 17th, 2014 at 15:56 | #44


    I believe the cost of keeping one US soldier on the ground is $1 million a year. That’s consistent with Abbott’s recent estimate.

    I think it varies. I had a bit of a look through this a while back. The figure you quote was the consensus for the US in Afghanistan but that was only about 2/3 of what the Canadians were spending. The costs for Australia were quite a bit less as I recall … About $600-700,000 per troop.

    Of course much depends on the logistical costs. Iraq might be cheaper than Afghanistan. The cost per troop will presumably be higher if there are fewer troops.

  45. September 17th, 2014 at 16:00 | #45

    My policy prescription is not intervention – I don’t have a policy prescription. But I think if we want to go all isolationist on their arses, we need to recognize that we have created a new and genocidal force in the region, and we need to accept that tens of thousands of people are going to die before it goes under. Not arming the Peshmerga means the slaughter of thousands of kurds; once ISIS reach the Turkish border they’ll turn South. You’re looking at several years of genocidal war due to our misdeeds. Leaving totally and not arming regional actors means that we don’t supply weapons or ammunition to Iraq with a genocidal anti-shi ite force on its doorstep. Are you happy with the consequences of that? If you are unsure about what it means, I suggest you have a look through the ISIS magazine. It is quite … informative … as to their intentions.

    An alternative is to go full metal on them, and return to Iraq in force; destroy ISIS thoroughly in Iraq and show the region that we’re serious about setting up a stable society in Iraq. That may not help Syria but it will end the ISIS mystique, and maybe somewhere in that Obama can force a serious statehood onto Iraq.

    The worst possible alternative is piecemeal bombing campaigns, limited observers and arming of second-rate forces with low-grade weaponry. ISIS will capture US soldiers, continue to win victories, and be able to claim victory over the crusader west; there will be a brief lull in their victories but Kurdistan will still fall. In the end we’ll be dragged in anyway, after we’ve given ISIS time to grow in Syria. This seems to be Obama’s preferred approach, and Abbott of course is going to go along with it. Better hope that ISIS haven’t captured any sophisticated anti-aircraft systems – we’ve seen what a few drunk Russian hooligans can do with that stuff, what do you think an ISIS team will do to Aussie pilots?

  46. TerjeP
    September 17th, 2014 at 16:11 | #46

    The worst possible alternative is piecemeal bombing campaigns, limited observers and arming of second-rate forces with low-grade weaponry.

    I probably agree with this. Option A which I prefer is stay at home. Not because we can’t help anyone but because it’s not in our national interest to be there. Option B is go in hard. If we are going to fight then make it a serious effort, fight to win and let people know that’s how we roll. If we’re not willing to do Option B then we should look again at option A. Option C is fart arse around the edges. Some people view C as a sensible compromise but it’s probably the worst of options because we continue to ferment the reputation of being weak and as such we simply embolden our enemies.

  47. rog
    September 17th, 2014 at 16:12 | #47

    You could argue that ISIS is a product of past mistakes, both political and by the military, and based on the evidence available that argument would be compelling. If past outcomes are to be ignored (Bush Blair Howard “no regrets”) then the same principle should be applied to planning future actions ie ignore them.

    Abbotts obvious enthusiasm for a war based on some evidence should be tempered by all the other evidence. As King Richard the lionhearted found out, we simply have no place in the affairs of the middle east.

  48. John Quiggin
    September 17th, 2014 at 17:02 | #48

    @Fran Barlow

    Since the question of the cost-effectiveness of killing presumed terrorists was raised, I thought I’d look more closely at Afghanistan. Wikipedia gives 20-25 000 Taliban killed and a cost for the war of nearly $500 billion (that doesn’t appear to include future costs for veterans disability etc). So, the average cost is $20-25 million per Taliban fatality. We would want to allow for other benefits of war expenditure (schools, hospitals etc) but as far as I can tell these have been minimal.

  49. Ken Lovell
    September 17th, 2014 at 18:23 | #49

    “destroy ISIS thoroughly in Iraq and show the region that we’re serious about setting up a stable society in Iraq.”

    “We” can no more set up a stable society in Iraq than fly to Mars. Don’t you understand that America (a) doesn’t know how to, and (b) doesn’t have the necessary capabilities and resources even if it did? “We” are not doctors, as you suggested in an earlier comment, using our superior knowledge and judgement to cure the poor old Iraqi nation. That is exactly the kind of flawed mentality that got us into this mess in the first place. We are clumsy oafs trying to impose our notion of order on a country at arm’s length using hi-tech weaponry, while we studiously ignore the wishes of the hundreds of millions of people directly affected. It’s patronising imperialism of the most atrocious kind.

  50. Ken Lovell
    September 17th, 2014 at 18:27 | #50

    Oops faustusnote my apologies, I see it was not you who used the doctor analogy. But the substance of my comment stands – thinking we are in any position to “set up a stable society” in Iraq (or indeed any kind of society that we design) is pure fantasy.

  51. Ikonoclast
    September 17th, 2014 at 19:20 | #51

    @Ken Lovell

    I used the fake surgeon analogy to demonstrate that you don’t use the fake surgeon to fix up the damage he has already done. The US is the fake surgeon with “surgical strikes”, “democracy implants” and the “routine dictatorectomy”.

  52. Rabee
    September 17th, 2014 at 19:37 | #52

    I view the Islamic State as part of the Arab spring phenomenon; but a Saudi phenomenon. How else did anyone expect the Saudi spring to look like? I’ll make some points because I guess I should be making an informed comment on this.

    There was great hope after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. There was almost uniform acceptance even by the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary system. The Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world had committed itself to the parliamentary system (not democracy) and looked to Egypt for leadership. This included groups in Syria (who lead and now form part of the Syrian revolution). With the counter revolution in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the perspective in favour of a parliamentary system collapsed. All of this was supported by the Saudi’s who miscalculated in crucial ways.

    In Syria, this mean that al-Nusra became the dominant force in the civil war, which strengthened its leadership in Iraq. The vacuum also meant that IS in Iraq was able to attract former Baathists, which is partly evidenced by the exceptionally articulate official Arabic language documents that they started distributing sometime last year (something unusual for Islamic groups) [perfect Arabic is difficult to write even if you are an Arab Muslim scholar]. It is also evidenced by the fact that they have been able to reopen Baathist smuggling systems and finance themselves in a way that is reminiscent of the days of Iraqi sanctions breaking.

    Importantly, the IS declared a caliphate (something that would have been laughable prior the the collapse of the Egyptian parliamentary system) but which seems to have gained a nod as a governing system by many. They are not the first to declare a caliphate, it was done in Algeria. They were the first in the modern era to declare one in a way that is somewhat consistent with Islamic law. In particular, al-Baghdadi though Iraqi can also trace his roots to the Hashimite tribe of Quraish (of Mecca). One cannot be a caliph unless this is the case. The Saudi royal family is not from Quraish, thus even within the Salafist perspective they have no inherent right to rule.

    The Caliphate in Islamic law is exclusive, there can not be two Caliphs, and if there is, then the second must be killed. In that sense, the declaration of the Caliphate in Iraq poses a direct challenge to the Saudis. The Caliphate has gained such significant support in conservative Saudi centres that it now forms an internal threat to the regime. The Saudi’s also understand that if they challenge the IS Caliphate militarily, then it is likely that their conservatives will rebel and a revolution like Syria’s will happen. So the Saudi regime is in a bind and threatened by the IS.

    The question for Obama must have been if it is in America’s interest for a civil war to start in Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure about the possible outcomes of such a civil war, but I don’t think any good can come from it. So Obama decides that it is in the national interest that the US tries to defeat IS in Iraq before things get bad in Saudi Arabia.

    I don’t have a firm opinion on this new war, but I’m not hopeful that anything good will come from it. I do think that this almost exclusively a Saudi problem and the Saudi’s must find their own longterm solution to it. To my mind this should trying to resuscitate parliamentary democracy in Egypt.

  53. derrida derider
    September 17th, 2014 at 20:10 | #53

    ISIS/ISIL are barbaric terrorists who behead hostages…[b]ut there’s nothing special about this particular group. There are plenty of barbaric terrorists out there.

    Ah, but not many barbaric terrorists who succeed in beheading Americans on prime-time TV. Why do you attribute some tortured foreign policy rationale for Obama’s actions when he has a domestic politics imperative? I suspect Obama knows this is unlikely to end well for anyone, but he’s basically doing what he has to to get Congress off his back.

    Of course ISIS’ actions here were deliberately designed to create that imperative – they want to portray themselves as fighting Western infidels. People don’t seem to learn that it is rarely a good idea to do exactly what your opponent wants you to do.

  54. Rabee
    September 17th, 2014 at 20:20 | #54

    @derrida derider

    I doubt that those particular beheadings were aimed “deliberately designed to create that imperative – they want to portray themselves as fighting Western infidels.”

    I think that the IS is sufficiently decentralised that that particular group of British hoodlums were upset that they were not being paid for the hostages which they paid paid Syrians good money.

  55. m0nty
    September 17th, 2014 at 20:58 | #55

    I have posted a response to Rabee on my blog.

  56. Doug
    September 17th, 2014 at 21:43 | #56

    Note commentary by Andrew Bachevich http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/09/17/4089354.htm
    Supporting and motivating humanitarian action (supposedly our initial concern and a theme repeated by Tanya Plibersek on behalf of the ALP on RN Drive this evening) by neighbouring countries with an interest in stability might actually be easier if US, Australia et al weren’t charging in with military intervention that looks like a war – certainly to any civilians hit by bombs from air strikes.

    Current action by ALP is going to shore up some support at least at the margins for the Greens who have at this stage attempted to at least ask questions about the intent and longer term impact of the policy.

  57. Megan
    September 17th, 2014 at 22:09 | #57

    Sotloff was sold by US controlled ‘moderates’ to IS (also US controlled, of course).

    The US is playing everyone for fools so they can continue the MIC/Resource wars and destruction of anything in the middle east that could even vaguely challenge Israel to a fair fight.

    The false choice (do nothing or kill more Iraqis) is cheap and lazy framing by the pro-war/neo-con propagandists. We must stop killing people – everywhere, but specifically in the middle east.

  58. September 17th, 2014 at 22:25 | #58

    Pr Q said:

    Obviously, this isn’t because the last two turned out brilliantly.

    Actually it is not “obvious” that the first Iraq War was not “brilliant”. The US s first Iraq War turned out better than anyone hoped for. The US s second Iraq turned out worse than anyone had feared. I don’t see much point in lumping them together, apart from knee-jerk pacifism.

    Pr Q said:

    So, what is the reasoning here? More precisely, given that Australia’s policy is just to follow the US without question, what is the reasoning of the world leaders, most importantly Obama, who are pushing this war?

    Obama is not “pushing for this war”. He is being pushed into it by “events, dear boy, events”. It hardly qualifies as a “war” in any case, since the forces deployed are mainly commandoes, drones and sir strikes. And the enemy are sadistic bandits rather than a proper state. This is more of a policing action.

    The “reasoning here” is the same reasoning the US has used since 1950 when it outlined its global security strategy in NSC 68: denial of its enemies access to critical assets. The US correctly employed the same reasoning in ejecting Hussein from Kuwait.

    Back in 2003 I pointed out that Lefts “War for Oil” slogan was a fallacy. It was more like a “War against Oil”, specifically letting high priced oil fall into the hands of US enemies intent on turning it into weapons:

    The political issue in the Gulf is the military…revenue benefits to the US admin’s enemies, not the oil…costs for the US admin’s allies.

    In the present case, the US wants to deny ISIS the oil revenues it craves to fund national, regional and global terrorism. ISIS have developed a strategy to either commandeer or sabotage Iraq’s oil wells. That takes them out of the realm of national tactical nuisance and puts them in the cross-hairs of regional strategic threat.

    ISIS control, or denial, of a significant part of Iraq’s oil fields would constitute the biggest victory of Islamists in the War on Terror. There is no way a US Commander-in-Chief would let that happen. CNN recently discussed the unpleasant implications of an ISIS slice of “the Prize”:

    How much of Iraq’s oil market do ISIS control?

    ISIS control just a few marginal fields in Iraq’s north, but they are enough to fund the terrorist group’s self-sufficiency. A month ago, the ISIS–controlled oil market in Iraq was reported to be worth $1 million a day. Now, with expansion, further control of oil fields and smuggling routes, the market is believed to be raising at least $2 million a day. This could fetch them more than $730 million a year, enough to sustain the operation beyond Iraq.

    One important factor for the stability of global markets: ISIS is not yet in the south of Iraq, where the country’s true oil bounty lies. Capturing the southern assets of the country would be mission impossible for the group.

    What is ISIS’ ultimate aim and how does oil wealth play into it?

    In the short to mid-term, the impact will be minimal as Iraq’s south is its dominant producer. However, there are enough rich assets in the midlands and the north part of Iraq that ISIS could reach out to, a potential capacity that could ramp up to a million barrels a day — from its current 30,000 barrels a day — should they seize control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and its surrounding districts.

    If they succeed in controlling those assets, cash inflow could stretch their empire of terrorism beyond imagination. But so far, ISIS oil trading has remained local with buyers in Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Iran via middlemen network and truck owners.

    However, the instability created by Iraq effectively being broken up would have a ripple impact, in terms of hindering investment prospect in the country.

    There is the cynical Luttwak view to “Give War a Chance” by letting the locals slug it out and ethnically cleanse each other until dome national equilibrium is achieved. This more or less is how things worked out in Algeria.

    But ISISs aims appear unlimited and it’s methods are beyond the pale. It is not Hamas or even Al Quaeda. A low intensity campaign could degrade them long enough for Suuni nationalists to once again get their act together and force them out of section, as per Anbar Awakening. Hopefully then using their power to force the Shia into masking some reasonable concessions. Well, that’s my plan, unless anyone else has got a better idea.

    In any case, The US will not allow a sworn enemy of a Israel get hold of billions of dollars per annum in discretionary revenue. So, much against my reconstructed instincts, I’d gave to vote for this action.

  59. Ivor
    September 17th, 2014 at 22:44 | #59

    @Jack Strocchi

    What is the relevance of:

    methods are beyond the pale

    if Saudi Arabia’s beheadings are not “beyond the pale”?

    Can Saudi’s behead people based on creed with no upset in the world’s media?

  60. September 17th, 2014 at 22:53 | #60

    Ivor, get your eyes off the three white guys. ISIS routinely commits mass murder. Check out their videos if you want to see “beyond the pale.” What happened to those three hostages is just the very tip of an extremely bloody iceberg. If they capture land in the South, in addition to the ramifications of oil, they will also commit communal slaughter on a grand scale. Along with various other crimes against humanity such as rape, torture and slavery.

    I don’t agree with Jack that these guys are just bandits, but I certainly agree with him that Obama is being dragged into this by events. Two Americans have been beheaded; the President has to at least be seen to be doing something. Now they have released a video promising more fighting, with grainy footage of a drive by of the white house. What could that possibly mean?? I guess Obama shouldn’t take it seriously, right?

    These guys have in common with a certain violent dictator of the last century that they have acted on everything they said they would do. They aren’t blustering and making empty threats. When they say they will “terrorize their enemies” and “hound them to their deaths,” when they say they will have blood up to their elbows, they mean it. What’s a self-respecting Leader of the Free World meant to do when they start threatening to export terror?

  61. m0nty
    September 17th, 2014 at 23:45 | #61

    Oh faustus, you just invoked Godwin. Bless.

  62. Ivor
    September 17th, 2014 at 23:55 | #62


    My point should not be reduced to some false claim that ISIS only deals with “three white guys”.

    My interest is the seemingly passing-over of the mass murderings by the Saudis who behead people for their beliefs?

    I remember a French text I once read that predicted that the values of 16th century empire buoilding (mass murder, genocide, slavery, rape, terror) would be revisited back by subjucated people when they got the means and chance.

    You only have to read a bit of colonial history to know that all of the infamy of ISIS was contained in several centuries of European slaughter that still underpins today’s global distribution of wealth and opportunity.

    Those who want to oppose ISIS terror have to oppose all terror. If beheadings are beyond the pale for ISIS then they are beyond the pale for Saudis too.

    So that is why I seek clarification as to the apparently different treatment for saudi beheadings as with ISIS beheadings.

    Not to excuse any other tactics by any other group.

    What are self-respecting free thinking people to do when Indonesia, Israel and America export their terror?

  63. patrickb
    September 18th, 2014 at 00:01 | #63

    @Gaius X
    Apparently we’ve had about 60 go there from here. Do you have any information on which western countries the other nn40 may have come from? No, I thought not.

  64. Bernard J.
    September 18th, 2014 at 00:30 | #64


    At this juncture it may be worth pointing to this piece:


    ‘Update II’ is particularly salient.

  65. September 18th, 2014 at 00:50 | #65

    Ivor, Saudi Arabia doesn’t routinely kill men in their hundreds does it?

    Sorry for the Godwin mOnty, I just wanted to point out that sometimes we under-estimate the brutality and purpose of organizations because their claims seem too fantastic to be true. And sometimes we come to regret those mistakes. It’s a case of the boy-who-cried-wolf, I know, we’re all sick to death of the US intelligence services making grandiose claims about how dangerous fragmented and weak terrorist groups are. But in this case it’s not the intelligence services making the claims: it’s the group itself, which then broadcasts evidence of what it’s done and will do. I think in the circumstances Obama doesn’t have much freedom not to act.

    What’s he going to do, go on TV and say “oh yeah, those dudes beheaded two Americans and slaughtered several hundred of the soldiers we trained, but we’re going to do nothing. Let the Saudis clean it up”?

  66. September 18th, 2014 at 02:15 | #66

    Perhaps, we might have reasonably expected the Prime Minister and The Leader of the Opposition to both provide a serious analysis making the case for a new war. The PM is so inured, it seems, with populist posturing, sloganeering, and perhaps short term political advance, that detailed analysis and assessment of consequences does not enter into it. Nor it seems, does he deem to consider it necessary to past sequence of events in the Middle East. So far this has worked well enough with the media, if not the polls. Of course, it may be that UAR might meet the bill for the new guests, whose services may not be required. Thus Tony Abbott has a PR coup and the budget emergency is not further imperilled. Shadow play as politics make serious analysis fraught, if not impossible.

  67. John Quiggin
    September 18th, 2014 at 05:31 | #67

    The claims that ISIS is uniquely evil seem very similar to those made about Saddam in the leadup to the last war.

  68. Ken Lovell
    September 18th, 2014 at 06:26 | #68

    The obsessive harping on the beheadings as “barbarian”, and the perpetrators as being therefore beyond-the-pale crazy savages, is illustrative of the way the developed world expects everyone else to play by its values. I suspect many in the Muslim world regard it as beyond barbaric that Americans can sit in air-conditioned comfort in Texas and use a video console to execute this week’s extra-judicial assassination list that just got emailed from the White House. Or that pilots can drop bombs with impunity from 30000 feet and wipe out -oops! a wedding party, sorry about that. Or that a helicopter gun ship can blow away kids gathering firewood because, you know, sticks look like guns from a distance and fog of war, stuff happens!

    We don’t turn a hair about that kind of stuff because it’s civilised and we don’t sully the media with pictures of the gory outcomes. We just look at the pretty explosions from afar. But personally I think it’s even more inhuman and degrading than the guy who uses a knife.

  69. Gaius X
    September 18th, 2014 at 07:17 | #69


    Wake up and smell the coffee:

    Although precise figures are hard to verify, the number of Westerners now fighting alongside militants in Iraq and Syria has by all accounts surged. A June report by the New York-based intelligence organization The Soufan Group describes a region transformed into an “incubator for a new generation of terrorists,” with more than 12,000 foreign fighters from at least 81 countries stationed in Syria alone. Of that number, approximately 2,500 are from Western nations, including the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany and Great Britain.

    Many other sources give much the same figs.

  70. Paul Norton
    September 18th, 2014 at 07:46 | #70

    Derrida Derider @53:

    Ah, but not many barbaric terrorists who succeed in beheading Americans on prime-time TV. Why do you attribute some tortured foreign policy rationale for Obama’s actions when he has a domestic politics imperative? I suspect Obama knows this is unlikely to end well for anyone, but he’s basically doing what he has to to get Congress off his back.

    Peter Beinart offers some interesting analysis on this point.

  71. Ikonoclast
    September 18th, 2014 at 08:16 | #71

    @Jack Strocchi

    I take your thesis at face value. The US fights in the M.E. to secure oil. This makes it the most expensive oil ever imported. At a rough average, the US has imported about 8 million bpd from the rest of the world since 1990. (Starting at 6 million bpd in 1990, rising to nearly 11 million bpd in 2007 and slumping back to about 8.5 million bpd now.) The wars in Iraq alone have cost and/or will cost (veteran costs etc.) US $3 trillion. That is roughly $120 billion per year or roughly $330 million per day. So it’s $330 million divided by 11 million barrels = $30 a barrel excess costs. And this amortises the costs over all US oil imports not just M.E. imports.

    In fact, a bit less than half of US oil imports come from the Arab part of OPEC but let’s call it half. Now, this means the US has paid $60 a barrel surcharge on Arabian oil. Meanwhile what happens? China now gets more oil from the M.E. than the US does. How much has China paid in wars to secure M.E. oil? Not anything, IIRC. All this looks like a massive own goal by the U.S.

    China understand Napoleon’s dictum “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.” No doubt Sun Tzu said it first.

  72. Gaius X
    September 18th, 2014 at 08:26 | #72

    That was a good article. Thanks, Paul.

  73. Ikonoclast
    September 18th, 2014 at 08:30 | #73

    @Gaius X

    You need to get some perspective. The numbers you quote are historically insignificant. Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812 was composed of about 550,000 men. This included 300,000 Frenchmen and 250,000 soldiers of other nationalities. So 250,000 men of other nationalities, albeit temporarily part of the French Empire, went and fought the Russians with Napoleon. World population then was about 1 billion so an equivalent today would be seven times that number or 1,750,000 men. When ISIS/ISIL attracts 1,750,000 men of other nationalities in addition to its local M.E. soldiers then I will sit up and take notice. Until then, I will not be subscribing to this immature hysteria about a tiny force by any hisorical standards.

  74. September 18th, 2014 at 08:57 | #74

    John, everyone knew western govts were lying then, it was as clear as day, and lots of people said there was no alternative to Hussein. This time around the evidence is being released publicly and proudly by the perpetraors, and there are clear alternatives to them. Why do you insult your readers with such a facile comparison? Have you read or watched any of the work of ISIS? These people are not some shadowy boogeyman like al Qaeda was in 2005 or 2006, they are a serious threat to several states in the Middle East, threatening communal violence on a mass scale and known to carry out their threats.

    So many opponents of intervention here still fighting the last political battle, using the one-size-fits-all “American interests” and “bush lied” logic. This is a classic failure of analysis … You have to assess events in terms of what is actually happening, not the imperialist phantoms in your head!

  75. patrickb
    September 18th, 2014 at 09:10 | #75

    @Gaius X
    Well that puts things into perspective, a relatively small number given the aggreate of the populations of the countries mentioned. I’d also caution against swallowing figures from terrorism research outfits. Some of the rhetoric from people like Greg Barton is positively hysterical. And it appears to me that there just as many bodies researching terrorism as ther are miltant groups, there’s obviously no shortage of funding. I wonder why noone questions their motives in the same way deniers question climate researchers?

  76. September 18th, 2014 at 09:13 | #76

    So all it takes is killing two or three white dudes, and videoing a driveby of the White House, to suck the West in to spending billions to ship armament to the Middle East? That is almost as flimsy as the justification for Gulf War II.

    I would like our leaders to show more backbone than that. Hawks are lily livered cowards. IS is not Hitler.

    Let the Kingdom fight their own battles. The Sauds created this monster, expend their blood & treasure to fix it, not ours.

  77. Gaius X
    September 18th, 2014 at 09:18 | #77

    Faustusnotes, isn’t it cowardly of you to to constantly taunt and insult the host of this blog while hiding behind an anonymous moniker? Why all this attention seeking behaviour? Don’t you have a life to go to?

  78. Ikonoclast
    September 18th, 2014 at 09:27 | #78


    Take a Bex and have a good lie down mate.

  79. Ikonoclast
    September 18th, 2014 at 09:30 | #79

    Yes, I know Bex had phenacetin in it which is now banned. Phenacetin metabolises into paracetamol. Hysteria metabolises into stupidity.

  80. September 18th, 2014 at 10:11 | #80

    If we were, in fact, looking for a strategy that had > snowball’s chance in hell, we would throw our weight behind Assad.

  81. Fran Barlow
    September 18th, 2014 at 11:04 | #81

    Ah, our Saudi allies in the fight against barbarism and death cultism:

    A public beheading will typically take place around 9am. The convicted criminal walks into the square and kneels in front of the executioner. The executioner uses a sword known as a sulthan to remove the criminal’s head from his or her body at the neck. Sometimes it may take several strikes before victim is decapitated. After the criminal is pronounced dead, a loudspeaker announces the crimes committed by the beheaded criminal and the process is complete. This is the most common method of execution in Saudi Arabia because it is specifically called for by Sharia Law. Professional executioners behead as many as ten people in a single day. The severed head is usually sewn back on, and sometimes put on crucifixes for public display. In 2011, an Indonesian maid’s dead body was hung from a helicopter for display.

  82. Ikonoclast
    September 18th, 2014 at 11:46 | #82

    Q. What’s the difference between a cult and a religion?
    A. A few thousand members.

    Every religion started as a cult. This includes all of today’s major religions. Modern monotheist religions are only reasonable and humane insofar as the humanist and scientific revolutions took ethical and empirical ground from them. They lost appeal as death cults (all unreformed monotheist religions were death cults until well after the reformation in Europe) and put on newer and more reasonable robes. Only the humanist and scientific revolutions forced monotheist religions into a more reasonable and moral form. Periodically, some fundamentalists of all monotheist religions revert to death cultism. That is, they return to their roots.

  83. sunshine
    September 18th, 2014 at 11:55 | #83

    The USA creates a vacuum in which a group springs up and makes genocide. ISIS now, Khmer Rouge then .

  84. DP
    September 18th, 2014 at 12:05 | #84


    You couldn’t spare us could you, the “religion is bad, science is good” dichotomy? And then you’ll wonder why kids are pulling out of science study.

  85. Ikonoclast
    September 18th, 2014 at 12:23 | #85


    Religion is indoctrination into beliefs which are without any empirical basis. Why should I spare pointing that out? This doesn’t mean I simplistically assert that all science is good. Nor do I subscribe to excessive scientism where it tends to reductionism and claims of absolutely certain knowledge. Typically it is religion which makes the most claims about absolutely certain truth with the least evidence to support it.

  86. rog
    September 18th, 2014 at 12:25 | #86

    @Paul Norton Peter Beinart gets to the heart of the matter, IMO. Anxiety drives politics and Abbott successfully harnessed public anxiety – over the economy, invasion by foreign forces in boats, loss of normality.

  87. Fran Barlow
    September 18th, 2014 at 12:45 | #87

    Reason, which includes of course, ‘meta-reason’ — an examination of the integrity of reasoning — and based on that, an intellectually robust specification of salient data and its evaluation and realted inference-making are foundational for those seeking insight into cultural usage and their relationships with them.

    That’s not a guarantee of access to truth of course. Truth is elusive, assuming that it can exist at all, but in the absencve of the effort to apply reason and its associated practices, one must surely abandon all hope of insight.

    I think it was Mencken who said that to attempt to reason with someone whose method was faith was as useful as administering first aid to a dead person.

  88. September 18th, 2014 at 12:52 | #88

    m0nty, it seems to me that this will be enough to draw Obama back in, along with the death of soldiers we had trained, risks to allies, and sunk cost fallacy. Although today Obama seems to be insisting no troops will be on the ground. It appears he is aiming for the policy that will show America at its most ineffectual…

    You say that the Saudis should sort it out, but Rabee points out here before and in his/her blogpost that the Saudis can’t fix the problem – they are in trouble whether they act or not. If they can’t fix the problem, what then?

  89. m0nty
    September 18th, 2014 at 13:14 | #89

    Bombing with no infantry has been tried before by a Democratic president in recent history, with a lot better effect than ground wars under recent Republican presidents.

    American air support to clear ISIS out, then Saudi ground troops to winkle out the remnants would seem to me to be the most obvious answer. If there’s a spring clean for House Saud at home as a result, that’s just a bonus.

  90. frankis
    September 18th, 2014 at 13:21 | #90

    This may be surprising. Friedman of the Times makes not the silliest argument you’ve read for circumspection regarding Islamic State matter:

  91. patrickb
    September 18th, 2014 at 14:55 | #91

    Jesus, everytime one of the idiots in charge opens their mouth to make some grandiose and at once vacuous statement it leads to further division and rancour. Abbott ups the ‘terror threat rating’, police run rampant through the streets and skies of major cities, people are (apparently) brandishing ISIL flags and making threatening statements from moving vehicles outside schools. Way to keep the public calm boys. And I wonder who the ‘random member of the public’ was … and why they were chosen over just a ‘member of the public’?

  92. Ken Miles
    September 18th, 2014 at 16:18 | #92

    As far as I can tell, ISIS/ISIL are now confined to Sunni areas where they have a fair degree of popular support.

    Is there any strong (or weak) evidence for this assertion?

    I’m highly skeptical that ISIS has a great deal of popular support given the speed of its advance (owing to the collapse of the Iraqi army) and the extreme violence that it uses on civilians/prisoners.

  93. Doug
    September 18th, 2014 at 16:36 | #93

    Reports in european papers suggest ISIS is working to deliver services to the Sunni communities in place of apparently non-existent services from the previous Iraqi government.

  94. patrickb
    September 18th, 2014 at 16:55 | #94

    There is a doco from Vice news that shows in some detail what is going on in ISIL controlled Iraq. It’s well made and not very pleasant but it does give an insight into ISIL’s attempts to set up their versions of the institutions of state. Worth a look.

  95. September 18th, 2014 at 17:01 | #95

    They also claim to be setting up welfare systems and distributing food. Their magazine juxtaposes mass murders with pictures of aid distribution. They have a story about capturing a pharmaceutical plant and distributing medicine. I wonder if they’ll handle the measles vaccines a little better than the free Syrian army have managed…?

  96. John Quiggin
    September 18th, 2014 at 18:47 | #96

    @Ken Miles

    DuckDuckGo (or, if you must, Google) gives lots of hits to a search on Isis+support+sunnis. Obviously, I don’t have any special knowledge, but the existence of substantial Sunni support doesn’t seem to be contested seriously. In turn, that creates big problems for an operation aimed at driving them out of Sunni areas, even of plenty of people in those areas would secretly welcome it.

  97. September 18th, 2014 at 19:44 | #97

    Ikonoclast @ #20 said:

    I take your thesis at face value. The US fights in the M.E. to secure oil. This makes it the most expensive oil ever imported. In fact, a bit less than half of US oil imports come from the Arab part of OPEC but let’s call it half. Now, this means the US has paid $60 a barrel surcharge on Arabian oil….Meanwhile what happens? China now gets more oil from the M.E. than the US does. How much has China paid in wars to secure M.E. oil? Not anything, IIRC. All this looks like a massive own goal by the U.S.

    No iknonoklast, you have not “taken my thesis at face-value”, more like ass-backwards. Ive banged on about since this whole mess started, way back in 2003, that the US does NOT make war for oil. In fact it went to much trouble to impose sanctions on Husseins oil industry which evidently harmed its economic interests.

    The rationale for US strategic intervention in the ME is not to get cheaper oil costs for its own allies industries, but to deny expensive oil revenues to its enemies militaries. This is based on the fundamental strategic principle that denying your enemy assets is a more efficient way to use strategic power than increasing ones allies assets.

    That is why Hitler, correctly, made Army Group South’s drive towards Stalingrad the priority over Army Group North’s move on Leningrad and Army Group Centre’s attack on

    The US has little choice but to destroy ISIS as its current strategy or capturing Suuni area oil fields to finance terrorism is a threat to regional stability esp Israel. Moreover ISIS attacks on Shia and Kurd oil fields undermines Iraq’s economic viability.

    This is not a “war”, it is pest control, preventing the bugs from starting a pandemic.

  98. September 18th, 2014 at 19:56 | #98

    Pr Q @ #45 said:

    the existence of substantial Sunni support doesn’t seem to be contested seriously. In turn, that creates big problems for an operation aimed at driving them out of Sunni areas, even of plenty of people in those areas would secretly welcome it.

    It would not matter if ISIS had “substantial Suuni support” or not. The ME has always been run by the kind of guys for whom too much was not enough. What other region rewards political success with multiple wives? The stakes for political conflict are lineal extinction. Thats why ME political disputes always seem to boil down to clan feuds. As steve sailer said way back in May 2004:

    Forget the opinion polls — in an insurrection you don’t count noses, you count balls.

  99. September 18th, 2014 at 20:21 | #99

    Jack Strocchi @#8 said:

    A low intensity campaign could degrade them long enough for Suuni nationalists to once again get their act together and force them out of section, as per Anbar Awakening.

    Apologies for repeated self-referential quotes but a quick google shows that the same “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic that applied back in the Anbar Uprising-Surge period of 2006-07 is applicable now, as Anbar Suunis are fighting back against ISIS bloodbaths:

    Members of more than 25 prominent Sunni tribes took up arms against the Islamic State (IS) and their allies west of the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Friday, a tribal leader and officers said.

    The uprising in Anbar province, where militants from IS and insurgent allies hold major areas came a day after Nuri al-Maliki, the incumbent premier who is widely reviled by Iraqi Sunni Arabs, abandoned his bid for a third term.

    Anbar was the birthplace of a 2006 US-backed uprising against extremist militants that helped bring about a sharp reduction in violence. The current effort could potentially be a major turning point in Iraq’s two-month conflict against an IS-led offensive.

    “This popular revolution was agreed on with all the tribes that want to fight IS, which spilled our blood,” Sheikh Abduljabbar Abu Risha, one of the leaders of the uprising, told AFP.

    This suggests that Obama is taking a leaf out of Bushs playbook by piggybacking US military force on a local militia that is prepared to stand and fight. The original “Surge” would never have achieved success had not local Suuni tribes. fed up with Helter-Skelter style Al Quaeda attacks. decided to drive the foreigners out. It looks like the same strategic logic is now at work, given ISIS seems to rely on foreigners for its more malignant “propaganda of the deed”.

  100. kevin1
    September 18th, 2014 at 22:19 | #100

    When looking at the local spokesmen, suspects and perpetrators of violent extremism on TV, I mainly see “youf” in all its unvarnished glory, with the old folks fighting for respectability with Norm and Edna Everage, essentially in a defensive action to maintain their insider status, and often saying “we can’t control them”. Rarely discussed is the absence of an extremist presence within the muslim sub-Boomers: the generation between the youff and the ageing snowtops.

    Perhaps OTT, but how important is the element of millenarianism (though now less centralist) amongst the ascendant generation, as mirrored in the Occupy/Indignados/Syriza/Arab Spring political movements. Previously, amongst the baby boomers this manifested as politically oriented “socialism” or dropout oriented “individualism”. And how much of the extremism is (over-simplifying here) Oedipal and hormone-related?

    I thought of this tonight having been to a couple of environmental “action” meetings recently where the modus operandi seems to be “influence mongering”, by which I mean a carefully targeted accretion of “voting intentions” to leverage policy changes amongst political parties at he local (State govt) level.

    Not the same as exerting political power through pulling together a physical presence in the street, showing a commitment (and posing a threat) greater than easy-peasey online signature provision. Grassroots agitation is rarely the way nowadays – an alternative systemic vision has been replaced by a debate about “tweaking” tactics where the masses are the battering ram for the wise leaders who arrange “stunts” which shake the establishment (irony here).

    An example on the ABC tonight was the launch of a new food advisory website by the George Institute, which was presented by the young ABC journo as filling a gap in information provision due to “delays” by the government. Yeah, right, inadvertent I’m sure, cos if there was some doubt about who calls the shots, the spokesperson for the Minister made it clear. She said she “does have some concerns” about the George Institute website because “food companies are best placed to calculate star ratings for their products” as they may hold information not available to the Institute.

    This proves the journalism here is a step backwards: the less important (yet safe) pursuit of empirics is allowed to overpower the more important analytical framework. There are no doubt many reasons for this approach taking root, including the worldview supporting a diminution of conscious class loyalties by the dominant class. But instead of fighting for truth against vested political interests, the story is framed as just one of different approaches (sigh).

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