Uncle Sam doesn’t need you

We could learn from Obama’s unwillingness to dive into another Iraq war.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

A wonderful gift! Thank you, Peter Jennings. Your piece in The Weekend Australian (27−28 December) is the highpoint of my Christmastide so far.  I am sure there must be others who would feel the same.

For those who might not yet have read the Jennings article, I commend “War with Islamic State reaches a deadly stalemate.” It is so refreshingly candid, so happily sobering, that I cannot think of a better Christmas gift for Australia.

Peter Jennings is Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Here are his key bracing points:

    • “At best the coalition of countries engaged in the fight [with Islamic State] has delivered a … stalemate.”
    • “[This] is less satisfactory than a believable plan for victory, but better than being drawn further into the morass.”

He quotes US Lieutenant-General James Terry, commander of anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria:

“[It will take] ‘a minimum of three years’ before the conflict might reach a turning point.’ ”

He also cites US General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“If we were to deploy large combat forces, we would essentially take ownership of what must be (Iraq’s) campaign. While we could achieve tactical results, it wouldn’t get at the root of the problem.” 

Then Jennings offers the Abbott government some unequivocal advice:

“Proposals to increase Australia’s role should be resisted until we see a more coherent strategy to defeat Islamic state, stablise Syria and shape a better government in Baghdad.” 

Know your place 

Given no government of national unity in Iraq. Given the alienation of the Sunni minority from the majority Shi’ite government. Given no Iraq army equipped properly for war and with little the stomach for it. Given, crucially, President Obama’s insistence that the fight is Iraq’s to fight. Then, necessarily, Australia can contribute little beyond providing the RAAF with a useful live-firing exercise.

To put it another way, Barack Obama’s “Happy Holiday” message to Australia is this: Uncle Sam doesn’t need you!

Actually, that’s a relief. We should be full of Yuletide gratitude.

For the first time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the USA is actually showing signs of prudence in its approach to Middle East strategic questions. And that, happily, constrains Australian decision makers. Jennings has got that point and has shared it, in the clearest possible terms, with the government. Dare I say it, but his advice is almost realist.

I say “almost” because there is in the article a rising note of discontent with the policies of President Barack Obama.

Unhappiness with the way Obama has performed on foreign policy is understandable.  US Middle East policy on his watch has been full of contradictions. (See my piece Superpower befuddlement.)  But when Obama is at last striking out on a prudent course, and bringing some coherence to the mess, his critics could find themselves stoutly defending a failed strategic paradigm. 

Let’s follow the thread of disgruntlement in Jennings’ analysis. 


First, he points out that US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, was “sacked by Obama because he called for greater action in Syria.” 

Good thing, I say. Hagel was out of line. Obama seems sensibly reluctant to spend American lives and treasure turning Syria into a client state of Turkey the way George W. Bush’s policies turned Iraq into a client of Iran. Since a post-Assad, Sunni dominated Syria will depend heavily on Turkey just to hold together, why should the USA further bleed its men and Treasury to bring about something that, with the destruction of Assad, could hardly be avoided? 

Secondly, Jennings laments that Hagel has been obliged by Obama to rebuff Iraq’s pleas for more heavy weapons.

Fair enough, I reckon. Having equipped one army, which the Iraqis lost in a few days — with much of its weaponry passing into the hands of Islamic State — any US President should be reluctant to provide the wherewithal for a second army that might dissolve just as quickly as the first and with similar advantage to Islamic State. Obama is obviously looking for signs of improved performance, both political and military, before he makes an expanded commitment of US resources. That makes sense to me.

For once American policy is acting as a brake on our plunging deeper into another “dumb war”.

Thirdly — and as if to pre-empt counter arguments such as mine — Jennings makes the following claim: “But American and global interest in the stability of Iraq can’t afford to be kept hostage to a weak government in Baghdad.”

Now that’s interesting. There seems to be a suggestion here that America should discount the unfavourable political terrain on which it would have to fight Islamic State in Iraq. If Iraq’s stability is so important that the USA must ignore the local conditions under which it re-engages militarily, then having taken the plunge back into Iraq, America could find itself stuck there indefinitely. I can think of no national interest vital to the USA – or to us – that would be served by an open-ended commitment to hold together a country whose natural disposition is to fly apart.

Finally, Jennings portends ominous developments. Unless America gets a grip on itself and gets back into Iraq in a more forceful way, “Iran is the only Middle Eastern country that clearly wins from a fragmented Iraq and a devastated Syria.” 

Deal with it

Perhaps the US and its allies should have thought of this before they destroyed the régime of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. But now that America is confronted with the consequences of its intervention in Iraq — a country that can’t hold together – the right course would be not to attempt the impossible. 

Furthermore, if Islamic State seems like a problem for us, then it is a much bigger one for Iran, for Iraq’s Shi’ites and for the Kurds. The fight really is theirs. If, then, the price of defeating Islamic State is the rise of Iran and the partitioning of Iraq then so be it. 

Obama and his advisers must be contemplating just such a development and its implications.  His caution is a happy circumstance for Australia. For once American policy is acting as a brake on our plunging deeper into another “dumb war”: this time by imagining that an American-led West can hold the ring against the rival Sunni and Shia versions of Islam.

Rather than getting grumpy about Obama’s muted response to Islamic State — which Jennings rightly points out Australia has no choice but to accept — perhaps our political leadership could take advantage of America’s slackening appetite for Middle East interventions to ponder the causes of its recent failures and the rationale for our consistently offering them unqualified support.

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