Hugh White

Quarterly Essay 58 tells an interesting story about the War on Terror, exploring how it has been conducted, how it has evolved and why it has failed so far, all illuminated by David Kilcullen’s colourful accounts of his own role in it. But it also presents a policy argument about what should be done next. Like Tony Abbott, though apparently for different reasons, David sees ISIS as a deadly threat that must be eliminated, and like Abbott he argues that the West, including Australia, should commit armed forces to do this. The difference is that David thinks we need to be doing much more in Iraq than Abbott has so far signed up to. David argues for this by explaining why he thinks ISIS poses a threat to us, and why he thinks a bigger Western military intervention would remove that threat. Alas, I’m not sure either element of this argument is compelling.

Let’s start by asking how ISIS threatens the West, and Australia specifically. David offers four answers (in the passage starting on page 69). First he mentions remote radicalisation – the danger that ISIS’s example will inspire acts of terrorism at home. But as he says, this is not really a strategic threat to our societies, because the numbers killed are quite low. Of course it is a problem that needs to be taken seriously, but I think David agrees that it is best dealt with by good intelligence, policing and outreach here at home rather than by trying to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Second, he mentions the foreign fighter issue – the relatively large numbers of Westerners who have joined ISIS. It is not completely clear to me how David sees this as a threat to Australia or the West, though presumably his main concern, like Tony Abbott’s, is that they will return with the skills and motivation to amplify the terrorist threat here at home. In this context David presents what he calls “the most persuasive reason for a forward strategy,” which is that if we do not fight ISIS in the Middle East, then the measures to contain the consequent terrorist threat at home will turn our societies into police states. This argument is compelling only if we accept that the terrorist threat would otherwise be serious enough to warrant the kind of draconian measures he goes on to describe. But that has not been established. As so often since 2001, the potential for terrorism to pose an existential threat is assumed, when it needs to be demonstrated. Of course David might be suggesting that we are in danger of turning our nation into a police state even if the threat does not warrant it. That is indeed a risk, but the best way to avoid that risk is to have a more responsible, better-informed and less politically opportunistic debate at home, not to go off to fight more wars abroad.

Third, David mentions the potential for ISIS to inspire and support Islamist insurgencies elsewhere around the world. This too is a legitimate concern, but is it a big enough problem to warrant a large-scale military intervention in Iraq and Syria? That depends on how seriously these other insurgencies affect our interests, and how much difference ISIS support makes to them. The answers to these questions cannot be taken for granted.

Fourth, David argues that ISIS must be defeated to remove the threat of a general collapse of the Middle East regional order, including the real risk of full-scale war between the region’s larger powers. This is indeed a major concern, and raises much more significant issues globally and for the West specifically than the other reasons David offers for another military intervention in the Middle East. But we need to be careful about assuming that ISIS is the cause of this problem and that destroying ISIS would remove it. ISIS itself is only a symptom and a consequence of bigger trends that are destroying the old post-Ottoman regional order in the Middle East, and there is no reason at all to believe that removing ISIS will restore that order, or prevent further instability and conflict.

The other question we have to consider is how likely it is that the military intervention David advocates would succeed in destroying ISIS. He is careful to argue that this would not be another counterinsurgency campaign like that in Afghanistan. That’s because, he says, ISIS is not an insurgency but a state, and needs to be fought like a state. Nor does he argue that the West should deploy its own armies to defeat ISIS themselves. Instead it should do more – much more – of what it is already doing in Iraq: providing air support and training, advice and assistance to Iraqi forces so they can do the job themselves. In particular, he thinks Western military advisers need to accompany Iraqi forces into the fighting on the front-line.

But how likely is any of this to make a real difference in Iraq? For a long time now, people have assumed that Western training and example can turn ill-trained, under-motivated and unpaid soldiers into war winners. It very rarely works. Moreover, as David himself acknowledges, security assistance alone makes no difference without wider social, political and economic reforms, and what chance is there of those in Iraq today? No better than in Afghanistan five or ten years ago. So it is very unlikely that a larger Western intervention would do any good, and quite likely that it would do real harm, making the situation even worse. It would not be the first time that has happened, after all.

Better, then, to leave the Iraqis and their neighbours to sort this one out without our help. That does not mean sitting back while ISIS takes over the Middle East, of course, because ISIS is already contained by the powers it has come up against – Turkey, the Kurds, Iraqi Shi’as and of course Iran, as well as Sunni rivals and adversaries inside and outside Iraq and Syria. These are the forces that will determine the shape of the new Middle East and ISIS’s role in it, and there is not much that we in the West can do to shape the outcome, so we should not try unless the imperative is much more compelling, and the means much more effective, than David’s arguments suggest.

Of course this is an uncomfortable conclusion for those who believe in America’s and the West’s power to shape the world. That idea is being challenged today in the Middle East, as well as in Eastern Europe and East Asia. I suspect that this is the real reason why so many in the West find what is happening there so disconcerting. ISIS does not really threaten Australia or the West strategically in any substantial way, but it does threaten our assumption that the West can and should control what happens in the region.

That is why the most telling passage in David’s Quarterly Essay is the one in which he warns that a US decision not to intervene against ISIS threatens the whole post-1945 global order. David worries that if America doesn’t step in to defeat ISIS in the Middle East it will mark the end of this whole era in which America’s ability and willingness to use its preponderant power has kept the world safe and stable. David’s essay is infused with his confidence that the West, led by Washington, can still do this. But all the evidence, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon – as well as Iran, Ukraine, Georgia, North Korea and the South China Sea – shows that this era has already passed. Another sad and costly failure in Iraq would not bring it back. 


Hugh White is the author of Quarterly Essay 39, Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing. He is a professor of strategic studies at ANU and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 58, Blood Year. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 59, Faction Man.


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