Sowing dragon's teeth in Iraq


Silhouette of soldiers

Only a year ago loud voices called for military intervention in Syria against the Assad regime. Now the same voices call for military intervention in Syria and Iraq against a feared opponent of the Assad regime. Many of us are caught between our desire to see the barbarous actions of the Islamic State (IS) halted and our justifiable lack of trust in military intervention and in its proponents. Caught in such hesitation, we might helpfully think through the tests any intervention must satisfy.

Two kinds of intervention have been proposed. Both are envisaged to be conducted by the United States armed forces. One, already practiced, has been to launch limited attacks on IS forces in Iraq to prevent the massacre of civilians. This seems justifiable by most criteria for the making of war. It has been requested by the legitimate government of Iraq. The cause of freeing civilians from the risk of murder is just. The use of force is proportionate and limited, and the military means used seem appropriate to the goal sought: the safety of the civilians. The risk of any longer term harm from the action, such as intensifying internal conflicts in Iraq, also seems small.

The second kind of intervention proposed is to use military force to destroy the IS both in Iraq and in Syria. This proposal is open to criticism on many grounds. It must be authorised. But although the Iraq government may allow action on its territory, the permission of the Syrian Government is unlikely to be sought or given. So any action would need to be authorised by the United Nations. This is unlikely to happen. Authorisation is not a mere formality. In both Iraq and Syria many freelancing militias fight for their own interests. A Western force that joined them in bombing and killing would strip the enterprise of any humanitarian pretensions it had.

It may be conceded that the cause of curbing the Islamic State is just and calls for a police action, but those who call for action against it envisage something more – perhaps destroying its capacity to fight, killing all its leaders, or even exterminating it. When this uncertainty of goals is married to the rhetoric of the war against terror, the cause becomes a blank cheque. It should not be signed.  

The vagueness of what is envisaged in the call for military action against IS makes it difficult to establish whether the harm caused would be proportionate to the good achieved. Attacking IS military forces in open country, for example, would be very different from attacking the buildings in which they took shelter in towns and cities and so causing many civilian casualties. Still, in purely military terms, it is possible to argue that the good of weakening IS's capacity to cause mayhem would outweigh the harm.

But in interventions like this we must look beyond military goals to the political ends that are sought. These are to create conditions for peace and safety in a devastated, divided and militarised region. To ask whether Western military intervention will help secure these goals, we should examine the results of earlier interventions. The record is not good. The aid given to the mujahideen against the Russian occupation forces in Afghanistan spawned the Taliban. The attack on Iraqi forces in Kuwait contributed to the growth of Al Qaeda and the war against terror. The invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein led to sectarian war, to the wiping out of the Iraq Christian church, and to the conditions for IS to flourish. The action in Libya against Muammar Gadaffi led to tribal warfare and the resurgence of militant Islam.

None of these things were predicted. But the catalogue suggests strongly that Western military intervention will make things worse. Their military are operating out of their own culture with minimal understanding of the complex societies in which they fight. They have little reliable intelligence. They and their nations of origin will be manipulated and used by sectional groups, and will be blamed for all the consequences of the actions in which they are involved.

This point is embodied in the strategies of Hamas in Gaza and of IS in Iraq. Both movements are militarily weak in comparison with Israel or the United States. But the strategy of each group is to draw its enemies into massive military intervention. What the stronger party sees as bombs, shells and incidental victims, the other side sees as recruiting officers for their movement and the glue that binds their supporters together, united against a more powerful foe. Why should the West dance to the Islamic State's tune?

The final test of military action is whether it will be successful. Ultimately success must be judged in political terms. In the open-ended military intervention advocated in Iraq and Syria, we can anticipate an increasingly destructive campaign leading eventually to a weary withdrawal, leaving behind dragons' teeth sown to beget even more powerful enemies. It should not be countenanced. 

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.Andrew Hamilton

Image via shutterstock.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Islamic State, Iraq, Syria, war, intervention



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Existing comments

Exactly, Andrew. What war did the USA ever stay the distance in? None that I recall so why would this one be any different? Bully boys or peacemakers?

Chris | 28 August 2014  

The situation presented is an example of "Damned if we do, and damned if we don't.' The only long term solution is for ALL factions to move beyond and above the 'We are right and all others are wrong' stance. Every religion seems to embrace this vision of itself, and is fearful of the consequences for its own followers if it admits that 'its interpretation of God's will is just one, that is tailored to their degree of development and culture. The call of 'God is on OUR side' needs to be replaced by the question, 'Are we on God's Side?' The cycle of retaliation for every perceived insult or injury can last forever and create lasting harm. Leaders need to lead, and not be led by short-sighted self-centred 'rabble rousers'.

Name | 28 August 2014  

Well said Andrew. It is called being 'in a cleft stick'. God help us.

Penny | 28 August 2014  

Chris, I think you are being forgetful. World Wars 1 and 2 come to mind, as does Korea. After that, you may well be right. Nevertheless, I think Andrew is spot on. I also think it's time the powers in the Middle East started taking more responsibility for policing their own backyard. Suadi Arabia is conspicuously absent in any of these struggles. Perhaps it suits the Saudis for the West to continually fall on its sword.

ErikH | 28 August 2014  

St. Augustine of Hippo has contributed Just War Theory to Christian (and Western) thought. The doctrine that war is morally justifiable through a series of criteria: "the right to go to war" (jus ad bellum) and right conduct of war (jus in bello). Modern thought has added a third category to Just War Theory dealing with the morality of post-war settlement and reconstruction (jus post bellum). Sowing dragon's teeth in Iraq is an apt description of Just War Theory - jus post bellum.

Robert G. Mulligan | 28 August 2014  

Very timely and rigorously argued, thank you. Only Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt call for proper parliamentary debate before ADF bombing operations start. Labor's stance so far is weak - calling for "briefings"(doubtless confidential) from govt. Such briefings run risk of implicating Labor in warmaking without proper public, parliamentary debate. CGS Air Marshal Binskin is improperly joining in public debate, no doubt with Abbott's prior encouragement. Didn't we learn anything from our involvement in Iraq War 2? Here we go again into Iraq War 3, it seems.

Tony Kevin | 28 August 2014  

"The final test of military action is if it will be successful". I wonder, Father Hamilton if all those men who flocked to New Guinea when the Japanese threatened death to innocent unarmed civilians in Australia, did so because they thought they would be successful. Perhaps they thought they were doing something noble for humanity and civilisation by having the guts to protect the innocent.

john frawley | 28 August 2014  

John Frawley, I cannot answer your question with regard to “all those men who flocked to New Guinea” but I can tell you about one of them. My father. He was slow to enlist during the 2nd world war, and by the time he did most of the places for men to be army officers were already occupied. He was advised by a “mate” that if he volunteered to go to New Guinea he would have the chance to be an officer. So he did. I think he was largely uninterested in what the war was about or what was actually happening in New Guinea before he went there. Well, he was just one man. Perhaps the others who flocked had different motives.

Janet | 28 August 2014  

I certainly sympathise with the concern about “uncertainty of goals” and “the vagueness of what is envisaged”. And if people reject Western-style liberal democracies and prefer to kill each other, I don’t believe Australians should waste lives and treasure on trying to persuade them differently. It is impossible to talk rationally with the Boko Haram leader who says “you are all pagans and we will kill you”, or with Saudi Sheikh Muhammed Munajid who proclaimed, “according to Islamic law, Mickey Mouse should be killed in all cases.” But the issue certainly is about the slaughter of thousands of innocents, including the beheading of children. Time and again the world and the UN have stood idly by while genocides have taken place in countries such as Cambodia and Rwanda. If we can help prevent this slaughter, we should. How we accomplish this is the difficult question. The Rich Man was condemned not because he was an evil man, but because he was negligent—it was within his power to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, yet he ignored him.

Ross Howard | 28 August 2014  

John Frawley, Why must you equate a borderless 'war' against armed gangs of murderous roaming socio-paths with the Second World War or don't you acknowledge that there is any difference in International Law and public morality?

David Timbs | 28 August 2014  

Dear David Timbs, I was simply suggesting that perhaps the "final test of military action is that it will be successful" may not be correct in many cases and some may feel that the barbarism against innocents should be stopped if necessary by military means.

Name | 28 August 2014  

It seems to me that in a highly confused and morally ambiguous situation in the middle east, one thing stands out, and that is that IS needs to be stopped in its attempts to destroy the central Iraqi government (as bad as it is) and especially the people in the Kurdish enclave. I would support air power in close support of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and any attempts to re-gain control of Christian and other non-Arab minority areas.

Eugenew | 28 August 2014  

Thanks Andrew for another illuminating analysis. I had been sympathetic to the idea of going after IS in Syria, but your point that to do so would mean bombing built up areas - given what we've seen in Gaza - makes it a horrifying option.

Joe Castley | 28 August 2014  

Carthago delenda est. All sides speak the words of Cato. The endgame is not in sight. Nineveh is empty of Christians for the first time since before the Emperor Constantine. What is the purpose of the caliphate? Small war on the heel of small war, until the end of time. Lowell's words from Vietnam haunt the American imagination. In early 2003 Colin Powell knew he was lying to the United Nations about WMD. The rest can be read at leisure on our computers at home. Andrew has said it as well as is possible, as we watch on in hope, futile or not, but hope.

CLOSE READING | 28 August 2014  

J Frawlrey, it's not the individual soldiers who decide to take military action - but their government leaders. And so the the just war theory is not about heroism or even protecting the innocent - because the so-called "enemy" they are sent to kill are also innocent victims of their government.

AURELIUS | 29 August 2014  

A most perceptive article. Much more perceptive than some of the comments, I fear. Whatever the West does, it will be making a Devil's Bargain with some very nasty people. Some of the Shiíte militias - like that of Muqtada al Sadr - are almost as bad as Isis. The Iraqi Christians - our co-religionists - are looking to us for help. My father and grandfather were in Iraq in WWI & II. Precious little good British intervention was in either case. I think some of the commenters on "Just War" a la St Augustine are wide of the mark. With modern weaponry it is impossible to prevent "collateral damage" or brutal revenge by one's "allies". I admire Barack Obama and General Martin Dempsey. They know the situation and our extremely cautious. Our Geordie PM (via the Upper North Shore) should defer to them.

Edward Fido | 31 August 2014  

Isn't this amounting to the double-edged sword whichever way you turn - best to pray - you might get more insight

Patricia Travis Manley | 05 September 2014  

Christian countries cannot sit back & do nothing while Islamic fundamentalists terrorise and murder Christians. The stated goal of Islamic law is to kill all infidels. Islamic countries should be given an ultimatum to stop persecutions by extremists in their country themselves or the USA / western Christian countries will be forced to intervene with or without their permission. If those Islamic rulers still do not immediately clamp down on the extremists, or request assistance to do so, then military intervention will be justified. However, clear objectives & scope of intervention must be laid down now. No government or extremist group should be allowed to terrorise & murder defenceless, innocent civilians (or ignore such actions by its citizens or residents) with impunity.

Bob Elliott | 06 September 2014  

Israel is the historic fulcrum of the warfare against evil: support Israel to safeguard civilization.

Jessop Sutton | 12 September 2014  

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