The Debate We’re Not Having

This post is inspired by a question asked at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, a young man approached the microphone to address John Pilger, he asked a question that presumed a lot though he may not have been aware of the implications of his question, it was a question I had not two days early been debating with someone on Facebook, he asks, “ Do you think we should get involved in overseas wars ever? Despite our involvement in 2003 in Iraq… it feels like you’re saying we should just let ISIS kill whoever they want to kill, and commit genocide however they want. Don’t we still have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to help the people who have been beheaded and killed on the streets of Iraq and Syria right now?” and Pilger responds somewhat dismissively of the question, “It’s interesting about the hideous beheadings, how much do you know about the beheading of aboriginal people in the early days of this country?” the audience member interjects, “I’m not defending that” and Pilger responds, “Let me answer the rest of your question, you refer to ‘the misadventure in Iraq’, 700,000 people lost their lives, men, women, children, and you call that misadventure? Nothing, they should do nothing. You’re very selective.”

It was a very interesting response that requires a bit more unpacking. He shot down this poorly worded question in the auditorium session in a way some people felt was unwarranted, evidenced by a later question from the audience calling him out on it and demanding he revisit it and explain further (which he did, discussing the West as the biggest source of Middle East violence through the creation of al-Qaeda, and the 1953 CIA Coup in Iran, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and many other cases, and the need for humanitarian intervention). It may have been a faulty question but it is unfortunately the default response from many people when you say you are opposed to military intervention. These people instantly, and of course wrongly, assume that means you are opposed to any intervention or response, as they also wrongly have been lead to believe military force is the only response available to us, if you don’t preach “fight fire with fire” you therefore by extension are somehow in support of the genocidal actions, check out this article for a prime example. Pilger’s initial response needs some extra explaining in light of the frequency with which we face these assumptions, why was it so “selective”? What had been implied by the questions reference to “moral responsibility” that provoked a response about our past colonial years? People who preach military action, as the ‘obvious’ response, need to understand why a western military response is seen as illegitimate, only then could we have standing ground to act from.

Pilger came back to this and provided some additional context to why he’d simply dismissed the question; presumably he had expected these reasons would be obvious to most of the audience.  Essentially the following are my thoughts on the topic of that exchange. Largely my opinions align with ideas in Pilger’s response.

Genocidal actions and general wide impacting atrocities happen across the world somewhat often really, and in a great many more places than just the middle east, and yet we don’t fly in a bomb these places to oblivion in an act of “moral obligation” to intervene on one side’s behalf to resolve the conflict, so why are we being told that is the only option in the latest developments in Iraq?

Far from suggesting we promote apathy toward these, I question whether the current political and media obsession with military action isn’t overlooking other means of intervention and why that is, additionally I question what “moral authority” we have to presume we must choose a side and use our military to assist them to their ends, this is not about which side to choose and why, but about the way we discuss the reasons why we should and the ways how we could, and the tendency to imply in these discussions that as Western developed nations we are morally obliged to police the world with our advanced military might how we see fit.

It’s important to look at the current U.S. this week reports surfacing that there are calls for an odd/even day bombing as they can’t decide whether they want to bomb the Sunni’s or Assad’s regime. We, the West, don’t like either side for our own ends, we don’t want either side to win so why not bomb both and kill civilians on all side? This is the kind of muddy water we trench into when we decide to use our military to decide the outcomes of other people’s wars.

In the 1980s western intelligence agencies developed the tactics we see terrorist groups today using and spread them throughout the Middle East. In 2003 a “coalition of willing” nations, followed the United States into an invasion of Iraq based on utterly discredited lies, the gun-toting blind led the gun-toting blind into a war against an idea, it turns out ideas are bulletproof and the bystanders were the ones shot. And of course the West, particularly the United States has a history of installing Governments in the Middle East (and South America) that have favourable views towards U.S. interests and agendas, often these have been installed through engineered coups sometimes, in South America for example, democratically elected governments have been pushed out by the U.S. and dictators installed.

The Iraq Invasion and so-called “War on Terror” have had some of the highest civilian death tolls on any West involved wars, often as a result of indiscriminate airstrikes.

In light of this history of violence we have no place of moral superiority from which to preach that we have the might, right or duty to ensure the most righteous result. Perhaps we feel obligated to intervene due to our role in creating the current landscape? If we made this mess we ought to play some part in cleaning it up right? But what should that part look like? Military actions made the mess; will more military action fix it? It seems to me unlikely. If we spill a carton of milk, we wipe it up; we don’t pour more milk on the floor. Violence begets violence.

We of course should not stand-by and do nothing, but we should not assume for a moment that we are morally obligated to add to the violence in our attempts to end it.

There is no moral high ground in this, and for us to have any moral standing to address this with intervention of any shape, we must discuss our role in generating the problem, if only in order to contextualize it and understand the true nature of the issues surrounding it.

I don’t know what the response should look like, but it should certainly involve a far more humanitarian approach than bombing both sides on alternating days, and it should not be entered into from a discussion of the issues as ones whose outcomes we have an ordained right to determine according to our own interests rather than the interests of the people in the region.

So, we’re not saints, we have no higher moral right to decide the end of essentially a civil war abroad, but why is there still such a push for military intervention? Obviously nobody likes to sit by and watch a genocide, though we have done this many times in the past, and this creates a public will for something to do about it, but why  is the solution offered military and how is that public will so easily twisted around to support a course of action that will likely just cause even more deaths?

There are of course a myriad of factors that drive the push for intervention, one is the Government’s currently very low approval rating and the fact that anti-terror laws have been the only policy of this Government that have been positively received in terms of approval with 77% of Australians supporting them despite the very shallow investigation and discussion of them in the media. If the Government appears decisive and is seen to be acting, strong and determined in the face of a crisis voter confidence and approval rises something this Government desires after months of low approval and a short honeymoon period with voter disillusioned by the budget.

There are of course historical factors as mentioned above with our involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and our ties with the United States and Britain, and their involvement in the region in question since the 80s. These create a precedent of military response.

Oil is one factor many people, I feel somewhat naively, credit as being the only driving force behind the very strong push for the re-entering of Iraq by our military. With a very large deep sea oil field recently discovered off the Western Australian coast (300 million barrels), Australia specifically has little to directly gain in this area from a military presence or installed Western friendly Government in Iraq that it couldn’t get from exploring this oil reserve. Of course a West friendly Government controlling Iraq’s oil (est. 43 billion barrels in reserve) or to a lesser extent Syria’s oil (60,000 barrells a day – less than 0.1% of total world production). Obviously with Islamic State making $3M a day through the sale of oil, and oil’s effect on the U.S. economy and the global economy (even the talks of air strikes on Syria have caused economic waves – despite it’s small production output), it is a large factor, but by no means the only factor.

To me it would seem looking at the political and media surface of the current Australian zeitgeist there are many other factors at play here:

The fact that the west feels Muslims are a rising threat, this can be seen in the media with the fixation on Home Grown Terrorists (all of 60 people have left “Team Australia” to go join “Team Islamic State” – that only leaves Team Aussie with 21,999,940 people on the bench – though with the renewed hype around Terrorism you’d be forgiven thinking those numbers were reversed), and Immigration. The marginalising of Australian Muslims and other non-Christian or Jewish identifiers is blindingly obvious looking at the media surface, this may be at a disconnect with the Australian people, but slam the public’s face into the political and media surfaces painted in slurs about a certain group long enough and they might just come to the party.

Other factors obviously include foreign relations, though I wish Australia was let to make it’s own mind up with some sovereignty, Australian ties to U.S., especially military ties, have been increasingly at what I find an alarming rate as the U.S. increases it’s Pacific presence in preparation for the Century of Chinese Influence. With Australia on the Security Council of the UN, and signing all sorts of contracts with the U.S. around the integration of U.S. tech into Australian military, our role is increasingly looking like that of a U.S. Pacific puppet than a sovereign Commonwealth state. This means U.S. ties to Israel and it’s stance on Palestine effect Australian-Arab relations and attitude, plus of course as discussed earlier, the CIA & MI5 involvement in creating this mess in the 80s reenters here, our involvement in the 2003 invasion again has a foreign relations allegiance angle, plus America’s post 9/11 damaged pride and it’s increasingly challenged notion of superiority in an increasingly globalized world with new rising non-western powers, these all drive this push we see here for military action as the only option for Australia.

An interesting thing happened the last time the U.S. pushed for a large militarised response to the threat of terrorism, a conservative government there managed to pass a whole lot of new terror laws, their active response was well supported by a patriotic nation, and the state gained some incredible new powers for controlling it’s interests, and monitoring it’s citizens. There is not a dissimilar thing happening here in Australia right now, there is great desires from State powerhouses globally to retain power and authority in order to maintain control and order, this power has many times been lost with the rise of the internet, be it through Wikileaks or the general ability for people to connect and form counter powers through popular movements. There is a desire to mediate these risks by imposing more state controls over the way this new digital space is used, and it is very easy to get people to agree to that when it’s coupled with the notion of combating terrorism. Terrorism frightens people, even the idea of it, and it’s not just terrorists that understand that and use that fear, our Governments do also, they offer us their solutions, their way to overcome that fear, and if we hand over a little more power to them, they say, just authorise a little more, they will take that fear away for us. So from a fearful place, we make that choice for the nearest exit offered. Internet controls and increases of state power through terror laws are absolutely, to my mind, a motivation for military engagement, as such engagement provokes both fear and nationalism in a public, a combination that is very empowering for a Government.

Only if we understand this message that “we cannot just do nothing” as meaning “we must take military action” within the context of our history and our culture can we understand that if we must do something it MUST not make matters worse. A great piece on the Vox website discusses that “America can’t solve the region’s still-huge problems. The United States can’t stop the Syrian civil war any more than it can end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, halt the Egyptian military’s brutal repression of political dissidents, or prevent Iraq from becoming a bloody sectarian nightmare.” read more

All I can say for Australia’s “moral responsibility” is that we are lucky when we were beheading Aboriginal people in Australia’s very undisclosed genocidal days, that the Indigenous peoples of the world didn’t have YouTube, Drones and Fighter Jets.

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