In contemplating what more Australia could do in support of the American-led efforts against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Prime Minister should be careful what he asks for. The situation looks very bad. But it could readily get worse. What's more, Iraq's neighbouring states have a far greater stake in the outcome and should be encouraged to take the lead, leaving us largely out of the equation.
Australia has much baggage associated with past engagement with Iraq and the broader Middle East. Australians first went there alongside British Empire Forces during the First World War and have found it hard to avoid being drawn back there from time to time ever since. But we have never really understood the complexities of the local situation and barely understand the culture, let alone the languages or the factional disputes involved. Our understanding of how the social networks work and who supports what is rudimentary to say the least. The split between the Sunni and Shiite worlds, for instance, echoing faintly the Catholic Protestant split of Europe several centuries ago, leaves us perplexed. With the exception of recent migrants, our ability to understand the languages let alone the factional politicking in this part of the world should lead us to think carefully about the implications of getting involved again militarily and to act with great caution.
We should be wary of allowing beheadings and desecrations to drive policy. Unfortunately, there have also been desecrations perpetrated by Westerners against Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq (think of the image of American soldiers urinating on the dead body of an Afghan insurgent and the images of apparently gratuitous helicopter gunship killings) which have helped fuel the fire of hatred and resistance to Western interference. We should be careful in avoiding adding fuel to that fire and seek instead to starve the fire of oxygen.
In recent decades the United States and its allies have taken the lead in seeking to solve the problems in Iraq, but the result is tragic. It is hard to see how a repeat of the past is likely to be any more successful. Over the years, neighbouring countries have looked on with bemusement at the actions of the US and its allies. Yet those very neighbours - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and even Assad's Syria and Iraq - can see that what has happened in Iraq and Syria needs to be at least contained if not stopped.
Leveraging off this growing realisation, the US should push for these neighbouring states, all armed with modern Western military equipment, to take the lead in acting decisively. Australian forces are not needed in this fight and the West's actions, while maybe appearing to gratify those seeking revenge, will most likely only exacerbate a problem that requires far more than just a military solution.
Australia should be careful about offering too much in additional military support beyond the humanitarian assistance already on offer, because to do so would detract from our ability to focus on bolstering security and stability in our own region.
After all, Australia has a range of significant regional strategic concerns that should not be ignored just for the sake of supporting the alliance in the Middle East. When we last stopped focusing on our region, when our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan 'ramped up' in 2005 and 2006, we effectively 'dropped the ball' on East Timor and the May 2006 crisis erupted with few if any policy pundits in Canberra understanding what or how it happened. That crisis demonstrated that policy makers struggle to focus on more than one major international issue at a time. And nowadays there are plenty to go around.
Today however, the situation is quite unlike 2001 or even 2006. The US does not stand in a unipolar moment. No longer can it be described as the world's only hyper-power. There are competitors in the wings, notably Russia acting malevolently in Ukraine, and blocking international agreement on a way ahead for Syria thanks to its perceived need to maintain naval access and support in and through Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus. Similarly China remains eager to exploit moments of weakness or distraction in the East and South China Seas.
There is no question that Australia rightly sees support of the US alliance as importance. But we should be looking to support the US with our eyes wide open and willing to offer frank and fearless advice. No doubt, there would be great interest in Washington to have Australia committed to any action should the scale of America's involvement in the Middle East dramatically increase. But perhaps the best Australia can do is to leave well enough alone and focus on rebuilding vital relationships with neighbouring Indonesia and with fostering security and stability in Australia's immediate region.
Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Australian army from Whitlam to Howard, which extensively discusses Australia's military involvement in places such as the Middle East and East Timor. @JohnBlaxland1