Eleven years ago, Tony Abbott said that winning the war on terror could never be done on the battlefield. It was a test of character, which would be won by moral strength.
Perhaps that's why he is now ramping up the moral attack on what he has called the Death Cult - the Islamic State. His language then was thoughtful and not obviously loyal to the rhetoric of his prime minister, John Howard. What Abbott said then is worth reprising, so we know why he is now so conspicuously introducing notions of God, and good and evil, into his rationale for action. Even if we are not told why now he thinks terrorism can be beaten by terror from the air.
To the evangelists of terrorism such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakar Bashir, the contribution of western civilisation to the world was corruption, depravity and violence, Abbott told the Institute of Public Affairs in 2003. To them, western civilisation is an abomination in the eyes of God, to be wiped out from the face of the earth.
"To al-Qaeda and its offshoots, every country which does not adopt a particular version of submission to Allah is a blasphemous usurpation. The separation of church and state is a satanic perversion, akin to privatising God.
"Unfortunately, what the contemporary west takes most pride in - pluralism, libertarianism, feminism and multiculturalism - is much of what the Muslim world most stridently rejects, even to the extent of cheering when passenger jets are flown into civilian skyscrapers.
"Victor Davis Hanson is right about the west's total supremacy in any contest between armies. But this kind of military operation is irrelevant when the enemy is a civilian with a bomb belt under his shirt. Unlike hostile governments, people infatuated with death are hard to threaten, impossible to reason with, and have nothing to lose.
"The challenge is to identify and infiltrate terrorist groups, isolate and disarm terrorist states, disrupt and pre-empt terrorist strikes, but, most of all, to address the issues that can turn otherwise unremarkable human beings into agents of human sacrifice.
"Although the 'war on terrorism' has an important military dimension, it's a war that weapons can't win, because, even in death (in a twisted version of the aphorism that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church) terrorists gain a kind of victory.
"If the war on terrorism just involves finding targets and destroying them, it will fail. In the process, the west will end up sacrificing its values in order to save them.
"It's not enough for western civilisation to demonstrate its technological prowess, military strength and material abundance. It needs to show moral strength which even its critics can recognise and come to admire.
"The war on terrorism is not primarily a test of military technology or service delivery. It's a test of character.
"In a culture conditioned to be in two minds about everything, western leaders need to match their adversaries' conviction and clarity of purpose.
"Western citizens need to be more dedicated to enhancing civilised life than suicide bombers are to taking it. The task is not to win over intellectuals addicted to finding fault (to have a debate about Iraq that is all about us) but to demonstrate to the wider world that those noble aspirations about the poor huddled masses yearning to be free are really meant."
It was a damn fine speech, too little noticed at the time. And I have no doubt that its sentiments are reflected in the moral imperatives with which Abbott has invested much of his recent description of the sword-wielding executioners of IS. Though he did draw some distinctions, even if their significance to his original points was not so apparent.
"There's a world of difference between what is happening now and what's happened on previous occasions in the Middle East," he said at a "doorstop" in Arnhem Land on Monday. "First of all it is a very broad-based coalition including a number of significant Middle Eastern countries, and it is absolutely with the welcome, the cooperation, with the support of the Iraqi government."
To any Australian contemplating going to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside IS, he said "Don't. It is very dangerous. It is wrong. It is against God. It is against religion. It is against our common humanity, as prime minister Najib of Malaysia said the other day ...
"We believe that our national interest, our citizens' protection, our national values and ideals are best realised at this time by the commitment of a force ... against this death cult. ... This is a terrorist movement unlike anything we have ever seen because it does not just do evil, it exults in doing evil and its ambitions are not just local, they are global."
He has also, of course, loudly refused to call IS the Islamic State, insisting that it is neither Islamic nor a state. But he's wrong. It is a de facto state, and it carries out ordinary functions of government, apparently, far more effectively than its predecessor. And, the religious character of the movement must be appreciated, if only because, as Abbott says, it is a moral struggle. Abbott is entitled to say IS is extreme and entirely out of the mainstream, but he cannot call its religious nature insignificant.
IS is undoubtedly bloodthirsty, but there is a method to its madness that is missed by moral hyperbole. IS is very, very cruel but for for a purpose one can understand, even if one cannot approve. It aids ethnic cleansing - the flight of those who cannot (apart from forced conversion) be regarded as believing subjects of the caliphate. Ethnic cleansing, with terror and exemplary brutality, is hardly new in the neighbourhood. Indeed, given what has happened in recent times (sometimes by people we count as friends) in Turkey, the Balkans, in Palestine and former Soviet republics, the death rate is not even of a particularly higher order. IS is not a death cult simply because of its casualness with lives, or by the barbarity of its acts.
A tiny proportion of the victims have been innocent westerners, journalists or aid workers, beheaded on YouTube in order to taunt the leaders of the western countries. It is never morally acceptable to kill an innocent for some higher purpose, but one can see, from the reaction, why it is done. Yet, in Monday's very transcript, one can find Abbott suggesting that accidental, incidental, or collateral killing of civilians in the vicinity of a legitimate target is unproblematic. In total war, one cannot have these things both ways. Moreover, one does not have to be unduly cynical to note that there has hardly been a method of killing innocents which has not, at some time or another, had the enthusiastic endorsement of any number of Popes, Archbishops of Canterbury or Kings of England.
A western coalition with or without actual, as opposed to token, Arab support faces handicaps that the two previous interventions in Iraq did not. Saddam was a brutal tyrant, but he did control his country, and he suppressed sectarian passions. The successor government does not exercise control, and has little chance, even with western aid, of doing so. By contrast, IS soldiers, or guerillas, are essentially of the country they control, even if assisted by volunteers in a war made even more jihadist by our denunciations.
For IS supporters, much, much more is at stake, materially, religiously and morally, than it is for those in Baghdad. Our character, at the end of the day, can weigh no more than the character of the leaders and soldiers from Baghdad whom we are apparently there to support. Saving IS targets, such as Christians and Azidis, is, perhaps, humanitarian. Restoring the sovereign authority of Baghdad is something else. Whether as a contest of guns or character, I foresee another drubbing.