On Monday we read in The Australian that 'The Abbott government is actively considering an extended military role for Australia in Iraq...The three main military options for Australian involvement are renewed humanitarian air drops, deployment of special forces and ground-attack roles for our aircraft', Greg Sheridan reported.
The New York Times has reinforced this line, reporting that US officials 'said they expected that Britain and Australia would be willing to join the United States in an air campaign' against the extremist group ISIS.
But this morning we read in the Fairfax press that, according to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, 'Australia had not been asked to provide any military assistance to try and counter Islamic State's advance across Iraq and said the Government was focussed on providing humanitarian support.'
Presumably there is a prime ministerial statement in our near future which will clear this up. When that moment arrives, and if Mr Abbott does announce that Australia is taking a role in military operations, Australians have a right to expect two key things from their 'team captain':
1. A comprehensive statement describing the US strategy for countering ISIS, and Australia's role in it: In this regard, the PM's recent statement that 'There would have to be a clear and achievable overall purpose, a clear and proportionate role for us, a careful assessment of the risks and an overall humanitarian purpose' was reassuring.
But it already looks as if the Americans are defining 'humanitarian purpose' broadly, and if it stretches still further until it becomes indistinguishable from a mission to defeat ISIS (or ISIL), we need to know exactly how this is going to be accomplished. As Brian Fishman just wrote on War on the Rocks, 'No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.'
I happen to think a mission like that would be disastrous for the US, and that Australia should dissuade America from carrying it out rather than offering to take part in it. But if the Abbott Government disagrees, it ought to at least do Australians the courtesy of spelling out exactly what the parameters of the mission are and how the goals will be achieved.
2. An assessment of the threat: Attorney-General George Brandis now tells us that the threat of extremists coming back from the Middle East is the 'greatest national security threat that Australia has faced in many years...The escalating terrorist situation in Iraq and Syria poses an increasing threat, unlike any other that this country has experienced, to the security of Australians both at home and overseas.'
That's some strong language, but it sits oddly against the assessments provided to the Government by Australia's intelligence agencies (my emphasis):
Senior intelligence officials told journalists their assessment was that the terrorist threat from global Islamist terrorism would rise, that some of the 60 or so Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq would come home dangerously radicalised, and that the Syrian dispute was also re-radicalising Indonesian extremists. Currently the threat was unchanged.
Sometimes it feels as if the post 9/11 period has never happened, because we keep making the same mistakes: we hype the threat, terrorise ourselves, and over-react in ways that only strengthen those we are fighting. Let's take a deep, deep breath before starting on the same road again.