Iraq: Why we must not go back
The heightened instability in Iraq arising from the ISIL insurgency should serve as a reminder of the failings of interventionist foreign policy pursued by the United States and her allies.
The jihadist military group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant recently made significant territorial gains in Iraq, including the capture of the major cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit, surprising some Middle Eastern observers. These events have been accompanied by disturbing reports of the maltreatment of women and children, beheadings and even crucifixions in ISIL-occupied territory, along with shocking social media footage of captured Iraqi government troops slain by the ISIL forces.
The advance of ISIL through large tracts of western and northern Iraq, and accounts of the brutal application of sharia law, impose submission on those still remaining in occupied areas and cast fear into those living within unoccupied areas under threat, including the Iraqi capital Baghdad itself.
The ISIL jihadists are aiming to goad Western politicians to invoke humanitarian motives and stability arguments as rationales for returning to open conflict in Iraq, threatening a re-run of Western military intervention from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the eventual withdrawal of US troops by December 2011.
There is no widespread yearning in Australia, or the US, to make a full-scale return to Iraq, and in any case surveys consistently showed that the multiple years of military engagement in the Middle Eastern country was deeply unpopular throughout the West. But this fact has not stopped prominent neo-conservative figures, such as US Republican politician John McCain and former vice-president Dick Cheney, and their allies, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to wag accusatory fingers at US President Barack ObamaÊ¼s Iraq withdrawal as the catalyst for the ISIL onslaught.
But from a perspective of maintaining peaceful economic and social interactions among peoples, America and her allies should not have engaged militarily in Iraq in the first place, and should not countenance doing so in the future.
The most obvious and visible cost of the militaristic escapades in Iraq, by the Western multinational forces, was the loss of blood and treasure. It is difficult to obtain precise estimates of total Iraqi civilian casualties, but some sources have suggested between 125,000 and 140,000 violent deaths alone, with that number approaching 500,000 if we include other avoidable deaths indirectly associated with the invasion and subsequent insurgencies. In addition, it is estimated that 4400 American troops were killed in combat and more than 300 troops from international coalition forces, including two Australians.
The US Congressional Research Service in 2011 estimated the Iraq war cost American taxpayers more than $800 billion in war and diplomatic operations, and medical care for war veterans, with undoubtedly some of that burden foisted onto future taxpayers by virtue of a worsening of that countryÊ¼s public indebtedness. While there appears to be no definitive estimates of the fiscal costs of the Iraq war for Australians, there seems little question that the bill would have run into the billions of dollars.
Not only are wars raised to carry on taxes, to paraphrase the 18th-century English-American theorist Thomas Paine, but the Iraq military campaign enabled governments to circumvent our liberties and to do so with the willing endorsement of the general populace.
On the grounds of preventing Muslim extremists from conducting revenge terrorist acts on Western soil, governments radically increased their surveillance activities, allowed airport security to X-ray, photograph and grope travellers, interrupted cross-border financial flows to prevent "money laundering", and arrested and detained people on suspicion but without sufficient warrant.
Changing the justification for military intervention from weapons of mass destruction to hunting down al-Qaeda to regime change to exporting liberalism to the Middle East, it is manifestly clear that Iraq is not only unstable, as shown by the ISIL threat, but is as illiberal as ever. Criticisms have been levelled against an increasingly autocratic style of governance by IraqÊ¼s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and a high degree of corruption continues to stifle opportunities for ordinary Iraqis to trade their way into prosperity.
In post-World War II Germany Ludwig Erhard fostered an "economic miracle" of swift reconstruction and recovery by abolishing price and production controls, but the continuing lack of economic freedom in Iraq suggests al-Maliki is by no means an "Erhard of the Euphrates".
In an apparent concession to the neo-con charge that Western "cutting and running" from Iraq has allowed ISIL to increasingly fill the void, Obama announced that 300 military advisors would be sent to Iraq to assist the national government resist ISIL militants. Shortly after the announcement, Prime Minister Tony Abbott indicated that a small contingent would be sent to assist with security at the Australian embassy in Baghdad.
As is evidenced in numerous fields of public policy, the risk here is that America and her allies might well be tempted to direct more military power and resources back into Iraq should the ISIL insurgency worsen, despite political assurances to the contrary uttered today. But to do that would be a great error, and an affront to the ideal of non-interventionism as the centrepiece of a liberal foreign policy.
As heinous as ISIL is, as was the autocrat Saddam Hussein before them, better that we in Australia and the West save our taxpayers the expense of governments militarily indulging in remote quarrels we know no solution to, and avoid the risk of such intervention threatening our liberties, and sense of security, at home.
If we are truly concerned for the wellbeing of everyday Iraqis, many of whom, incidentally, have fled the prospect of sharia rule in ISIL-occupied areas, we should open our border to accommodate more immigrants from that region and other war-torn areas. More open borders would enable immigrants from Iraq, and elsewhere, to keep safe and more freely discover new opportunities to work and produce, building a better life here in Australia for themselves and their families.
This cosmopolitan liberal approach to foreign policy would be a far better alternative to financing the destructive war machine, and expunging our precious liberties, for the sake of another military misadventure of likely dubious effect.