I'd been tempted to headline this yarn as "split over ISIL", or "Andrews and Abbott disagree about why we're in Iraq".
Unfortunately, although possibly justified neither of these assertions are quite true.
Defence Minister Kevin Andrews at the RUSI
When we went into Iraq Tony Abbott insisted Daesh was a "death cult".
The key point is that Andrews specifically rejected this as a reason to deploy forces.
He drew a more logical picture of why we're involved, by distinguishing between nation-states (which, implicitly, one can deal with) and other forces (operating outside the Westphalian system), as this column for the Canberra Times details . . .
A INTELLECTUAL ARGUMENT FROM ANDREWS, NOT NECESSARILY TUNED TO ABBOTT'S SONG
From one perspective it's very difficult to see any logic in our government's engagement in the Middle East. In Iraq we're sending troops to support the Shia-dominated, Iranian-backed government that's fighting the (originally Saudi-financed) Sunni adherents of Da’esh, or ISIL. But in Yemen we're supporting the Saudi’s against the Iraqi backed Houthi rebels, even though they are also at war with al Qaeda. What gives?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, former intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie believes the government is "flirting with evil”. He described a proposal to share intelligence with Tehran as “complete and utter madness”. The Independent MP suggests that even though we share a common enemy in Da’esh any information coming from Iran would not only be worthless but also may have been obtained through torture. And, just in case anyone might misunderstand how Wilkie feels, he's branded the regime as “one of the most ruthless and untrustworthy in the world". It's a pretty unequivocal condemnation.
So is the government simply playing at real-politick by supporting one group here and another there? Perhaps surprisingly, however, there is both a logical and consistent thread in the way the government has chosen to approach these conflicts. In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute at Whitehall in London, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews chose to emphasise the huge challenge that trans-national groups like Da’esh are presenting to the nation-states of the region.
Until 100 years ago the Ottoman empire ruled most of the countries where today’s internecine wars are occurring. A relatively loose rule (from the Caliphate in Istanbul) provided just enough glue to bind the different ethnicities and religious creeds together in relative harmony. Then, in the wake of the First World War, everything fell apart. Victorious British and French officials drew pens across the maps of the middle-east, slashing through customary boundaries as they shared out the spoils of war to create new countries without any regard to either ethnic or demographic realities on the ground. The fragile world they created has taken a century to fall apart, however now it has in the most terrifying and tragic way possible.
That’s why what’s happening is not some kind of ‘clash of civilisations’. Although it’s been easy to conflate the actions and atrocities of Da’esh with their claims to religious authority, the reality is the insurgency is best viewed as a simple challenge to the legitimacy of the nation-state. Although the government is still not openly voicing this explanation as a way of squaring the otherwise inexplicable circle above, it certainly makes sense of Canberra’s actions.
In his London speech Andrews made the point that Da’esh, “although driven principally by an extreme Islamist ideology, also has a defined governance structure that is intent on bringing about a war of civilisations and overturning the existing global order.” This critique reveals one of the primary motivations behind the government’s actions. It is not so much viewing the conflict our troops are engaged in in Iraq as Sunni versus Shia - instead it’s an insurgency of non-state actors fighting (a legitimate) government.
This eliminates the religious element. Andrews went on to say nothing should “alter the appreciation that those fighting for Da’esh are still motivated by their own sense of religious duty, even if a puritanical and extremist one”. Tony Abbott referred to the insurgents as a “death cult”. Surprisingly, Andrews is far more nuanced. He specifically ruled out characterising them “as a bunch of blood-thirsty lunatics, fixated on shocking the world with their beheadings, crucifixions and glory in death”. Then he made the critical point. “Doing so can only cause us to underestimate their wider political ambitions.”
The point is that Da’esh represents a fundamental challenge to the nation state system that we’ve used to keep the world running since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Extremists flourish in the absence of the rule of law, or what Andrews calls “ungoverned space”. His instinctive response is to help “re-establish government authority and effectiveness”. This makes sense, although it’s a very different way of envisaging the world to Wilkie’s.
Whereas the independent MP been forthright in his willingness to rule out any deal with Tehran, Andrews is indicating that it's better to deal with someone, anyone, rather than nobody. And he's probably right. The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad spent years provoking the Sunnis in the north of Iraq by ignoring the area and fuelling the anger that allowed the insurgency to develop as it has. Nevertheless the point this government is making is that the red lines on the map actually mean something. And it's prepared to underline this point by, if necessary, putting Australian lives on the line to emphasise this commitment to the “rules-based order” that underlies international diplomacy.
This is also provides an insight into the current government's tensions with China. Beijing has begun pushing the boundaries as its vessels have clashed recently with ships from Japan and Vietnam in the China Seas. The superpower is manifestly dissatisfied with the way international borders have been drawn in this area. Unfortunately finding a way of encouraging China to play by the rules won’d be as easy as sending a couple of hundred troops to destroy Da’esh.