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September 10, 2004

blowback & neocons

There are two myths created by the Australian neo-conservatives concerning the consequences of Australia's involvement in the Iraqi war. These are: that terrorist activity would be weakened as a result of the war in Iraq; and that Australia has not become a greater terrorist target because of our participation in the invasion of a sovereign country.

Both have been laid to rest by yesterday's events: Jemaah Islamiah's bomb attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta. This is a direct terrorist attack against Australian interests, and Jemaah Islamiah has warned of more spectacular bombing of soft targets, unless Australia withdraws its forces from Iraq. It is a very clear message.


Not for the neocons, such as Tony Parkinson, whose job it is to support the war by fostering myths. Parkinson's response is this:

"Yet still the concept of blowback clouds the debate about how best to respond...How soon will we hear that the Jakarta bomb is a vicious retort to the Howard Government's support for war in Iraq? This is a familiar refrain. After each atrocity, a similar pattern of argument emerges: that Spanish commuters paid for their government's folly in Iraq.... This business of attributing culpability to the targets of terror, directly or indirectly, is obnoxious. Worse, it leads into a metaphysical funk: paralysis via analysis."

The concept of blowback clouds the debate? It leads to metaphysical funk? This strikes me as incoherence. Parkinson's article is a covering up that dumps all terrorists into the one bag, and ignores the historical contexts of various conflicts. Parkinson points to, and supports, the neo-con view of an endless world war against terrorism and needing to do whatever it takes to prevail.

What Parkinson's neo-con "explanation" avoids is what Australia has done by intervening in Iraq. Parkinson says that the terrorists with malevolent intent are busy marking that milestone of the third anniversary of the September 11 attacks in blood and misery. The malevolent intent is spelt out by The Australian: the terrorists hate us and everything Australia stands for (ie., our democracy, the prosperity of our economy and our lifestyle). The neo-con explanation is the clash of civilizations. Their message is that we must stand strong and firm. No appeasement.

But why dismiss what Jemaah Islamiah says? What they say is rational: the decision to involve Australia in the invasion and occupation of Iraq has raised Australia's profile as a terrorist target. For them it is about what Australia has done, not what it is. Why fog that in Australia? Why pretend that account is nonsense, mad or irrational?

Why dismiss the idea of blowback as irrelevant? Isn't that kneejerk dismissal a flight from reality into myth by the neo-cons? Isn't saying that 'the terrorists hate us because we love freedom' less rational than saying JI bombed our embassy in Jakarta because we are supporting the Americans fighting and killing Muslims in Iraq? Have we not known since 2001 that Australia is a target of the global terrorism network? Osama bin Laden said as much. And we have known since 2002 that Jemaah Islamiah, which is the leading local affiliate of al-Qaeda, has Australia in its sights.

Iraq was a turn into a side alley since Al Quaeda and Jemaah Islamiah were not there in a military sense. Iraq was a bad call.

The consequences of blowback this time is that it is the Indonesians rather than Australians who have suffered the most. That is the tragedy. It is Indonesians, who opposed the military intervention in Iraqi, who are paying for Australia's involvement in the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. Presumably, this will both renew the revulsion within the Islamic community to the terrorist bombing tactics of Jemaah Islamiah, and undermine JI's efforts to achieve its goal of moving towards an Islamic state for Indonesia. Does it not mean that the support base for the Jemaah Islamiah groups inside Indonesia will shrink?

Australia should leave Iraq. It has no business in that country.The US military strike in Iraq is part of an tough guy, no nonsense US imperial foreign policy to establish a bigger physical presence in the Middle East. Australia's strategic interests are within the Asia Pacific Rim region, not fighting Iraqi nationalists in the Middle East, or supporting the neo-cons global Pax Americana to maintain and extend Americas unrivaled global dominance.

Of course, the tragedy in Iraq now undercuts American Greatness: US forces cannot stay without provoking further hostility; but neither can they leave precipitately without risking more serious civil strife. However Australian forces can leave, as they play no significant military role.

I expect both political parties are going to muscle up on national security and war after these events.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at September 10, 2004 10:14 AM

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Thesis :

Australia should leave Iraq. It has no business in that country.

Complete Rebuttal

Posted by: Alan E Brain at September 11, 2004 12:32 AM

The thesis was blunt. I was talking in terms of Australia being a part of, and supporting, a military occupation of Iraq.

In response to your "complete rebuttal" I would say that democracy in Iraq (along federal lines)should be bought about under the auspices of the United Nations.

However, I did recognize the security quagmire in Iraq:

" US forces cannot stay without provoking further hostility; but neither can they leave precipitately without risking more serious civil strife."

I would argue that the problem is largely of the US's own making: eg, the way it tackled the resistance Sadr Moqtada in Najaf city If the US is serious about democracy, then Sadr shoudl be bought into the democratic process and allowed to form an Islamic party.

The US and Australia seek a military solution to a political problem. It ain't going to work.

What I reckon the US is really doing is setting up a client regime that will have the trappings of democracy.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at September 11, 2004 01:27 AM

"But why dismiss what Jemaah Islamiah says? What they say is rational: the decision to involve Australia in the invasion and occupation of Iraq has raised Australia's profile as a terrorist target. For them it is about what Australia has done, not what it is."

No what JI says is not rational. It's convenience, just their spin. One day I will find the words to express this properly. Suffice to just say this: While JI and their ilk hide behind a cloak of extreme religious zealotry and use that as a weapon to motivate their own suicide bombers (being far too cowardly and lacking in piety to become martyrs themselves) and while they like to point to any excuse for their barbarism (don't see them crying too much over Sudan though do you), they are only interested in one thing: power for themselves to the exclusion of everyone else.

I am not sucked in by our own pollies's spin, but I am even less sucked in by theirs.

Posted by: saint at September 11, 2004 02:12 AM

there is a lot of spin with JI agreed. But they are pretty clear in what they want in Indonesia--an Islamic state under sharia law. I do not see that (eg. a nation state like Iran) as irrational, even though I think it would the wrong choice for Indonesians to make.

My judgement is that JI terror tactics within Indonesia will prevent them from achieving an Islamic state as it will alienate many moderate Muslims who are yet to embrace liberalism.

But JI's tactics can create a lot of chaos within Indonesia and put a lot of pressure on that fragile democracy.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at September 11, 2004 03:22 AM

Hi Gary,

I was relieved to reach your final comment and discover that you do, in fact, understand what JI are trying to achieve in their own unique way. It goes a little further, in fact - they want to create a strict Islamic capliphate operating under sharia right across the Muslim population areas of South-East Asia. Indonesia is only the start but establishing a sharia state there is a necessary step.

Their basic motivation for attacks like the other day is that they want all westerners out of Indonesia and they want western influence within that country to cease. That pretty much automatically makes Australia target number one, given our location and levels of engagement and interchange.

There are other complex motivations for JI operatives on several different levels. One is the desire for a glorious matrydom while fighting for Allah. Strange as it may seem to western secularists, militant religious faith can make people see this as a great attraction.

While I agree with your point that our involvement in Iraq can only anger JI further, I think that the neocons are right in the sense that we would still be a top target without it.

Much of the discussion of "blowback" in this context is based on a false premise. The claims on the Arabic language Islamist website mentioning our involvement in Iraq are very likely *not* a genuine statement on behalf of JI who, despiste their al Qaida links, have not been known for posting in Arabic to these websites in the past. Instead, this sounds like middle eastern al Qaida associates or sympathisers seeking to exploit an opportunity created for them by their JI "brothers".

In contrast with the spurios claim in Arabic, we have something else where the link with the perpetrators is beyond doubt - the "warning" received by Indonesian police 45 minutes before the explosion. The demand was to release Abu Bakr Bashir and you must admit that the targeting of the Australian embassy in this context makes a lot more sense than retaliation for our minor role in distant Iraq. It is widely understood in Indonesia that Australia has led the international pressure to put and keep Bashir behind bars.

Were we wrong to do so? I don't think so. The man leads a murderous and fanatical organisation and justice demands that he brought to account. Were we worng for the role we played in liberating East Timor? No again. And yet - if you are honest with yourself - you must admit that these two things are going to deliver a thousand times the "blowback" that our involvement in Iraq does, regardless of what JI recruiting propagandists or their buddies in the middle east say about it.

Yes, you are right that our involvement in Iraq has been and will continue to be thrown back in our faces by Islamist terrorists as long as we stay engaged there. There is "blowback" from Iraq. But my argument is that it is nothing compared to the "blowback" from our presence and engagement in the region.

As for not "dismissing what JI says" - well, nothing should be dismissed but it sure needs to be interpreted on the basis of a clear-headed understanding. I don't think you were going as far as Brian Deegan and calling for actual "negotiations" with JI. Unfortunately for poor Brian, the tragic loss of his son appears to have quite unhinged him. JI is trying to overthrow the legitimate government of Indonesia and bypass the popular will of the Indonesians who elected it. It is a declared enemy of the state that the state itself has for too long tried to ignore, deny and appease. Not any more. Indonesia is stirring and any suggestion that Australia try to "negotiate" with this organisation in the face of the Indonesian Government and people is frankly in cloud cuckoo land, even if we regarded it as desirable.

Thankfully, most Australians would not contemplate negotiating with JI, even if it were practically feasible. I disagree with you that the JI program is rational. They are seeking something that the majority Indonesians do not want, they are seeking to achieve it by disgusting but ultimately futile and tokenistic actions of extreme violence and they are partly motivated by a fairly insane deathwish grounded in an extreme religious fantasy that is in reality a cruel hoax (don't get me started on religion!). I'm sorry, that is not rational in my book.

Thanks for the webspace and your brief attention. Sometimes I just feel like cursing when I read posts like yours - but if I am going to actually pop up on your blog, I am careful of minding my manners. Us neocons are just put together that way, I suppose!


Posted by: TFK at September 11, 2004 05:04 PM


In response to your "complete rebuttal" I would say that democracy in Iraq (along federal lines)should be bought about under the auspices of the United Nations.
I agree. Further, I'd add that the US should not have gone into Iraq without unequivocal UN support.
Where we differ, is that I see that as a failure by the UN, not the US.
Consider East Timor - Australia when in 'unilaterally' though in actual fact with token contingents from other nations, and a more substantial one from NZ (Just as the US went into Iraq with Australia and Poland, and a large UK force). Fortunately, a UN mantle was soon cast over the proceedings, and no doubt that's what the US hoped and expected would happen in Iraq.
I would argue that the problem is largely of the US's own making: eg, the way it tackled the resistance Sadr Moqtada in Najaf city If the US is serious about democracy, then Sadr shoudl be bought into the democratic process and allowed to form an Islamic party.
Given the repeated attempts to do just that, I'm open to suggestions as to how this worthy goal is to be accomplished. Though I personally have doubts as to how someone with a penchant for (quite literally) backstabbing opponents can be integrated into the political process. Many Iraqis think likewise, viz the recent demonstrations against him.
But getting back to Australia's current role in Iraq, please have a look at exactly what people we have in Operation Catalyst. Exactly which contingents would you withdraw? The P3C and maritime elements are part of a UN operation. The HQ, C-130 and signals detachments are in support of both them, and the 120 security detachment for the Embassy. In light of recent events in Jakarta, withdrawing them and leaving the Embassy in place seems like a Bad Idea(tm). That leaves 6 air traffic controllers, 12 navy guys training Iraqis in boat handling, and 53 army guys also training Iraqis.
The point is, we don't actually have many people there. Withdrawing them (and slightly harming Iraqi reconstruction), only to put them back when and if the UN ever pulls its finger out seems brain-dead. To do so just to symbollically 'punish' AmeriKKKa or Bush=Hitler doubly so. And would you deny that such an event would encourage JI and Co as much as Spain's similarly symbolic gestsure did (remember, they increased their involvement in Afghanistan)?

Posted by: Alan E Brain at September 11, 2004 05:07 PM

Public opinion may well be a squishy lefty blog full of the standard anti-Americanisms with a marked intolerance for American style neo-cons, but suprise suprise there is some common ground between us.

Let us clear away some misunderstanding. I said nothing about negotiating with JI, nor did I imply it. I have no idea where you got that idea from. I reject any suggestion that is my position.

Now the common ground:

1. I agree with paragraph one about the goals of JI. I support a liberal democratic Islam nation state in Indonesia. I would add that the JI programe for a greater Islamic state across SE Asia is close to fantasy, but that is another matter.

2. I agree with paragraph 2. Bali signified the attack on western foreigners and their sexually promiscuous ways to JI.

3. There has been a shift in the way Australia is seen by the terrorist organizations: from being a major ally of the US (its Deputy-Sheriff) to emerging as a target in its own right. Australia has a troubled relationship in South-East Asia (interference in the region eg. East Timor and taking a key role hunting down JI in Indonesia.

4. I cannot comment on the Islamist website as I do not have the expertise, so I will have to put it to one side. However, I accept that internal Indonesian considerations (eg., releasing Abu Bakr Bashir, destabilising the Indonesian Government, driving expatriates out of Indonesia etc) play a key role in JI's attack.

5. you say "JI is trying to overthrow the legitimate government of Indonesia and bypass the popular will of the Indonesians who elected it. It is a declared enemy of the state that the state itself has for too long tried to ignore, deny and appease."

That interpretation sounds a pretty rational political programme to me and easily understandable, even if we both find it unacceptable. These guys are not foaming out of control fanactics driven by subconscious hate with no rationality at all. They are not madmen.They have a political programme.

I would argue that none of the above precludes Australia being a target because of its intervention and occupation of Iraq. My remarks there were directed at the neo-con argument that terrorists attack Australia for what we are, rather than for what Australia does in the world.

Why do I argue so? Because the consequence of the neo-con argument is that it lets conservative governments (eg., Howard) off the hook of responsibility for their actions.It means that they can make decisions without considering the consequences, eg., they can say we Australians will be attacked no matter what do because they hate us. That is just too tricky by half.

Australia's involvement in Iraq has led to an increased international threat to Australians.We are seen as one of the nations aligned against the Muslim world. Iraq bought that to the forefront. In SE Asia Australia would be the number one target.

What point is gained from fogging from that, other than trying to win an election?

The Howard Government's line on this is very threadbare. It was abnoxious the way they put pressure on Mick Kelty to withdraw his remarks, when he rightly and sensibly made the link between Iraq and increased international threat back in March.

I cannot see much in the above that you need to curse about. Where we differ is the degree of influence or weight we give to blowback from the Iraqi war.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at September 11, 2004 06:18 PM

I argued that the UN model in East Timor was the model for Iraq. But the US (and Australia sang the same tune) attacked that in the name of unilateral action. Only the UK tried to argue for the UN and that was becauise of domestic considerations. So it was the US not the UN that erred.

As for Sadr he represents a political problem that cannot be solved militarily as the US is trying to do. Whether you like his program or not he represents a segment of the Iraqi people (the urban poor) and needs to be given a legitimate voice along with Sistani. That is what democracy is about.

I do not think that the US has any intention of doing this---it is even ambivalent about Sistani!

As for Australia's withdrawal I would disconnect them from the US occcupation and place them all under the UN. All military ---special forces---engaged in in any fighting role would be withdrawn. Fighting Iraqi's resisting the occuption to protect the US military occupation is not what Australia should be doing.

It has nothing to do with Amerika or Bush = Hitler. That is crazy stuff. Australia should be providing more medical, civilian support.

Where I reckon we differ is that I think that the US has screed up big time in the reconstruction of Iraqi democracy. You don't think that the US has made a mess of things. I do.

That creates big problems for Australia playing a rebuilding role.

Dunno. Maybe you are right. On the other hand we get out until the US has come to its senses and adopts a political solution than a military one. But I do not hold my breathe for that to happen.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at September 11, 2004 07:49 PM


Thanks for the considered and courteous reply.

I am relieved to hear that you do not advocate "negotiations" with JI. It wasn't entirely clear to me from the tenor of your original post. This was in the context of media coverage of Brian Deegan calling for exactly that - which I find abhorrent in the extreme - so forgive me for jumping at shadows.

It seems we agree on more than you might expect at first glance. I have never doubted that our involvement in Iraq riles Islamist terrorists the world over, including JI. I still maintain that our role in East Timor riled JI a hell of a lot more, and I suspect that you would agree, even if you do not say so here.

Where we differ is that I say of Iraq as you probably say of East Timor - "too bad, it's a price we have to pay". I have the privelege of knowing a family of Iraqi exiles personally and I will never accept that helping the US coalition to remove Saddam in our own small way was the wrong thing to do.

Unlike you, I also believe that the US will disengage from Iraq as soon as they are able and that they intend to leave a democracy "after a fashion". But the new Iraq is likely to harbour a lingering hostility towards the US at many levels. (Just like large swaths of Europe and Japan so many years after WW2, despite what the USA did for them at that time!) So much for successful client state creation!

The USA has little choice in Iraq but to let the process of "nation building" - now endorsed by the UN - take its course. Iraq has many more difficulties and, unfortunately, a good deal more suffering ahead of it but let's see where it is at 5 years after the fall of Saddam. For all the problems, my money is still on its being a better place, relatively secular, democratic and free in middle eastern terms.

Opposing the agenda of Islamist extremists anywhere may have consequences and thay certainly have an interest in seeing the development of Iraq fail. Australia will never have a leading role in the global struggle aginst Islamofascism but we may well have in this region. I think it is right that we assist where we can and in line with our capacity.


Posted by: TFK at September 11, 2004 11:50 PM

we do disagree about intervening in Iraq but that is an historical issue that can be put to one side as I agree with you that Australia should help Iraqi's to build a new and more democratic Iraq. We have a responsibility to do so after what we have done.

We do disagree about about what the Americans are up to (their game plan) in Iraq but we can put that to one side as our concern is what Australians can do to help.

More civlian under the UN and less military association with the military side of the US occupation would be my starting point.

My concern is that Australia should be really concerned with its own region: with helping Indonesia as much as possible to protect is own fragile democracy.

Buggar the Americans.They do not need us. Our national interest is not in the Middle east shooting up Iraqi's

It is our backyard we need to look after not their adventures in the Middle east. That is what our national interest dictates and what our national security priorities should reflect. And that judgement has nothing to do with anti-Americanism

So maybe our disagreement on this are a questin of degree. We should give support to both Iraq and Indonesia but I give far greater emphasis to supporting our neighbours in our own region.

From where I sit it is the old replay of the Curtin Churchill conflict in WW2. Ther eare a lot of historical resonances going on around all this.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at September 12, 2004 07:24 AM

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