Humanitarian intervention in Iraq - Breaking Politics, Monday 1 September

With the worsening situation in Iraq prompting the Australian Government to commit resources towards international relief efforts, I joined Fairfax's Breaking Politics program to talk about humanitarian intervention and the moral case for action. Here's the transcript:





SUBJECT/S: Australian military involvement in Iraq

CHRIS HAMMER: We're joined now by Labor's Andrew Leigh and the Liberal Party's Andrew Laming to talk about Australia's renewed intervention in Iraq. Andrew Laming, I'll come to you first as a representative of the Government, why is Australia backing Iraq?

ANDREW LAMING, MEMBER FOR BOWMAN: Australia is a pluralist, democratic economy and we've long supported efforts in the Middle East to see that new democracies can thrive. What we can see here is that areas like Syria and Iraq clearly are under threat both from a humanitarian sense and a security sense. I think there's bipartisan agreement, mostly, across both chambers and on the street in my electorate for some form of intervention to support the innocent people who are caught up in this.

HAMMER: Dropping food and water to trapped civilians is one thing, giving arms to one side in a bloody civil war is another. How can that be justified?

LAMING: Well, I have no problem with supporting the Kurdish minorities. I've lived and worked in parts of Kurdish controlled Western Asia. I'm very supportive of addressing the particularly difficult situation in that area, geographically and geopolitically. I'm 100 per cent behind this type of military support, but protecting innocent people is just one part of it. The greater picture, of course, is national security.

HAMMER: In that case would you support some sort of Kurdish independence, an independent Kurdish state in the north of Iraq? 

LAMING: Well that's the next question. My work was done in Turkey itself and a long time ago, but my main concern is keeping the borders as they are. At the moment Kurds in Northern Iraq have a high level of autonomy and were actually achieving autonomy, which is a great achievement. This is all under compromise and under threat with the emergence of ISIS.

HAMMER: Okay, Andrew Leigh, why has Labor been so quick to support the Government in this?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Chris, I think Andrew has very articulately put the successes of the Kurdish community on the table and against that you have this terrifying movement in IS, a group so extreme that they were disavowed by al-Qaeda. They are carrying out something that seems to be bordering on genocide, undertaking attacks on minority religions but also killing Sunni and Shia people. They claim to do this under some sort of theocratic banner but frankly there is no religion that advocates rape, murder and pillage on the scale that IS is committing it. Providing support to vulnerable communities is, I believe, in fulfillment of the UN Genocide Convention.

HAMMER: It is true that ISIS is a terrible regime, but is it as vulnerable as you say? The truth is that you do have some support among the Sunni minority, and the reason that they have this support is that the minority has been so oppressed by the Government in Baghdad. Yet here is the West, supplying arms to their opponent. Isn't that simply going to mean that that the Sunni minority is going to need even more support from the insurgents? 

LEIGH: You're right to look at the Iraqi political situation on this. President Obama made this a clear part of the United States involvement, recognising that the transition from al-Maliki to al-Abadi offers greater hope for an Iraqi Government which is more inclusive.

HAMMER: If they provide greater hope then why is the West supplying arms to the Kurds and not to the Government it is meant to be recognising in Baghdad?

LEIGH: The request that, as I understand it, the Government is responding to is a request that has come from the United States with the support of the Iraqi Government. This is an intervention in order to save lives against a barbarous terrorist organisation.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, one of the criticisms back in 2003 was that there was a shock and awe kind of invasion but that there was no kind of exit strategy. This time around there's not even an entrance strategy.

LAMING: Well it's hard to have an exit strategy when it's still so early in the conflict. I'd support Andrew's comments as well, noting that the Iraqi Government is still yet to be sworn in so it is a very difficult time for getting these agreements. What we can rely on is very strong support from the West in this case, so what's different is the involvement of the UK, Canada and France. That's promising and that's an important group that we hope to work closely with. As far as an entry strategy, it's very fluid, so we are responding realising that food and water won't be enough to avert a catastrophe. That's one of the reasons why we've stepped up a gear to military support.

HAMMER: Do we need to rapidly have a parliamentary debate about this? The Labor opposition have been very supportive of the Government to this point but maybe the Australian population have been left behind. Do we need a full and open parliamentary debate as The Greens would suggest? 

LAMING: Well it's a two-part question there. I really appreciate, as the Prime Minister does, the bipartisan levels of support in making these tough decisions. There will be parliamentary debates, just as there will be debates in backyards around Australian homes nationwide, as to whether we should embark on this path or not. I firmly support the things the Prime Minister has said, that it is for the national security committee and cabinet to make these decisions. That's the way it has always been and it's the way it should remain.

LEIGH: Labor allowed parliamentary debates on Afghanistan when we were in Government and also on the first Gulf War in 1991. Certainly that conversation needs to occur but as Andrew said, in our political system it's the executive that retains the ultimate power to send Australian military forces overseas.

HAMMER: So will Labor support a debate in the Senate today?

LEIGH: I'm not aware of particular Senate procedures that are going on but certainly, Labor is supportive of parliamentary debates and Australian involvement overseas, as we've always been. It's an important humanitarian issue and I think we do, at moments like this, look back to genocides such as Rwanda where the West was too slow to act in order to save lives.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, I didn't realise you had that experience in Turkey with the Kurds. Of course the PKK – the Kurdish opposition there – is a prescribed terrorist organisation, how do we know that these arms aren't going to go from one group of Kurds across the border to the PKK in Turkey?

LAMING: Well obviously the PKK is a significantly reduced force than what is was 15 years ago and that was an important achievement for Turkey. But you do rely on your security apparatus to make sure that isn't the case, just as we're relying on them to make sure they're dropped aid precisely and that is received in the right hands. You're asking exactly the correct question, but in the end we need to make sure we're helping groups that need it the most, doing it in a way that doesn't have consequences.

HAMMER: When the 2003 Iraq war started, there was speculation about a federated Iraq, or even an independent Kurdish State. What are your thoughts about that?

LAMING: I think it was tracking very well up until the recent break out of Islamic State. There’s got to be a preference for respecting international borders but while allowing the Kurdish community to have moderate levels of internal decision making. I sense that that is where things were heading, but it's really an internal issue for Iraq to decide.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, was the 2003 Gulf War a mistake?

LEIGH: I think it clearly was in retrospect. President Obama has highlighted the issue that you brought up, of not having an exit strategy. That is why ensuring the Iraqi Government is able to be more pluralistic, more embracing of diversity within Iraq is absolutely vital to this. There is an immediate humanitarian challenge here, innocent people have been killed, but many more may lose their lives if we go back. So we need to be animated by the immediate challenge but aware of the long-term goal of Iraq maintaining its own security, and also respect for difference.

HAMMER: So if we supplied arms to Kurdish troops or other opposition groups, can anyone have any idea where this is going to go?

LEIGH: I think the intention is that we stop IS and then the hope is that we're able ultimately to see a tolerant, vibrant democracy operating in Iraq. It is these sort of issues that the Australian Government is working through.

HAMMER: That's a great hope, but I'm sure everyone agrees that it's very hard to see how we get from here to there and isn't it rather risky to start supplying weapons without knowing where it's going to end up? It's certainly a challenge both to the Government and the opposition. 

LEIGH: The Government has access to a far greater variety of information than we do. The decision that the Government has taken today has our support, but if there's further measures the Government seeks support on then we'll consider those on a case-by-case basis.

LAMING: I'm going to jump in and support Andrew on this. Among the most urgent situations is to keep Islamic State out of major metropolitan areas where rounding them up would be far more difficult, rather than controlling them in remote areas. This was very much the Afghanistan experience, so right now there's a humanitarian catastrophe to be averted by keeping Islamic State out of a metropolitan area. Once they move in, any kind of humanitarian disaster is possible but removing them from metropolitan areas becomes far more difficult too.

HAMMER: Okay, there is this term ‘mission creep’ – what boundaries will be placed around Australia's involvement in Iraq?

LAMING: Right now it's about a humanitarian situation. The next step is to secure a situation which is so fluid. My personal view is that we want to get back to a democratically strong Iraq that can make its own domestic decisions, with a military force capable of averting huge disasters similar to Islamic State. We want Iraq to be strong enough with their security forces to prevent this emerging threat.

HAMMER: Should we rule out any Australian military personnel fighting in Iraq?

LAMING: That's the ultimate hypothetical question. We'll do what's in our national interest and what is in the interest of –

HAMMER: It's not that hypothetical: the Government is canvassing using hornets for airstrikes and having SAS personnel at least stationed there as a contingency. Should their involvement be ruled out?

LAMING: The ruling out process, I am arguing, is hypothetical. We'll have to assess our involvement as the situation demands.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, what's your view on that?

LEIGH: Labor's Shadow National Security committee will be meeting and considering each of these issues on a case-by-case basis. I understand the concerns you talked about, Chris, they are very real concerns. But in a fluid situation I'm not sure how valuable it is for me to be making sweeping statements.  

HAMMER: How would you respond to the allegation that Labor simply doesn't want to take the Government on directly on a national security issue? You’ve been doing well attacking the Budget and so you don't want a hairs’ breadth between you and the Government on this?

LEIGH: I think we need to take the humanitarian approach to this. I've been a strong supporter of multilateralism, of Australia as middle power, and of being engaged in playing a role in the international humanitarian system. I was concerned when the Government cut aid to Iraq from $8 million a year to nothing. I was concerned about that well before this latest humanitarian event.

HAMMER: If you say that the 2003 war, in retrospect, was a mistake, how can you support what appears to be an open-ended re-commitment to Iraq?

LEIGH: There are children and vulnerable families who will die if IS is allowed to continue its unchecked reign of terror. I believe that Australia has a responsibility to save lives not just within our own borders but also in Iraq if we see the opportunity to do so and if we're able to intervene in a reasonable fashion.

HAMMER: Okay Andrew Leigh, Andrew Laming thanks for your time this morning.



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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.