As Australia’s role begins to unfold in a new chapter of the Iraq saga, the 2003 invasion is a point of reference for all political sides.
Tony Abbott, aware of the sour taste left by that war, is seeking the reassure the public that this will not be a repeat.
With Afghanistan also in mind, he said in a statement to parliament on Monday: “Many Australians are understandably apprehensive about the risk of becoming involved in another long and costly conflict in the Middle East”.
But while doing anything involved risks and consequences, so did doing nothing, he argued.
“As things stand, doing nothing means leaving millions of people exposed to death, forced conversion and ethnic cleansing.”
Making the rounds of morning TV earlier, Abbott sought to sharply distinguish between 2003 and the present.
“They are two very different situations. In 2003, there was a campaign in Iraq against the will of the Iraqi government. What’s happening now is an involvement, essentially a humanitarian involvement, and it is at the request of the Americans with the support of the Iraqi government. Our aircraft going into the Kurdish parts of Iraq will be landing at Baghdad for customs clearance and all the rest of it and then they will be going on to Erbil” and the Kurdish regional government.
He was also at pains to once again stress that “I do rule out combat troops on the ground”, although leaving the way very clearly open for greater military involvement by Australia.
Bill Shorten is anxious, too, to distance the situation now, when he is shoulder to shoulder with Abbott as Australian participation grows, from then, when Labor opposed Australia’s involvement.
Shorten told parliament: “More than a decade ago, Simon Crean stood at this dispatch box as Labor leader to support our troops, but oppose a war. History has vindicated his judgement.
“The decision to go to war in 2003 was based on false evidence and a false premise. It was a rushed decision, devoid of an effective plan to win the peace, devoid of clear objectives and devoid of widespread international support.
“As the government has said, the situation we face today is very different.
“In 2003, we went to Iraq without international support and without the support of the majority of the Iraqi population.
“Today, the Iraqi government is speaking with the international community, seeking our humanitarian assistance. Today, we have a United States adopting a more methodical, more international inclusive approach. Today, we can look to the nations of the region, the Arabic leaders, for their part in a solution to this problem.”
The caution of Barack Obama makes it easier for Labor to give backing although the concerns also come through in the interviews given by deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, who is from the left.
The Greens draw a clear comparison with 2003.
Leader Christine Milne said in the Senate: “Have we learnt nothing from the engagement in Iraq in 2003? We then had Prime Minister Howard run straight along behind the United States President, Bush, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair – and what a mess that left … What is to say that engagement of troops in Iraq will not simply drive an even more united, committed and disastrous move for an Islamic state than is already occurring?
“The point here is: very few people believe that the Prime Minister of Australia has a strategic plan for Australian engagement in Iraq. Everybody believes that we are simply running behind President Obama, who himself last week said he does not have a strategy.”
In a rare moment of parliamentary togetherness, Coalition and Labor united on Monday to defeat Milne’s attempt to suspend standing orders for a motion “relating to parliamentary approval for the deployment of Australian troops in Iraq”.
On Thursday the Greens will bring on a private member’s bill saying that, as far as constitutionally and practically possible, both houses of parliament should have to approve overseas military involvement by Australian defence personnel.
Politically the Greens would hope to pick up some support from among those ALP voters who oppose Australia’s involvement.
The Australian public through polls in coming weeks will indicate their opinion. In the US, a Washington Post-ABC poll taken August 13-17 found 54% support for the American air strikes (39% against), but 49% opposition to providing arms and ammunition to the Kurdish military forces (45% support).
The question mark in both countries is where the new Iraqi journey, with the challenge of helping to take on Islamic State (which Abbott calls “a death cult”), will lead the US and its allies including Australia.