Monday’s hostage crisis in an Australian café was long overdue. For nearly a decade and a half, Australia has been too out there; too much an ally, too dauntless, too willing to pay the same lunacy bill abroad that its Sydney-siders just did at home. For the fourteen years of the 9/11 wars, countries that stick out be penalized. For some, it’s worth it. It’s worth risking terrorist attacks, lone wolf and wolf pack, for a chance to push back this tide of Islamist militancy. For others it’s not. For Australia, it’s has always been worth it.
Yesterday’s hostage drama touched off when a self-described “Shaykh” with a criminal history walked into a café and over the course of sixteen hours forced hostages to display an ISIS-style flag in the shop window. Two people were killed and four wounded. The gunman Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant known for sending hate mail to the families of fallen service members, also died in his siege.
For the past decade and a half, Australia has been an integral partner of the United States. Before that, of course – Australia was a vital U.S. Cold War ally, participating in Vietnam and supporting treaties since 1952. More recently, the Australian task force has been in command of Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan, a contested inland transit area, and held operational authority on the highest levels of the staff.
Nearly to a man, their soldiers looked like cheerful punchy giants, and fought well. They also fought in Iraq, which has more or less become the litmus test of American best friendship. Australia is also a member of the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes,” our group of five nations that has agreed not to spy on each other. When needed, the Australians have been there for the United States, and thus the only question is why this attack didn’t happen long ago.
Something like it did. The bombing of a crowded Bali nightclub in 2002 by Southeast Asian Islamic militants killed 202 people, of whom 80 were Australian. Ironically, the mastermind of that attack was an Islamist with the nom de guerre Hambali, who featured prominently in Senator Feinstein’s torture report released last week. The CIA has claimed Hambali was found by the enhanced interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The report says otherwise; that he was picked up almost by accident, with the help of Thai authorities. In any case, it was an early price Australia paid for its support. But it wasn’t at home.
This latest attack comes on the heels of the terrorist attacks last month in Canada, where a gunman killed a soldier guarding one of the country’s war memorials and then tried to shoot up the Parliament building. To most of the rest of the world, the attacks seemed inexplicable. Canada’s the nice guy on the world stage, one step away from being Sweden. They hunt moose and eat elk, and such is the national civic trust that the country’s national symbol is a police officer. And it’s not meant in a threatening way, as it would be in the United States or Iran.
But to the type of lone-wolf jihadist that increasingly seems to comprise the type of successful terrorist in the West, it made perfect sense. Both Canada and Australia are complicit in being Westerners – and not only Western, but card-carrying members of the Anglosphere’s World Police. Canadian forces spent a decade in Afghanistan and five years conducting major combat operations in Kandahar, one of the most dangerous of the country’s provinces. It has since committed to airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is thinking about doing so in Syria as well.
For Harper, the price is worth it. In Australia, it will almost certainly be as well, if only because on the Belgium-to-lumberjack civility spectrum of former British colonies, Australia falls well on the barbarian side. It’s a frontier nation, like the United States, whose most celebrated cultural artifact is a song about a homeless man who steals a sheep and then drowns himself.
Waltzing Matilda is a wonderful song, and the Australians are wonderful allies. But the reason they’re allies is that they live alone in a neighborhood that has not yet forsworn war, unlike much of the Continental West. Asia-Pacific is by no means a tranquil region, and the reality of interstate violence still exists. It is unlikely this one attack will change Australian minds about ISIS, Afghanistan, or their foreign policy elsewhere.
It’s not even clear that changing policy would help. It’s not clear that Man Horan Mounis would care if Australia pulled out of the anti-ISIS coalition, brought its troops home from Afghanistan, nagged Russia out of Chechnya, Israel out of Gaza, maybe the Saudi royal family out of Arabia, and ceded the entire region to the hardest-liners. Maybe then. But probably not.
The West would still be there, its primacy intact, still throwing the utter political bankruptcy of the Middle East into stark relief. It is a region caught between armies, kings, and fundamentalists. Those who try to help get terror in return. At least Australia, to its credit, is still trying to help.
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