Author: scottlbuchanan

Iran and the Ossification of US Foreign Policy

UPDATE (30/8/2019): My sincerest apologies to early readers for the many grammatical and spelling errors in this essay. I wrote the piece in relative haste, and rushed to put it up — before doing a thorough audit, it seems. The crashing of my personal computer didn’t help matters either, as it forced me to hastily chip away at the post between calls at work. Anyway, all mistakes have (hopefully) been rectified.

Introduction

The world of US foreign policy is dotted by an archipelago* of think tanks, media outlets, and advocacy groups, all of which sustain the dogma of American interventionism. One of the most influential is The Heritage Foundation, which has long supported the vision of an activist United States. Grounded in a robust neoconservatism, and coming to prominence during the Reagan years, The Heritage Foundation continues to advocate for the application of American hard power around the globe, believing it to be an indispensable source of order and prosperity. Lately, the think tank has argued strenuously for a more confrontational approach with Iran. To the extent that the Trump Administration is guided by intellectual clarity on the matter, it’s organisations like The Heritage Foundation that are supplying the necessary conceptual scaffolding for the government’s policy decisions.

A good example of Heritage’s muscular approach to the Islamic Republic came with the publication in June of a piece applauding President Trump’s decision to tighten economic sanctions against Iran. Authored by defence expert, James Jay Carafano, the article defends the president’s decision to abort a planned missile strike against Iran (proposed retaliation for the downing of an American-made unmanned drone), before justifying the expanded economic penalties the US elected to impose upon Tehran instead. Calling such penalties “surgical”, Carafano insists that the president has now shown the Islamic Republic a bright “red light”, rightly punishing the regime for what he calls “bad behaviour”.

We can be thankful that Carafano thinks well of President Trump’s eleventh-hour decision to cancel the United States’ planned strike against Iran. The rest of his argument, however, is grounded in the unspoken assumption that the US has the right and duty to try and maintain global order — as if delegated by Providence herself to police the international system and confront the forces of chaos. This has the lamentable effect of skewing his examination of the issue.

Historical distortions

There are several grave problems with Carafano’s analysis, undermining his thesis at both the level of theory and history. Let’s take the second point first. Like so many Iran hawks, Carafano adopts an extremely narrow interpretation of the causes of the current crisis. He writes that the president opted for “precision-guided sanctions” in response to Iran’s “provocation[s]”. Certainly in a restricted sense, it’s true that Iran is responsible for fuelling the latest round of tensions with the US. But as I and others have written, Tehran’s actions over the last several weeks, condemnable though they may be, are largely a response to repeated American provocations in the 15 months since the US withdrew from the JCPOA. That act — which, despite Iran’s adherence to the terms of the deal, was made unilaterally — inaugurated the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure”, which it has applied to Tehran as a way of forcing it to yield to Washington’s demands. This has involved a battery of rhetorical, pecuniary, and military moves designed to corral the Islamic Republic and strangle its economy.

As such, the provocative acts for which the US now “punishes” Iran are largely the result of unremitting American pressure, which has fostered the conditions for the present escalation of tensions.  Whether this represents deliberate calculation or a failure to predict the consequences of blunt-force pressure is difficult to tell. But as if to underscore the point, former Bush official, Kori Schake, has remarked that most European governments believe the current uptick in Iran’s threatening behaviour is a product of Washington’s desire to force Tehran’s capitulation.

Carafano’s piece recognizes none of this context. This absence means that his analysis is almost entirely ahistorical, which inevitably makes it easier for him to establish clear lines of justification for American sanctions. The problem is that it reflects a highly distorted presentation of the causal sequence in question, and provides no illumination — beyond tired tropes concerning Iran’s incorrigible aggression — as to the reasons for Tehran’s recent activity.

We should also emphasise the fact that the imposition of sanctions upon Iran has already had a deleterious effect on the country’s economy. Far from being “surgical”, the consequences extend far beyond members of the ruling regime, and have begun to erode the lives of ordinary Iranians. US sanctions have asphyxiated Iran’s economic capacity, leading to a great deal of suffering amongst the populace. Unemployment has risen apace, whilst people’s life savings have been wiped out. Furthermore, the application of American economic penalties has made it far more difficult for Iranians battling life-threatening diseases to obtain the drugs they so desperately need. Recent news reports have suggested that many locals are on the verge of death as they are unable to receive the kind of treatment that could save their lives. Not only does Carafano not address the gravity of these issues; he also fails to consider the compounding effects of this latest round of sanctions.

All this is made worse by the fact that Carafano’s interpretation of the US’s sanctions regime against Iran is inconsistent with the Trump Administration’s own account. I’ll return to Carafano’s commentary on sanctions below, but his amnesia in this area needs to be noted. The administration itself has argued that the battery of responses mounted by the United States is designed to force Iran’s re-negotiation of the JCPOA — the theory being that Tehran will not be able to withstand Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign indefinitely, and will be compelled to seek relief through capitulation. The strategy is based on the absurd proposition that under such circumstances, Iran is likely to do the president’s bidding — someting that has proven to be an abject failure. But what’s key is that the US has predicated its sanctions regime on the assumption that it will alter Iran’s behaviour. Carafano explicitly denies this.

Troublesome theory

So much for recent history. What of the theoretical issues with Carafano’s article? These, I’d argue, are even more serious. Two observations are worth highlighting.

First, his commentary reveals a lack of clarity concerning the purpose of sanctions, and indeed, the purpose of “punishment” in general. It’s commonly suggested that there are three broad reasons for punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrence. In the context of the international system, the last two purposes would imply an effort to effect some change in the offending state’s behaviour.** However, Carafano argues that the Trump Administration isn’t trying to modify Iran’s conduct. The only other alternative, then, is an expression of moral opprobrium as the animating principle for this new tranche of sanctions. But apart from contradicting official US government statements on its governing rationale, this view rests on an implausible interpretation of sanctions regimes. As the Council of Foreign Relations notes, sanctions are invariably imposed to alter the strategic behaviour of a state or non-state actor deemed to be a threat to vital interests or international norms. This is the reason for enacting them in the first place, upon which their practical utility is founded.

Carafano is either confused about the underlying logic of sanctions, or he’s equivocating on their purpose. He excoriates the Obama Administration for failing to enforce a “red line” against the Assad regime in Syria, arguing that this failure gave tacit permission to the Syrian government to continue its murderous campaign. But behind that criticism lies the assumption that American retaliation at the time — whether undertaken via sanctions or military strikes — was going to affect Assad’s behaviour. So why not in the case of Trump and Iran? It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Carafano’s view represents a desperate ex post facto rationalisation of the (predictable) failure of Trumpian statecraft. Indeed, he explicitly acknowledges that sanctions aren’t likely to draw Tehran back to the “negotiating table any time soon” — tacit admission, perhaps, that Trump’s strategy wasn’t so “shrewd” after all.

Second, the broader assumptions underlying Carafano’s justification for the Trump Administration’s new sanctions regime are deeply concerning. It’s possible to understand why penalties might be imposed upon a country to dissuade it from acts that threaten the vital interests of the sanctioning state(s). But the kind of moralistic, unilateral action Carafano supports has to rely upon the grounding belief that the United States bears the transcendent duty to act as global policeman, and alone has the right to execute moral judgment over the conduct of others. This seems to be the best interpretation of Carafano’s laudatory article, in which he confidently avers that the US is right to apply sanctions against Iran to punish its “bad behaviour”.

Several cogent objections can be levelled at this conception of the US’s role in world affairs. Writing in The American Conservative earlier this year, Byzantine historian and seasoned Middle East observer, Daniel Larison, outlined four such rejoinders. I won’t recapitulate them in detail, but suffice it to say, they are difficult to counter. For one thing, no one has appointed the US to act in this role; doing so simply places it outside of — and indeed, above — the norms of the international system. What right, we may ask, does it have to act in this manner? The United States has simply arrogated the role of moral arbiter to itself. For another thing, the US is inconsistent, taking action to punish only those states it happens to despise. It works strenuously to strangle Iran economically for its supposed infractions, whilst leaving Saudi Arabia untouched — despite the Kingdom prosecuting an illegal war in Yemen with untold savagery. Finally, Larison notes that such a role lacks accountability, which means that the only restraint upon American action is an internal one. To accept this is to play hostage to fortune.

To these four points I’d briefly add two more. For the United States to act in this manner invites the kind of reckless decisions that have so successfully destabilised the Middle East recently. If the US believes itself unbeholden to the normal rules of international statecraft, then there is little to prevent it from pursuing an assertive foreign policy, particularly when it is fuelled by the conviction of American power as an unalloyed good. Conversely, to do nothing during times of crisis would be seen as a dereliction of duty. But as the past 16 years have demonstrated, chaos and suffering have followed in the wake of American interventionism in the Middle East.

And what of other states, and their self-perceived interests? While many American commentators, politicians, and thought leaders would claim that the the US possesses a unique, inalienable role within world affairs, other countries might not be so sanguine about it. Then there are those states that emulate US assertiveness on a more local (though no less destructive) scale. The Saudis’ activity in Yemen and Syria may be highlighted as a good example of this phenomenon. American actions in foreign lands, then, may simply encourage other state (and non-state) actors to adopt activist foreign policies in their own spheres of influence — thereby adding to the sum total of global crises.

Carafano fails to grapple with observations like these, so committed is he to the axiom that the United States ought to engage the world as its chief arbiter. In so doing, he repeats the same old, ideological tropes that have sustained a supposedly conservative approach to US foreign policy and national security. Of course, this isn’t a unique view: American interventionism has long been a bi-partisan position in the US, enjoying approbation on both sides of the political aisle. For those inhabiting that world, anything else projects weakness and invites chaos. But to the extent that the US lacks strength and permits turmoil to thrive, then it’s precisely the ideas that movement conservatism cherishes — ideas blandly regurgitated in Carafano’s article — that have produced this state of affairs.

* I can’t claim this rather evocative description for myself. I owe it to Rod Dreher, the conservative journalist and writer, who first used it some months ago in a blog post on similar issues.

** This, of course, assumes that talk of “punishment” in the context of the international system is appropriate — something I would dispute (or at least heavily qualify).

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Religious Schools and LGBTI Rights: a Delicate Balance

Note: a slightly different version of this article recently appeared in Engage.mailthe monthly online newsletter administered by the Evangelical Alliance’s Ethos think-tank. 

Introduction

The rancorous debate concerning religious freedom and the rights of the LGBTI community has produced several troubling side-effects, not least of which has been a tug-of-war over language. Take the word “discrimination”, which is now contested linguistic and conceptual territory. While all sides acknowledge that invidious discrimination can occur in the public sphere, many LGBTI activists are convinced that to make distinctions on the basis of sexual expression or gender identity – even those grounded in a wider system of religious beliefs – constitutes action that is, by its very nature, unfair.

I have been reminded of this repeatedly over the past year or so, as a series of disputes concerning LGBTI students and teachers in religious schools continues to smoulder. On one side stand religious liberty advocates, who argue that a faith-based school should be permitted to hire or dismiss staff according to its guiding system of values. On the other side are LGBTI activists and their allies, all of whom are equally convinced that such practices are intrinsically unjust and stall the liberationist enterprise. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those fighting for what they view as the fundamental rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and so forth. Moreover, on the question of LGBTI students in faith-based schools, I’d suggest we’re largely in agreement. Even in the case of teachers, the issue is not, for example, sexual orientation per se, but competing lifestyles and value systems. But having said all that, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there exist many activists who cynically weaponise the language of discrimination to subjugate their ideological opponents.

Demands that anti-discrimination laws be broadly applied to religious schools – institutions that have traditionally enjoyed exemptions from this legal architecture – have grown more strident. Brandishing placards and shouting their slogans, advocates decry religious schools choosing not to employ LGBTI teachers as an illegitimate expression of religious freedom. For them, all further discussion is foreclosed. Advocates passionately insist that, if a teacher’s primary role is to educate students according her specialty, then other attributes (e.g., homosexuality and any resultant conduct) should be seen as immaterial to the inherent requirements of the position. Any attempt to deny employment on such grounds is a manifest example of invidious discrimination and religious bigotry. This fervent activism is buttressed by the more sober reflections of advocates for reform in the legal profession, who attempt to argue upon jurisprudential grounds that faith-based schools should enjoy only the narrowest of exemptions in this domain.

The marriage of white-hot ardour and cool rationality forms a potent mix. And to be fair, the debate is not helped by current legal uses of the word ‘discrimination’ and its scope. Mischievous though some activists may be, their position is inadvertently reinforced by the way religious exemptions to such laws are currently articulated. As at least one commentator has observed, saying that religious institutions ought to sit outside the bounds of relevant anti-discrimination legislation invites the idea that the religious have been grudgingly given a reprieve from what is otherwise deemed to be objectionable conduct. This likely gives succour to some people calling for such exemptions to be repealed. But even if one concedes that the framing of current legislation is inadequate, it’s still true that, in prosecuting their case, many LGBTI advocates – whether sincere or cynical – who denounce religious schools appear to elide the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate instances of discrimination.

The purpose of faith-based schools

The real question, then, is not whether religious freedom entails freedom of discrimination per se, but what kinds of discrimination are appropriate or fair. Should a faith-based school be permitted to distinguish between staff on the basis of particular types of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof)? Or does such permission implicitly endorse decisions that are manifestly cruel and bigoted?

It is here that an account of what religious schools are, and what they seek to achieve, is germane. For a religious school to hire teachers according to their adherence to the school’s guiding ethos is, I would argue, neither unfair nor invidious. Rather, it represents the natural sequel to the foundational principles supplying the institution with its raison d’etre in the first place. Such practices are critical if a religious educational institution is to maintain its specific identity. It is difficult to see how one could disagree with the proposition, considered generically, that a faith-based school should be given some autonomy to employ staff that will, in both confession and conduct, uphold the institution’s governing philosophy.

On this view, pedagogy is about far more than the transmission of discretely-packaged information to students. Religious educational institutions exist in part to convey such information within the context of a religiously-grounded worldview, and to engage students in a process of moral formation according to the tenets of the traditions they represent. Obviously, such a project will not always succeed: many students leave such schools unchanged, or may even repudiate the institution’s teachings entirely. But this oft-repeated reality has nothing to do with the principle at issue. For those schools that have been self-consciously established to communicate the ethos of a particular religion (apart from the task of instructing students in the various subjects common to all schools), it would seem self-defeating not to try and employ educators who can successfully embody them.

In the case of, say, conservative Christian institutions, this will likely mean upholding certain standards concerning sexuality and sexual identity. Faith-based schools seeking to imbue the life of their community with the values of their grounding tradition will normally do so through the conduits of teachers’ lives (among other means). Thus, if their goal is to uphold the particulars of their religious worldview, and doing so is partly achieved through the modelling behaviour of staff, then whether or not a person’s life reflects those values is deeply relevant. None of this is unique to faith-based schools, either. A moment’s thought will reveal that institutions of all types make certain demands on prospective members and stakeholders as way of maintaining their identity. Take political parties, for example. Would it be illegitimate for, say, the Liberal Party to continue formal association with a member who suddenly began espousing Marxist ideology? Similarly, would the Greens be wrong to expel someone – or refuse to hire them in the first place – if that individual were a so-called climate ‘denier’ and an enthusiast for fossil fuels? If these are legitimate forms of discrimination (owing to the character of certain beliefs and behavioural traits), what makes religious institutions any different?

Just how important is the issue of sexuality, really?

So far, so good. However, while some LGBTI advocates accept certain forms of differentiation, they are likely to maintain that one’s sexuality should be largely immune to discriminatory action. The Human Rights Law Commission offered an example of this distinction, seen in their submission to the relevant senate inquiry last year. Lying behind the claim seems to be the notion that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t relevant to education at a faith-based school in the way, say, that creedal differences are, for they allegedly lack the defining importance of belief in Christ’s divinity or Muhammed’s supreme prophethood. But this assumes precisely what is at issue. To contend or imply that a person’s sexual mores are immaterial to their job as an educator in a religious context presumes without warrant that such conduct lies outside a given religion’s central doctrines – a minor piece of adiaphora, as it were.

I can’t speak for Jews, Muslims and other religionists who may bristle at the thought of faith-based schools being compelled to hire people whose lives fail to embody their traditions. But orthodox Christianity would regard such a view as deeply unsatisfactory. Even if the expression of one’s sexuality does not sit at the heart of the Christian faith – a privileged locale reserved for such distinguishing claims as God’s triune nature, or the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ – it is far from trivial. After all, the book of Genesis has God create man and woman, who are called to bind themselves to each other in a union of sexual complements (Genesis 1:26-28). That this passage lies at the very head of the biblical narrative, prior to the catastrophic irruption of sin within creation, implies that it is a special part of the Creator’s originating vision for those bearing his likeness. Indeed, the creative endowments of human beings – seen most uniquely in the intrinsic capacity to generate new life – crucially reflect God’s far superior creativity. A glance at the New Testament reinforces the significance of this design. Its pages reveal both a renewed endorsement of that vision, as proclaimed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6), and a denunciation of same-sex erotic relationships as a particularly clear manifestation of humanity’s disordered nature and conduct (Romans 1:26-27).

Obviously, these points would need to be fleshed out in greater detail, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with their underlying assumptions. However, on a Christian analysis, sexuality and sexual expression are indelibly tied to our status as God’s image-bearers and the divinely sanctioned order we are meant to inhabit. For those reasons, questions of sex take on heightened significance, concerning as they do the degree to which one’s life reflects that order. Indeed, an orthodox Christian view of sex recognises it as a key manifestation of a particular anthropology (i.e., what humans are) and a particular cosmology (i.e., the created framework within which humans must conduct their lives). Gendered complementarity in human sexual relationships is, in other words, something that has been woven into the fabric of creation by God. As the Eastern Orthodox writer and cultural commentator, Rod Dreher, notes in his book, The Benedict Option, to live contrary to the divine will in this regard doesn’t simply break a set of ancient taboos. Rather, it constitutes one’s failure ‘to live in accord with the structure of [created] reality itself’.

All this is to say that, in the context of a Christian educational institution, the sexual relationships of its teachers cannot be dismissed as of little importance. Nor can it be condemned as a rationalisation of the basest kind of bigotry. We do well to return to my earlier, general comments concerning the goals of such schools. Efforts to permeate their corporate lives with the religious principles on which they were founded must logically include the ethical and behavioural demands that flow from them; anything else simply drives an artificial wedge between the cognitive and practical dimensions of the faith. And given that one of the key means of transmitting this ethos to students is via their embodiment in staff, adherence to the standards of orthodox Christianity is hardly irrelevant. Quite the opposite, in fact: conformity to a Christian ethic is inseparable from maintenance of a religious school’s peculiar identity, such that the inherent requirements of teaching roles extend beyond mere pedagogy and discipline-specific knowledge, and into the domain of Christian praxis.

The imposition of state-sanctioned beliefs: an intolerable outcome

To be sure, we have lately witnessed the splintering of the Western church on the issue of sexuality. Consensus on this question is rapidly eroding. But even if there exists internal dispute over the importance of sexual conduct to Christian faith, there is no compelling reason why the state should arrogate to itself the task of determining the proper contours of a particular religion. Writing his dissenting opinion in Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Service some years ago, Redlich JA trenchantly noted that the Victorian Supreme Court was not properly trained to assess whether opposition to homosexuality was a key doctrine of the faith-based group concerned (p.13):

Neither human rights law nor the terms of the exemption required a secular tribunal to attempt to assess theological propriety. The tribunal was neither equipped nor required to evaluate the applicants’ moral calculus.

Secular state officials are manifestly ill-equipped to judge theological and doctrinal matters. Moreover, they lack the requisite ‘insider’ knowledge to be able to weigh the relative importance of creedal claims. But heeding calls to end exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation would lead to precisely this kind of judicial oversight. Anyone who values the institutional separation of church and state (where ‘church’ is defined somewhat more broadly) should be alarmed by this proposal. Such advocacy, if successful, means inhibiting a religious entity from articulating and embodying its governing ethos. In other words, it entails the encroachment of government institutions upon sacred territory traditionally regarded as verboten, that is, fundamentally impermissible. I don’t know how else to describe this but as an assault on religious liberty and a subversion of our modern pluralistic culture. If, as a society, we’re willing to permit religious educational institutions to make employment decisions based on their grounding principles, then this surely includes some latitude in regard to which principles are to be used as a framework to guide those decisions. The alternative simply invites interference by external authorities in what ought to be the free expression of a religious worldview.

Tackling another illegitimate distinction

The argument I have tried to delineate also has a deflationary effect on another distinction some advocates attempt to make – namely, between positions in a religious school that are connected with ritual observance or doctrinal teaching, and those that aren’t. This could be called a form of meta-discrimination, with only one type of role being susceptible to a process of discriminatory action. Again, the HRLC provides a ready example of this cast of mind (p.18): it recommends rescinding exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act in most instances, whilst permitting ongoing differentiation/discrimination when it comes to conventional ‘religious’ roles. Behind these respective suggestions lies the apparent assumption that there exists a fundamental difference between positions involving pastoral care, religious observance and the like, and those that don’t (pp.16-17).

Unfortunately, the suggestion introduces an artificial disjunction into the understanding of religion generally, and faith-based schools specifically. For serious adherents of any religion, manifestations of spirituality are not confined to particular acts of ritual or devotion. Such activity, while central, is only one component in the complex web of faith. For Christians, say, one’s allegiance to Christ is not simply a case of verbal confession or cognitive belief. Nor is it exhausted by overt expressions of religious observance. Rather, it is meant to be worked out in the mosaic of everyday life, shaping the believer’s approach to everything from work and friendships to time and political participation. And, as I have already indicated, a religious school seeks to inculcate just this comprehensive understanding of faith – a task that is, once again, partly achieved through the embodiment of that faith in school staff. Their comprehensive approach to education means that positions within such institutions cannot be distinguished so simplistically.

It’s true, of course, that some roles might be more directly identified with the architecture of the school’s governing religion. Chaplaincy comes to mind as one obvious example. But it does not follow from this that other staff members may not be called upon to exhibit the virtues of the faith, provide (informal) pastoral care to students, offer general vocational advice within the context of Christian faithfulness, answer a student’s awkward questions, or attempt to situate various domains of knowledge within a Christian worldview. What I have argued concerning faith-based schools and their constitutive goals indicates that any attempt to starkly divide ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ roles is forced to rely on a false dichotomy – one recognised by most serious adherents as unfaithful to a holistic, integrated expression of religion.

Conclusion

Earlier, I noted that the language of discrimination is often used in cynical fashion by some LGBTI activists. Notwithstanding the presence of genuine, good-faith differences between advocates on either side of the issue, brandishing the word “discrimination” has the (often intended) effect of de-legitimising the views of religious liberty advocates before they have been properly aired. But this isn’t the only unwelcome consequence. LGBTI activists also succeed in corrupting portions of our language by using words like “discrimination” so cavelierly. History has repetedly shown that when words become the handmaidens of nakedly political projects, the prospects for open, rational discourse — discourse committed to the pursuit of truth — rapidly recede. That is something no one should want, even those who are prepared to conscript language for their own ends.

Where do we go from here? The victory of the Coalition during Australia’s recent Federal election seems to have had a retarding effect on the activist tide. Indeed, several analyses have already appeared, partly attributing the Australian Labor Party’s loss to the party’s alienation of large swathes of religious people. This may force the party to re-assess its attitude to matters of religious liberty and to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved – rejecting barely-concealed disdain (see 7:11-7:50 in this Q & A segment) for people of conservative faith, and recognising the electoral value in taking them seriously. I hope this is the case, and that such concerns will now receive bi-partisan support. If Australia is to maintain its status as an authentically pluralist society – in which mutually irreconcilable views and practices nonetheless exist in relative harmony – then I think a robust re-commitment to such freedoms is the most sensible path forward.

Iran-US Tensions: Questioning the Dominant Narrative

This is a very long read, for those who still hold to the rather quaint notion that the Israel Folau saga is not the only issue of significance at the moment…

Introduction 

It’s with a mixture of bafflement and dismay that I read of the growing tensions between the United States and Iran. I’m baffled because I wonder how such tensions could be allowed to escalate so rapidly, with war being proposed as a serious option. I am also dismayed, since those who promote these policies seem to do so with alarming insouciance. Despite the surfeit of woe that has been visited upon the Middle East since 2003, the so-called “hawks” in the American establishment — men like Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, or his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo — continue to press for confrontation with Tehran. My concerns have only been intensified by recent reports that Australia is considering joint action with the U.S., up to and including military intervention in the region. 

Although relations between the United States and Iran have long been marked by mutual suspicion, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal — last May has seen them reach their lowest ebb for some years. Since that time, the Trump Administration has relentlessly applied pressure to Iran, both economic and rhetorical, in an effort to force the Ayatollahs back to the negotiating table. But instead of renewed talks, we have reached a point where oil tankers are being sabotaged, drones shot down, nuclear enrichment threatened, and administration officials enthusiastically beating the drums of war.

Those who favour confrontation with Iran maintain that the country is solely responsible for the burgeoning crisis. U.S. Central Command, for example (which oversees Washington’s theatre-level military projects in the Middle East), is “bent” on trying to blame Tehran for last month’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Whether or not the allegation is true (and on the available evidence, it’s probably the case that Iran is behind the attack), it is being used as part of a consolidating narrative. Indeed, it is of a piece with long-standing rhetoric aimed at depicting the Islamic Republic as a menace and an inherently destabilising force in the region. According to such claims, Iran is unique amongst the nations in the Middle East, fomenting crises and volatility as part of some grand strategy to secure regional hegemony. The country is also labelled a rogue nuclear aspirant, relentless in its desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction; its recent declaration that it would begin enriching uranium beyond what had been stipulated by the JCPOA is used as undeniable evidence by some that the Islamic Republic simply cannot be trusted to keep its word. It’s on the basis of such assertions that supporters of a more aggressive posture towards Iran advocate an array of policies: tighter sanctions, a show of force in the region, “pinprick” strikes, and even regime change (however that might be achieved).  

Now, I have no love for the Iranian government. It rigorously promotes a virulent form of Shia Islam, which has produced a ghastly catalogue of human rights abuses. Tehran thinks little of supressing political protests, and arrests activists without compunction. Dissidents are imprisoned, members of religious minorities are at risk of execution, and the levers of power are jealously guarded by a ruthless theocratic regime. Moreover, critics of Iran are correct, at least in narrow terms: it is guilty of contributing to the instability of the region. Aside from recent actions — including the seizure of a British vessel just days ago — it has long been a major sponsor of terrorism (think Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hamas in the Gaza Strip), and its roles in both Yemen and Syria have helped fuel the civil wars engulfing both those countries. None of this can be disputed.

It is tempting, then, to lay the blame for the crisis at Tehran’s feet. But the morally decrepit nature of a regime doesn’t mean that it is guilty of every accusation levelled against it. And in this case, I am convinced that primary responsibility lies, not with Iran, but with the Trump Administration and its retinue of media supporters. Far from acting as a restrained, beneficent superpower, the US has consistently fuelled the roiling escalation of tensions with Iran over the past 14 months. Moreover, it has deployed a battery of tendentious claims as it seeks to justify its declared strategy of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic. Those trying to promote the idea of aggressive, militarised engagement with Tehran have distorted recent history, inflated the threat Iran poses to regional stability, and minimised the potential costs associated with military intervention. Such assertions are as dangerous as they are fallacious, and demand scrutiny. 

Selective memories and historical distortions

American foreign policy hawks have used the recent past in a highly selective — nay, distorted — manner to frame current tensions in terms of Tehran’s alleged provocations and nuclear ambitions. So pervasive is this narrative that it has shaped even neutral reportage (see here). Of course, Iran is likely responsible for May’s oil tanker attacks — although the evidence isn’t absolutely clear — and is almost certainly behind the downing of an American military drone. However, it’s also the case that proponents of retaliation fail to properly contextualise these attacks. Whatever role Iran’s actions have played in deepening the crisis with the US, they have come after months of mounting pressure and sabre-rattling from Washington. President Trump, famous for his online bombast, has lashed out at Iran with a salvo of incendiary tweets, with at least one suggesting that in an armed conflict, the US would “end” Tehran. Whilst it’s true that the President is also notorious for his mercurial inconsistency, such missives are hardly likely to calm tensions, and do everything to corner Iran. 

Meanwhile, Senator Tom Cotton has been campaigning for a more assertive posture towards the Islamic Republic, and has confidently declaimed that the US could “swiftly” win a war against it. For Cotton, this isn’t a defensive policy, aimed merely at responding to a possible Iranian attack: the Arkansas politician has consistently argued for regime change in Iran, which can only be interpreted in offensive terms. Such arguments aren’t new, either. In 2015, for example, John Bolton — an unrepentant architect of the Iraq War — insisted that the US should not only “bomb” Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but ought to seriously consider toppling the regime. Seven years prior, he was urging the US to strike Tehran, arguing that the Iranian government was supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even now, he has hinted at the possibility of armed intervention to secure his favoured goal.

The concomitant to these declarations is the ceaseless promotion of supposed alternatives to the current Iranian government. President Trump’s key advisor, Rudi Giuliani, gave a speech recently in Albania – home to the mysterious Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant organisation grounded in a strange mix of socialist and Islamic principles. The MEK’s avowed aim is the overthrow of the Iranian government, and politicians such as Giuliani and Bolton have been forthright in their endorsement of the group. This is despite the MEK being subject to frequent and credible accusations of human rights abuses and corruption. 

It’s quite clear, then, that for some influential figures within the American political elite, effecting a change of government in Iran is what one might call an “embedded good”. That is, the notion of regime change as intrinsically beneficial has become an unassailable axiom in the minds of many policy makers, politicians, and analysts. The moral character of a government matters little at this point; being threatened with armed intervention or forcible regime change is bound to put any country on the defensive. In such a feverish, bellicose environment, the risks of retaliation — like the downing of an unmanned drone — are far more likely.

This isn’t merely a case of aggressive rhetoric. The US has been relentless in trying to pressure Iran to yield through the imposition of increasingly crippling economic sanctions. Despite claims to the contrary, these sanctions are not “surgical”, but have begun to suffocate large sectors of the Iranian economy. The Trump Administration has moved to cut off all revenue from the sale of Iranian oil, whilst eliminating waivers that previously permitted countries like China, India, Japan, and South Korea to purchase crude from Tehran. If that wasn’t enough, the US has also placed sanctions on Iran’s metallurgy industry, which comprises about 10% of the country’s economy. These actions don’t merely impinge upon Iran’s political and military elite; they have broad-based effects, harming ordinary Iranians. The economy has contracted and inflation has risen sharply over the past year, thus destroying the livelihoods of men and women everywhere in Iran. Certainly, there are many Iranians who despise the regime, and would like to see its demise. But collective economic punishment, of the kind meted out by the US, can only succeed in provoking Iranian intransigence and forging closer ties between the country’s government and its people. As Byzantine historian and seasoned Middle East observer, Daniel Larison, has remarked, whatever the Trump Administration thought it could accomplish via such means, the (predictable) effect has been to harden the resolve of the Iranian government.

Economic “strikes” have been complemented by ominous American moves on the geo-political chessboard. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the US, in a purported show of strength and leadership, sent a carrier group into the Persian Gulf at the beginning of May – despite there being no imminent threat from Tehran, and despite warnings from several quarters that it would cause a further escalation in tensions. If the act was designed to be inflammatory, then it certainly succeeded. Of course, it could be interpreted as a response to the already-noted acts of commercial sabotage in the region — a deterrence strategy, designed to ensure vital sea-lanes remain open. But in the context of past American provocations, not to mention President Trump’s claim that the US might send thousands of troops into the region, one could be forgiven for being sceptical. All this has come in the wake of America’s precipitous withdrawal from the JCPOA, even though there was no evidence that Iran was failing to meet its obligations under the terms of the deal (see below). Is it any surprise, then, that Tehran — which entered that agreement in what appears to be good faith — should fail to acquiesce to American “strong-arm” tactics?

Indeed, American responses to Iran’s vow that it would begin enriching uranium again beyond the limits set down in the JCPOA – something that does violate the agreement – exhibit the same tendency towards historical amnesia. Iran’s decision to re-commence an element of its nuclear programme can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the very pressure the US claims is necessary to force the country back to the negotiating table. The Iranian government has strongly implied it will use this development as leverage in an effort to force a lifting of sanctions, and has made little secret of the fact that it is retaliation for American unilateralism. But Iran critics forget this inconvenient datum, or ignore it altogether. Instead, they leach the story of all historical and political context, so dedicated are they to the depiction of Tehran as a rogue nuclear contender. No one would argue that an Iranian breach of the nuclear agreement is a wise move, and several European governments have rightly criticised the country for it (whilst saying that such a breach is, for now, insignificant). But again, what some in Washington claim is evidence of Iran’s insatiable appetite for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a consequence of recent American policy. 

This isn’t to defend Iran. But its recent actions, as condemnable as some of them may be, cannot be properly understood without reference to the litany of previous American and Western actions surveyed here. Even the recent hijacking of the Stena Impero by Iran was in large part retaliation for the UK’s seizure of one of its own vessels (possibly at the behest of the United States). Trying to divine Washington’s rationale in all of this, however, is more difficult: is this a deliberate ploy, calculated to lure Iran into a reckless response, or the unintended (though eminently foreseeable) consequences of just this kind of aggression? As the journalist, Peter Beinart, has observed, officials like Bolton seem dedicated to the goal of “goading” Iran into foolish acts that will serve as a pretext for war. Beinart also makes the compelling case that Bolton, who has been spearheading the United States’ current response to Iran, has long searched for pretexts that would justify war with Tehran. Others, like the Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, seem to interpret unfolding events as a consequence, at least in part, of American myopia. In an article for The Weekend Australian, he argued that the United States’ strategy of trying to suffocate the Iranian economy — not to mention the general air of belligerence the Trump Administration generates — was always bound to lead to just the kind of incidents we have witnessed over the past couple of months. Shanahan rightly observed that any analysis of likely Iranian reactions “to increased unilateral pressure by the US should have concluded that…Iran would respond by exacting a cost…to show that…support for the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign” would exact a price (italics mine).

Both alternatives represent a contemptible subversion of the diplomatic process. A premeditated strategy of conjuring evidence — however tenuous — that would legitimise a military strike against Iran repudiates good-faith efforts to resolve international disputes in a sober, reasoned, and peaceful way. On the other hand, a failure to reckon with the likely consequences of such belligerency is simply a reflection of the same inept, ham-fisted approach the Trump Administration has generally shown towards international statecraft. My point, however, is that on either analysis, the US has fostered the conditions that have led to precisely the kinds of reactions for which it now condemns Iran. As former Bush-era official Kori Schake has sagely noted, “every single European government believes that the increased threat we’re now seeing from Iran is a reaction to the United States leaving the Iran nuclear agreement and trying to force Iranian capitulation”.

Iran and the spectre of threat inflation

Those committed to a more hawkish posture towards Iran are often guilty of more than mere historical distortions. In an effort to promote their favoured policies, they have consistently sought to portray Iran as a unique existential threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East. This effort has involved a great deal of what many observers have called “threat inflation”, ranging from exaggerated claims concerning the depth of Iranian engagement in intra-state conflicts, to wild allegations regarding Iran’s allegedly imperial ambitions. Peter Beinart has amply documented the current administration’s attempts to propagate the idea that Iran is obsessed with regional dominance. Hawks have used these claims as a pretext, not only for withdrawing from the JCPOA, but for the United States’ ongoing pressure campaign against Tehran. That the nuclear agreement had nothing to do with Iran’s other activities in the region (involvement in Middle Eastern civil wars, support for favoured allies, ballistic missile testing, etc.) seems to have escaped their notice.

But leave that aside for now. It has been strenuously argued that Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthi rebels in Yemen represent an attempt to acquire regional hegemony via strategic investment in local proxies. This is how Saudi Arabia, which launched an air campaign over Yemen in early-2015, has framed the conflict. Some have even gone as far as speaking darkly of an Iranian “empire”. The late Senator, John McCain — once an influential voice in American foreign policy circles — claimed several years ago that Iran’s presence in Yemen was evidence that the Islamic Republic was “on the march”, preparing to “take over” the Middle East. Bullish commentary has echoed this kind of political rhetoric: citing Iran’s activities in Yemen and Syria, a battery of op-ed pieces in major American media outlets ominously refer to the Islamic Republic as an emerging regional hegemon. 

Iran’s modest regional goals

Common though they may be, such assertions can be faulted on two grounds. First, it is simply untrue that Iran is, for example, trying to exercise hegemonic influence over the Yemeni conflict by directing the campaign of its Houthi “puppets”. As Thomas Juneau, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, has sought to demonstrate, Iran’s involvement in Yemen has been relatively modest. He has argued that Iranian interventions in the Yemeni civil war remained slight, even after the entry of the Saudi-led coalition into the conflict in 2015. As Juneau observed, Iranian activity in Yemen has been “far too limited to have a significant impact on the balance of internal forces in” the country. As for why Iran’s support has been somewhat restrained, Juneau cited two primary reasons: Yemen is fairly low on its list of foreign policy priorities; and Tehran, cognisant of the fact that the country is a major Saudi concern, does not want its own involvement to spark an escalation of hostilities. Moreover, he also averred that whilst Iran did begin to increase its assistance to the Houthis after about 2014, it was a response to the intensification of hostilities to which other state actors (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries) were already party. Juneau concluded that there is only meagre evidence the Houthis have fallen under the sway of Tehran, or act as a local proxy for the Islamic Republic. 

Similar dynamics obtain in Syria, where Iran has been assisting the beleaguered Assad regime, and Iraq, where for some years it has tried to exploit the chaos that emerged in the wake of the American-led invasion in 2003. Again, Juneau is an authority on these matters. In a more recent article on Iran’s activities in Syria and Iraq, he argued that its involvement in the latter country is checked by mutually constraining polarities. That is, whilst a weak Iraq allows Iran to project power into the country and influence the Shia-dominated government, it also means the ongoing presence of the United States — the chief regional constraint on Iran’s ability to prosecute its interests. Further, Juneau perceptively argued that a weak central government in Iraq invites the entry of a host of militant groups into the country, many of which are likely to adhere to a form of Sunni Islam implacably opposed to Iranian Shiism. This not only tempers the influence of the Islamic Republic within Iraq; given the contiguity between the two countries, it also presents a positive security threat in its own right (as the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks on Tehran in 2017 showed). On the other hand, a strong Iraq is likely to be a more independent Iraq, pursuing its own foreign policy, and acting as a check on the projection of Iran’s power. Either way, Juneau suggested, the ability of Tehran to exert some kind of hegemonic influence over the country (assuming that it desired to do so) is deeply inhibited. 

We should note, too, that Syria has been a long-time ally of Iran; their relationship stretches back to the 1980s, when the Assad regime sided with the Islamic Republic in its war with Iraq. On a purely geo-political level, there is nothing sinister about a country coming to the aid of a formal partner when that partner is under siege; whatever one thinks of the moral character of Bashar al-Assad’s government — and despite its undoubted savagery, there are arguments for allowing it to remain in power — meeting one’s alliance-related obligations is an unexceptional feature of international relations. Tehran’s incursion in Syria doesn’t automatically portend efforts to dominate the Middle East, and is a far cry from supposed “empire-building”.

It’s true that some of Iran’s interests in Syria extend beyond the terms of their alliance; for example, Tehran wants to ensure a friendly government in Damascus, since the country has long acted as a conduit for the passage of Iranian arms and equipment to militant groups in the Levant. But although the Islamic Republic seeks to maintain some influence in that part of the Middle East, those ambitions are largely realized through relatively weak non-state actors operating within a crowded political ecosystem — something that places a natural limit upon Iranian manoeuvres. Propping up the Assad regime also ensures that Syria doesn’t fall into the hands of a rival Sunni faction, which would likely come under the sway of Iran’s primary antagonist, Saudi Arabia. Again, this is the product of normal geo-political calculus: any expansion in the Kingdom’s regional influence is something Iran has long feared and seeks to inhibit.  

Context matters. In Iran’s case, much of its investment in other Middle Eastern countries stems from a desire to counter what it sees as a regional order dominated by the US and its local partners (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) — not regional supremacy. In that sense, Tehran’s involvement in places like Yemen — largely a response to the presence of the Saudis there — represents reactive, rather than proactive, decisions. Furthermore, sober analysts like Thomas Juneau have pointed out that whatever Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East, and whatever activities it sustains in the region, its ability to project power is severely constrained by the sheer amount of energy the US and local client states expend in trying to contain it. That containment effort has succeeded in restricting Tehran’s involvement abroad. One of the key instruments employed — namely, economic sanctions — has managed to suppress Iran’s economy, thereby limiting its military capabilities and diminishing its capacity to provide logistical and financial support to allies and like-minded actors. This is exacerbated by Iran’s internal economic problems, which are both chronic and endemic. Decades of inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement have severely retarded the country’s economic progress, leaving it in a relatively stagnant condition.  The Islamic Republic is thus bereft of the financial and productive means it would require to achieve anything more than fairly paltry goals in the region. All told, Iran is simply incapable of doing what its critics regularly claim for it.      

What about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Of course, supporters of a more aggressive response to the so-called Iranian “threat” cite Tehran’s nuclear programme as possibly the clearest indication of its nefarious ambitions. Iran’s recent vow to exceed the limits on uranium enrichment laid down in the JCPOA is used as key evidence of its untrustworthiness. However, this ignores several crucial facts. For one thing, Tehran’s vow to increase its uranium enrichment is, like other acts of provocation, the inevitable consequence of ceaseless American pressure. Its decision cannot therefore be interpreted in a vacuum; claims that it represents Iran’s overwhelming desire for a nuclear weapon should therefore be met with caution. For another thing, American intelligence agencies concluded in 2007 that Iran’s nuclear arms programme had ceased in 2003. They went on to conclude that whilst Iran was “keeping its options open” about future development, there was no clear evidence at the time that it was about to re-commence work on a weapon. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency has publicly stated that Iran has satisfied every inspection it has conducted since the JCPOA was adopted in 2015, undermining claims concerning Iranian duplicity. None of this should be taken to imply that the Islamic Republic is a model international citizen; it remains engaged in a number of worrisome activities, at home and abroad. But it is to suggest that claims deployed by American and other officials concerning Tehran’s supposed threat to regional stability (often made with a geo-political axe to grind) seriously over-estimate both the scope of Iran’s ambitions and its ability to carry them out.  

Who has been a destabilising force in the region?

The second point to make in regards to Iran and threat inflation is this: Iran hawks can criticise Tehran for its foreign entanglements only on pain of hypocrisy. Yemen is a case-in-point. American critics, for example, will decry Iranian participation in, say, the country’s civil war, but are loathe to examine the US’s own role in that murderous conflict. Despite having no congressional or international authority to intervene, the US has been a staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia’s involvement — which, as noted, has led a brutal air campaign against forces opposed to the beleaguered government. Airstrikes have seen busloads of children bombed and schools destroyed, often with American-made ordnance. Homes, hospitals, water treatment plants, roads (which are vital arterial routes for humanitarian aid), funerals, and weddings have all been struck. The Saudis themselves have been credibly accused of war crimes, violating international humanitarian law for allegedly targeting non-military areas; at least one UN report has indicated that the Saudis have regularly bombed targets that were on a “no strike” list of civilian locations, thereby flouting the normal rules of military engagement. 

Saudi Arabia has also been responsible for a ruthless blockade on Yemen’s ports — an action it justifies by arguing that the passage of Iranian weapons is thereby halted. But the siege has prevented humanitarian aid reaching millions of civilians, many of whom are on the verge of death. This is in addition to the tens of thousands who have already been killed in the fighting. A deadly cholera outbreak has now gripped parts of the country, and it is estimated that at least eight million Yemenis are close to starvation in what would be one of the worst man-made famines of recent memory. Some analysts suggest that this is deliberate strategy on the part of Saudi Arabia: unable to win a swift military campaign against the Houthis, it has sought victory via the use of siege tactics, denying the entry of basic goods into the country. Infrastructure has collapsed, and the government barely clings to its titular authority. If Yemen doesn’t count as a devastated nation, then it’s difficult to imagine what would meet that threshold.  

That the Kingdom and its local allies have been able to engage in such barbarous conduct for nigh-on four years is thanks in part to the diplomatic shield provided by the United States. Washington has only made feeble efforts to restrain its ally in the Gulf. In addition to providing the Kingdom with a variety of materiel and military supplies, the US has regularly fuelled its fighter jets (sometimes in mid-air) to enable the smooth continuation of its campaign. It has also provided intelligence and logistical expertise, on the grounds that American participation can moderate Saudi excesses. What began as a relatively limited operation under the Obama Administration — itself morally problematic — has expanded under Donald Trump. The President even recently vetoed a bipartisan resolution to end US participation in the war, despite the untold damage that’s already been wrought.      

There’s little space to examine the US’s calamitous blunders in Syria, where attempts to arm anti-Assad opposition groups have seen American weapons ending up in the hands of radical Islamists. Nor is there time to explore in depth the progenitor for recent US interventionism in the Middle East, the Iraq War — an illegal, “pre-emptive” campaign, grounded in the neo-conservatives’ hubristic notion that the United States has both the right and the moral duty to transform foreign countries into bastions of democracy. Reality, of course, failed miserably to reflect American idealism, which has proven to be an enduring disaster for Iraq and its people. The ripple effects of its destabilisation are still being felt today — not least in the flourishing of ISIS, for which an imploding Iraq acted as a vital incubator.   

Suffice it to say, decrying Iranian participation in Middle Eastern conflicts smacks of double-standards. To claim that Tehran has destabilised the region through such activities ignores the fact that American foreign policy since 2003 has had precisely that effect (and to a far greater degree). We do well to remember the old adage: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”. In other words, if the US is going to remain devoted to an adventurist foreign policy — one that has seen it dive headlong into one discretionary war after another — then it shouldn’t be surprised if other countries engage in similar actions based on their own self-perceived interests. Conversely, if it wants to label Iran a security threat by citing its participation in a series of morally ambiguous wars, then it should also be prepared to cast a critical eye over its own role in such ruinous conflicts. 

Glossing over the risks of military engagement

Finally, a word must be said about the extent to which Iran critics are willing to glide over the possible risks of initiating military engagement. This, too, seems to be a product of the overriding aim of strangling the regime and forcing its eventual capitulation. Hawks, like the aforementioned Tom Cotton, make grand declarations concerning the ease with which the United States might prevail in armed conflict with Iran. Cotton’s pronouncement that only “two strikes” would be required to subdue Tehran speaks to the overweening confidence some Iran critics have in the power of military force to achieve their intended goals. His comments are little different from President Trump’s bombastic tweets, or Bolton’s casual recommendation that the US ought to foment regime change in the Islamic Republic (something that would likely necessitate a certain degree of armed involvement, however indirect). 

It’s difficult to reconcile these re-assurances with concurrent claims regarding Iran’s imperial designs; after all, if the country is powerful enough to fulfil its hegemonic ambitions, how could military engagement be “quick and clean”? Either way, however, those like Cotton and Bolton radically understate the inherent complexity of such an undertaking. Thinking that every contingency associated with military action can be safely accounted for, or that an enemy can be easily defeated, is an arrogant and dangerous conceit. Warfare is, by its very nature, an unpredictable beast, even when the most propitious of circumstances prevail. Not only is it frighteningly easy for two countries to stumble into war (whether or not they wish to do so): the length, severity, and costs of armed conflict are likely to far exceed even the most realistic predictions. The bodies of countless young men (and women) lie entombed beneath the earth — forgotten casualties of the breezy optimism that often attends military operations. Most European rulers and military strategists, for example, believed that a relatively brief campaign could be conducted in the wake of the Austrian Archduke’s assassination in June, 1914. Instead, large swathes of the continent were consumed by a war of attrition for more than four years, claiming the lives of some 20 million soldiers and civilians.  It’s a cautionary tale that every political leader ought to heed.

As for any possible conflict between Iran and the US, Middle East security expert, Ilan Goldenberg, recently cast a predictive eye over the potential for escalatory action between the two countries, and the disastrous consequences that could follow. He argued that although neither state really desires direct confrontation, it hardly follows that they will not stumble into conflict. Goldenberg rightly observed that any attempt to use armed force against Iran is likely to see retaliatory action. This could include militarised harassment of US soldiers in theatres such as the Syrian civil war; attacks on Israel via Tehran’s local proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah; or closure of the Strait of Hormuz — one of the most important sea lanes in the world, given its status as a key exit point for the exportation of Middle Eastern oil. It’s worth quoting Goldenberg at length as to what could happen next:

In one scenario, all these escalatory pressures set off a larger conflict…At every turn, Iran tries to save face by showing resolve but stopping short of all-out war; Washington, intent on “re-establishing deterrence,” retaliates a little more aggressively each time. Before long, the two have tumbled into full-scale hostilities. At this point, the United States faces a choice: continue the tit-for-tat escalation or overwhelm the enemy and destroy as much of its military capabilities as possible, as the United States did during Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991. The Pentagon recommends “going big” so as not to leave U.S. forces vulnerable to further Iranian attacks. [National Security Advisor John] Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the plan. Trump agrees, seeing a large-scale assault as the only way to prevent humiliation.  

Goldenberg went on to outline further implications of such “escalatory pressures”, should they materialize. This is a worst-case scenario, to be sure. But it is still plausible for all that, particularly given the inflammatory rhetoric and “maximum pressure” campaign the US has been mounting against Iran. Even David French (himself a foreign policy interventionist) has admitted that it is entirely possible that current tensions between the US and Iran could culminate in the sight of American military vessels ablaze in the Persian Gulf. 

Once more, the catastrophe of the Iraq War is poignantly instructive. Although then-President George W. Bush stood atop the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003 to declare “mission accomplished” — only six weeks after the commencement of hostilities — we now know that this was absurdly optimistic: Iraq was subsequently plunged into an abyss of sectarian bloodletting, from which it is still slowly emerging. Saddam Hussein’s demise and the destruction of centralising authority rapidly led to the political disembowelment of the country, as rival factions fought with ruthless abandon for supremacy. The true number of Iraqis who have violently lost their lives in the 16-year war is likely to remain a mystery. For the United States, the loss has been measured in the 35,000 military casualties sustained since 2003 (including 4,400 deaths), as well as untold quantities of materiel at a cost of well over $2 trillion. 

Contrast Iraq with present-day Iran. At the time the war began, Iraq was a country of roughly 25 million people, with a decaying military and an economy asphyxiated by many years of American-led sanctions. Although it’s true that Iran’s current economic situation is relatively parlous, it remains far stronger than Saddam Hussein’s domain was 16 years ago. And, with a population of 80 million, it is much larger — meaning that if a confrontation evolves into open warfare, any effort to subdue the country would be far more gruelling (not to mention far bloodier). A country like Iran would strain American military capabilities to their limit, especially if the goal were to mutate into Tehran’s utter defeat. It’s difficult to know what victory would look like under such circumstances; given Iran’s relative power and size, the cost in lives alone would be abhorrently high. Needless to say, they would be devastating for both the country itself and the region-at-large. And even though the US could, given its remoteness, contain some of the costs associated with such action, full-scale conflict would nevertheless exact a terrible price in blood and treasure. But again, Iran hawks, like their ideological forebears in the run-up to the Iraq War, fail to reckon with the foreseeable tragedies flowing from such a foolhardy endeavour.*

Concluding thoughts

Many policy-makers, pundits, and commentators in the American foreign policy sector seem to inhabit a Manichean universe, in which a righteous United States is forever pitted against an array of devilish foes. For disciples of American interventionism, Iran is just the latest villainous actor to appear on the international stage, against which the unrivalled goodness of American power ought to be applied. This is not a new worldview — nor a new danger — by any means: in 1821, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, warned the then-infant nation against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy”. Of course, since that time, the United States has confronted a ceaseless litany of state and non-state “monsters”. Some have certainly deserved the label; others, however, have been created out of whole cloth by a political and intellectual elite intent on forgetting Quincy’s words.

It is this moralising ideology that ultimately lies behind the arguments Iran hawks proffer, animating them with whatever persuasive power they possess. As I have sought to show, those arguments rest upon an unstable mix of distortions, exaggerations, and the suppression of inconvenient truths. Intellectual calumnies like these need to be exposed for what they are. To be sure, the relative cogency of arguments like mine may matter little: existential narratives, which supply a nation with an overarching sense of purpose and resolve, are often more seductive than the kind of unromantic analysis I have tried to conduct here. Suffice it to say, the overweening role ideological idealism plays in driving contemporary approaches to American foreign policy — and in particular, Iran — cannot be ignored.

The US’s allies, including Australia, must therefore make every effort to forge an independent position on the question of Iran. Even if Canberra wasn’t considering some involvement in the crisis, there would still be ample reason for concern. But as I noted at the beginning of this essay, my disquiet has been amplified by reports suggesting that the Australian Government is mulling some kind of contribution. I can only hope that policy-makers in Canberra are able to see beyond the critical myopia of their American counterparts, and acknowledge that Iran, for all the odium it so richly deserves, cannot be credibly held responsible for the current crisis. As a sovereign nation-state and regional power, Australia has a bevy of well-defined priorities. Following the United States “in search of monsters to destroy” — largely on the basis of half-truths and threat inflation — isn’t one of them. 

*After posting this essay, I read an article in The Moscow Times, which quoted a senior Russian official as saying that Iran would not be alone if the US decided to attack it. Whilst this could be interpreted in a variety of ways, one cannot discount the possibility of Russian military support for Iran if hostilities with the United States were to break out. Although a military campaign against the Islamic Republic would be arduous (to say the least), it would pale into insignificance when compared with a conflict involving the Russian Republic.

Pushing and Pulling: Asylum-Seeker Flows, External Drivers, and Government Policy

The following piece began life as a footnote to my previous blog post. However, given that it rapidly metastasized into an essay in its own right, treatment as a separate blog entry was unavoidable. It certainly isn’t for everyone: I spend much of my time trying to conduct some fairly fine-grained analysis, which many people are bound to find rather dull or abstruse. But it does reveal the inevitable complexity of just one element of a much broader issue, and the consequent need for sustained examination.

Introduction

The seemingly interminable debate in Australia over asylum seekers has thrown up a host of subsidiary disputes. One such dispute concerns the comparative weight of external drivers and internal government policies as determinants of asylum seekers’ behaviour. In my previous post on the UN’s condemnation of boat turnbacks, I indicated that the ALP’s decision to dismantle Australia’s tightly-controlled border protection regime in 2008 ultimately led to a massive influx of boat-borne asylum seekers – and with them, the oft-repeated tragedy of drownings on the high seas (some estimates suggest that about 1,200 asylum seekers ended up dying en route to Australia between 2008 and mid-2013). I don’t claim that this was the intention of the government at the time. Not at all. However, I do claim that there exists a causal connection between Australian government policy and the behaviour of asylum seekers – a connection that can produce fatal results.

This remains a controversial opinion. Some have argued that the claim is an unwarranted assumption, not borne out by the evidence. Many advocates, analysts and observers argue that government policy, or “pull factors”, are at best negligible in their influence on asylum-seeking behaviour.

Various attempts have been made to rebut the idea that Australia’s suite of border protection policies affects asylum seekers’ choices in any way. It has been argued, for instance, that asylum seekers are largely ignorant of a country’s domestic legislation concerning border protection and irregular migration. The conclusion is that people seeking asylum are not (directly) influenced by such policy settings, for their conduct cannot be consciously shaped by things of which they are not aware. Others have asserted that the example of New Zealand – which has long had a more relaxed border protection regime than Australia – demonstrates that “pull factors” aren’t all the determinative. Since NZ hasn’t seen a great deal of change in the number of asylum seekers claiming sanctuary within its borders over the past 15-20 years (despite its being just as stable and prosperous as Australia), some have suggested that a country’s policy response to the issues of irregular migration isn’t terribly significant. Opponents of the “pull factors” theory prefer to see “push factors” – external drivers connected with the state of the international environment, or within individual source countries – as far more influential. Whether this means poverty or persecution, war or civil strife, advocates strongly argue in their favour to explain relative changes in asylum-seeker numbers. They cite both statistical and qualitative evidence to substantiate this basic contention.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to dispute the effect that disturbing phenomena such human rights abuses or civil unrest would have on a person’s thinking, or how they might drive someone out of his or her country of origin. That seems to me to be common sense, as does the proposition that the volume of asylum-seeker flows partly reflects the state of human security around the world. But I am far from fully convinced by the positions staked out above, for several reasons.

How Much do Asylum Seekers Really Know?

Regarding the claim that asylum seekers have been greatly unaware of Australia’s policies in this area, the evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and legal scholar, has written poignantly of Hazara asylum seekers desperately fleeing their homes in Afghanistan, and being shepherded to Australia by a hazily-understood network of people smugglers – all while being completely ignorant of their ultimate destination, and entrusting themselves to those they believed would be able to guarantee passage to safe territory. There is also formal research which suggests that some asylum seekers know very little about their intended destination, if they know anything at all.

On the other hand, anecdotal data exists indicating that many asylum seekers are very much aware – indeed, quite sensitive to – changes in the government’s border protection policies. I have already referred to the outgoing head of the IOM in Indonesia, Mark Getchell, in my previous blog essay. In the related article, he says that both asylum seekers and people smugglers are currently “testing the water” – i.e., they are watching closely for any sign that Australia might relax its policies concerning boat-borne asylum seekers. This is of a piece with other evidence suggesting that asylum seekers aren’t the naïve, ignorant rubes they’re sometimes portrayed to be; many over the years have been monitoring changes in legislation, and have made decisions about their future on the basis of such changes. As journalist, Michael Bachelard, noted a few years ago, some asylum seekers have travelled to Indonesia from their countries of origin “despite full knowledge” of Australian policy in this domain. Why some asylum seekers would travel to Indonesia, knowing they can’t successfully enter Australian territory, is an interesting question. But that some people seeking refuge in our region are often cognizant of the country’s border protection regime seems reasonably clear.

Moreover, even if asylum seekers don’t always appreciate the implications of Australian domestic policy, people smugglers in South-East Asia and elsewhere do. Tightening up the country’s border protection regime – whether by the judicious use of boat turnbacks, or enhanced cooperation with (e.g.) Indonesian authorities – will almost certainly influence the activities of people smugglers, who are the very people asylum seekers rely on to facilitate their passage to Australian territory in the first place. If smugglers realize they can no longer penetrate the “virtual border” erected and maintained by the Australian Navy, or see their networks dismantled by diligent police work, then they have nothing of value to offer the desperate souls they purport to help. Their so-called “business model” eventually collapses, leaving asylum seekers stranded and unable to reach Australian shores. Smugglers, meanwhile, may respond to Australian policy changes by re-directing their activities elsewhere.

The New Zealand “Connection”: A False Analogy

What about the argument that New Zealand’s comparatively relaxed approach to asylum seekers has apparently had no effect on the numbers of such people attempting to enter that country? Does it prove that domestic policy isn’t all that significant in shaping the choices of people in so desperate a situation?

This claim can be dispensed with fairly swiftly. Advocates, such as the online news outlet, Crikey, seem to conflate the two main modes of asylum-seeking into our region: asylum via plane, and asylum sought via boat.[1] To some extent, this is unavoidable, since many reports on asylum-seeker trends do not distinguish between people who entered a territory by plane, and those who entered via some other means (boat, foot, etc.). But in the case of Australia and NZ, the distinction is fairly easy to make, since the latter is highly unlikely — owing to reasons of geography — to receive any asylum seekers arriving by boat. And of course, the issue pertains to such asylum seeking specifically. Isolating boat-borne asylum seekers for the purposes of public policy is not an arbitrary move on the part of the Australian government (whatever one thinks of its basic response). Only one of the two modes of travel has seen people perishing in large numbers. Only one of the two modes of travel relies almost exclusively on deep involvement with criminal networks – involvement that ultimately entrenches and enriches them. And only one of the two modes of travel is effectively unregulated (e.g., passing through unofficial channels and through unofficial access points, carrying people with scanty, or even no, identification), rendering a policy approach that is both open and measured extraordinarily difficult to achieve.[2]

This means that although boat-borne asylum seekers have at times been outweighed by asylum seekers entering the country via plane, the issue is not negligible (pace Crikey). What’s more, during the latter years of the Rudd-Gillard Government, asylum seekers attempting to enter Australian territory via boat far exceeded those arriving by plane. In any case, the key issue concerns the former type of asylum seeking; one needs to compare apples with apples, not with oranges. The volume of asylum applications within NZ territory – the vast majority of which would be made by individuals entering the country via legitimate means – is largely irrelevant to the debate.

Push and Pull Factors: The Weight of Statistics

The Significance of Global Data

Sceptics of the “pull factors” theory have cited statistical data in an effort to undercut whatever explanatory power it might bear. The Crikey piece to which I have already referred provides some interesting – and, one must admit, quite powerful – evidence in this regard. Using regression analysis, the article showed that the relative volume of asylum seekers arriving in Australia between 1994 and 2008 largely reflected global trends. As the writer of the piece argued at the time, “the relative patterns through time of boat arrivals in Australia is itself a function of broader global asylum seeker trends”.

The United Nations’ own statistical data would seem to confirm this, at least on the surface: in a 2011 UNHCR report concerning asylum-seeker trends, author Vivian Tan said that there had been a “dramatic drop” in the number of people claiming asylum around the world during the previous decade. Certain year-on-year differences tell substantially the same story. In 2006, for example, there were 11% fewer asylum claims globally than there were in 2005 (596,000 as against 674,000). It’s also worth observing that the UK-based Migration Observatory showed that the United Kingdom experienced a sharp decline in asylum applications between 2002 and 2005, in much the same way that Australia did during that time. As far as I am aware, the UK did not introduce a raft of restrictive policies, aimed at deterring asylum-seeking behaviour. That fact could be construed as evidence that the strength of a country’s border protection regime does not, in the final analysis, play a very significant role in determining the volume of irregular migration: if the UK and Australia both experienced sharp falls in asylum-seeker numbers, despite adopting different policies towards those looking for sanctuary, then what does this say about the relative strength of “push” and “pull” factors? As a consequence of such information, Crikey concluded that “pull factors” (i.e., government policies) are “simply swamped…” by changes in the global environment (with the implication that domestic policy can do very little, one way or the other, about general asylum-seeker flows).

But Wait a Minute…

The apparent potency of the above data, however, belies a more complicated, more ambiguous, reality. Whilst it’s true that the numbers of people seeking asylum globally fell throughout the 2000s, it is also the case that the Australian experience reveals some subtle (though nonetheless significant) differences. In its report analysing asylum-seeking trends between 2000 and 2002, the UNHCR noted that there was a reduction of 5.4% in the volume of asylum seekers in the 37 industrialised countries it surveyed. This was at about the same time that Australia began to experience a corresponding decline in such numbers. However, the same report also observed that the reduction in Australia had been far steeper, at approximately 50% – almost ten times the rate of decline experienced by the industrialised world as a whole (pp.2-3). Favourable changes in the global environment are insufficient as an explanation; something beyond such shifts would be needed to make this fall completely intelligible. This, of course, was around the same time that the Howard Government dramatically restricted Australia’s border protection regime, in an effort to halt the flow of asylum-seeker boats. It’s hard to believe that the imposition of such policies didn’t have any effect on asylum-seeker numbers coming to Australia. Indeed, as academic evidence cited below suggests, policies instituted by the Howard Government at the time contributed materially to subsequent declines.

Similarly, even though industrialised countries around the world experienced a general fall in applications for asylum during the 2000s, we should note that Australia was, at times, an outlier. Between 2009 and 2010, for instance, the UNHCR reported that the industrialised countries surveyed showed a general fall of 5%, even though Australia experienced a 33% increase in asylum claims (p.6). This coincides with increases across the life of the Rudd-Gillard Government, and comes only two years after the ALP abolished the Howard-era laws composing Australia’s previous border protection regime. As we shall see (cf. linked graph, below), the number of boat-borne asylum seekers swiftly rose from almost nothing in 2008 to well over 5,000 by 2010. Again, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that domestic policy and asylum flows bore a causal link.

A final point on the significance of international data. It’s worth observing differences between Australia and the rest of the industralised world in the years after 2013. Whilst global asylum applications rose at around that time, boat arrivals to Australia continued to flatline. In its 2014 report on global asylum trends, the UNHCR stated that asylum applications within the industralised world had risen by 45%. Europe, North America, and Japan/South Korea all saw sharp increases of between 40%-65%. Australia, however, saw a fall of 23% in asylum arrivals (p.8). Not coincidentally, this was just 12 months after the introduction of a tougher border protection regime under the then-Abbott Government.

The Regional Experience

To this bevy of international data may be added statistical evidence drawn from both Australia and Indonesia. Together, they appear to lend further weight to the notion that domestic policy exerts some power over patterns of asylum seeking. Leaving one’s country of origin, it must be remembered, is only half the journey; one also has to find a safe harbour (as it were). And it is here that I’d argue Australia’s border protection policies have either expanded or constrained asylum seekers’ choices. Not in all cases, of course; but the anecdotal evidence I cited above does indicate that many asylum seekers – and certainly all people smugglers wanting to ferry their human cargo to Australia – calibrate their decisions with alterations in the country’s domestic policy landscape.

Take the following graph, which plots the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers between the mid-1970s and 2016. As one can see from the chart (tracking calendar-year figures), the numbers slowed markedly after 2001 – around the time the Howard Government introduced a panoply of responses designed to deter such activity. In 2008, the Rudd Labor Government, in a fit of moral hubris, all but dismantled that regime; after a brief lag period, the numbers began to rise again, and by 2013, the country had received approximately 50,000 asylum seekers on scores of vessels (including over 20,000 in that year alone). However, a change of government in September 2013 saw a precipitous drop in asylum seeker flows – one that began in the dying days of the second Rudd administration – as Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition implemented its highly militarised “Operation Sovereign Borders”.

These three inflection points – 2002, 2008, and 2013 – imply an intimate connection between changes to Australia’s policy settings and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. If one only had access to data pertaining to that first of those watershed periods, then it might be possible, as the Crikey piece does, to argue that domestic figures simply reflect international trends.[3] But unless successive Australian governments somehow managed to alter the country’s border protection regime at just those moments when global flows of asylum-seeking either rose or fell, then domestic policy changes likely do exert a degree of influence over the decisions individual asylum seekers make. And whilst correlation does not always equal causation, the parallels in this case are uncanny — leading me to conclude that there is some kind of causal link. Even Robert Manne, who has been harshly critical of Australia’s border protection policies over the years, effectively concedes that government policy has significantly affected the rate of (boat-borne) asylum seeker flows into the country. His view seems to have been partly formed by the weight of this kind of statistical evidence.

Figures concerning asylum-seeker numbers in Indonesia (which has usually functioned as the main staging-post for people hoping to reach Australia by boat) complement this data-driven picture. Back in 2012, for example, IRIN News Agency – a not-for-profit humanitarian media outlet – examined the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia since 2009. The agency reported that there had been a “spike” in those numbers, “from 385 in 2008 to 3,230 in 2009, and 3,905 in 2010”, as reported by the UNHCR. The key watershed moment here lies between 2008 and 2009, when the Rudd Government’s fateful decision to relax Australia’s border laws was made. It was at that time that Indonesia saw a ten-fold increase in the number of (registered) asylum seekers within its borders. I’d argue that those increases can be attributed, at least in part, to the changes wrought by the Rudd Government: as news of those shifts trickled out, would-be asylum seekers and people smuggling networks attempted to take advantage of the new regime. Again, correlation and causation aren’t always well acquainted with each other; however, when this data is combined with statistics cited earlier, the proposition that domestic government policy can shape an asylum seeker’s behaviour – by way of either encouragement or deterrence – takes on a new cogency.

What Can Formal Analyses Tell Us?

Evidence like this is unavoidably probabilistic, of course. But the consistent parallels between alterations in border protection policy, and a shift in the number of (boat-borne) asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia, are striking. This is of a piece with formal research efforts, which have captured both domestic and international experiences in this domain. The aforementioned UNHCR report concerning asylum applications between 2000 and 2002 admitted that government policy “can affect asylum-seeker flows”. It went on to cite the example of Spain, where the imposition of stricter visa controls for Colombian asylum seekers saw applications from that country fall by 56% during the period in question (see p.3). The report also highlighted similar declines in applications within Spanish territory by people from Sierra Leone, largely as a result of similar measures).

Academic studies have reached similar conclusions. For example, Eric Neumayer, a professor of development studies at the London School of Economics, analysed refugee flows to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. He found a number of obvious “push factors” at work (war, civil strife, persecution, and so forth), which conspired to drive people out of their native lands in search of refuge. Simultaneously, though, he concluded that the “share going to individual European countries [was] influenced by [the] specific characteristics of those countries” – among which were more lenient policies concerning asylum seekers. Economist, Tim Hatton, suggested much the same thing after analysing the Australian context. The ANU academic estimated that a tougher policy approach on the part of the Howard Government explained about 30% of the decline in arrival numbers in Australia between 1997 and 2006. He did not deny the inevitable power of external drivers, but found that internal policies also worked to shape the behaviour of asylum seekers (incidentally, evidence like this undercuts the assertion that desperate asylum seekers simply aren’t deterred by a country’s border protection regime, even if they are aware of such a regime in the first place. At least in some cases, they plainly are deterred).

Surveying the Global Situation: A Case-Study

So much for the quantitative evidence; what of the qualitative evidence? Some observers appeal to specific phenomena which reflect the state of the global security environment (i.e., “push factors”). In so doing, they purport to substantially explain the ebb and flow of asylum-seeker movements. But these, too, may rest on fragile assumptions, a selective use of data, or inadequate analysis. John Menadue’s article on the issue is a case-in-point. In that piece, the former public servant asserts that the fall in asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia from 2002 was not due to the Howard Government’s suite of border protection policies – off-shore processing, boat turnbacks, and increased cooperation with Indonesian authorities – but rather to propitious changes in the global environment. Menadue cites the War in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban (October 2001-) as an example: the US-led intervention did eventually see several million Afghans return to their war-ravaged country. He concludes that events like these, and not domestic border policy, were largely responsible for general declines in people seeking asylum here. Menadue makes other gestures in this direction as he seeks to undercut the notion that Australian government policy can affect asylum-seeker flows, one way or the other.

I have no wish to deny the truth of Menadue’s claims, at least in narrow terms; the Afghan War and the Taliban’s (initial) demise have indeed exerted some influence on international migration patterns by making a return to Afghanistan more attractive for many locals. Nevertheless, several telling observations may be made in relation to Menadue’s argument. First, he, like others, simply conflates boat-borne asylum seekers with all asylum seekers (regardless of their means of entry). But as I have already noted, the question concerns the causal connection – if any – between Australian government policy and the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers specifically. The numerical evidence I cited earlier provides a fairly compelling picture of just such a connection.

Second, there is reason to believe that in the case of some national and ethnic groups, domestic policy settings may have indeed been decisive – or at least highly effective – in shaping the decisions of would-be asylum seekers and their ersatz migration agents. Menadue (perhaps unintentionally) ignores this evidence. Iraq is a particularly revealing case study. Menadue cites the so-called “Surge” in that country – a massive build-up of American troops during and after 2007, aimed at stabilising the fragile security situation there – as a partial driver of refugee and asylum seeker flows at that time. However, he fails to deal properly with other pertinent evidence.

An examination of what occurred, in both Australia and Iraq, after 2008 will make the point clearer. I have already noted the significant increase in boat arrivals to Australia between 2008-09 and 2013, many of which contained Iraqi nationals. Such was the volume that in 2012, the academic, Helen Ware, could write that Iraq was still one of the top three source countries for so-called “boat people” (the others being Afghanistan and Iran). Interestingly, this increase coincided with significant improvements in the security situation in Iraq. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has observed, “US sources estimated in early January 2010 that the overall number of security incidents in Iraq had decreased by 83% over the past two years…IED attacks in Iraq decreased nearly 80%…and car-bomb and suicide-vest attacks had decreased by 92%” (p.4). Iraq was hardly a model of peace and stability by 2010, to be sure; nevertheless, the country witnessed a significant fall in violent incidents as the sectarian strife of the previous few years began to subside. The relative declines in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers globally seems to reflect this: the UNHCR, for example, revealed that in 2012, the number of asylum seekers from Iraq fell to less than 20,000 — down from a figure of approximately 40,000 four years earlier (p.18). The report suggested that improved security was in part responsible for this shift. And yet, Australia saw a relative increase in the number of Iraqi nationals seeking aslyum via boat during this period (of course, the overall “pool” of Iraqi asylum seekers remained quite large during this time. The point, however, is that whilst global figures fell, Australian figures rose. This is counter-intuitive, at least according to an analysis guided by the “push factors” theory).

Thus, the volume of Iraqi asylum seekers entering the country began to rise steeply from 2009 – as part of a general rise in boat-borne asylum seekers attempting to enter the country – despite material improvements in Iraq’s security situation. Again, if the “push factors” hypothesis is as strong as advocates assert, then it stands to reason that we should have witnessed the reverse of what actually occurred, at least in the case of potential asylum seekers from Iraq. We should have seen, in other words, relatively low numbers in the few years after the American “Surge” campaign, when the country entered a period of comparative stability. The fact that we didn’t leads me to conclude that external factors were not always the only – or even the main – driver of the number of boat-borne asylum seekers entering Australia. Something else, it seems, was at work; the only other viable candidate is Australian government policy.

***

This brings me back to the original point at issue – namely, whether government policy can affect asylum-seeking behaviour. If my analysis has any merit, then it would appear that so-called “pull factors” can affect one’s pattern of decision-making, and do so substantially. In the case of the Howard and Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments, it has led to a reduction in the number of boat-borne asylum seekers. In the case of the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government, on the other hand, it produced a dramatic increase in such numbers, accompanied by a consequent rise in deaths at sea.

[1] To be fair, the Crikey piece later concedes that there may be some divergence in numbers based on mode of entry (i.e., airborne vs. boat-borne asylum seekers). But if that is so, then what is the point of citing NZ in the first place? In what way is it a relevant comparator if one is only interested in asylum seekers who travel by boat (of whom NZ receives very few, if any)?

[2] A certain level of regulation would require any government to at least approximate some of the policies that have so far been used by Australian authorities; the alternative is simply hoping that overall asylum-seeker flows would be moderated by a relatively benign international environment.

[3] We should bear in mind that the Crikey piece was only written in 2009. As such, it would have been impossible for the author to take into account the longer-term implications associated with the Rudd Government’s abandonment of Howard-era policies in 2008. These were yet to be fully felt a mere 12 months later. And of course, not having the power of time travel, the author would have been unable to respond to the significance – if any – of the Abbott Government’s changes in this domain in 2013.

Do Boat Turnbacks Work? Well, It Depends on What You Mean by “Work”…

I was intrigued by an article that appeared in The Australian newspaper a few weeks ago. Under the front-page heading, “Boat turnbacks don’t work: UN”, the article quoted the UN refugee agency’s chief, Thomas Vargas, who claimed that turning back boatloads of asylum seekers at sea “just [doesn’t] work”. Later, Vargas conceded that such a policy might indeed “work” for some countries (or rather, he said that some countries might claim as much), although he insisted that they put vulnerable people “in harm’s way”.

Two points about Mr Vargas’ comments are worth noting. First, whether or not the policy of turning back vessels laden with asylum seekers “works” rather depends on your definition and your starting-point. If by “work” one means “the successful calibration of means with ends”, then I’d say that boat turnbacks have “worked” tremendously well. To my knowledge, not a single life has been lost at sea during a turnback operation, as the government has successfully used the tactic to deter asylum seekers from making the perilous voyage from the southern fringes of Indonesia (and, on occasion, other nations) to Australian territory. It has been so successful that at least one former immigration official has said that it makes offshore processing redundant (“Boat turn-backs ‘make offshore detention meaningless'”, The Australian, October 25, 2018; article paywalled).

As of October last year, about 36 boats had attempted to reach Australia since the re-introduction of the turnback policy in 2013. In that time, only one boat has made landfall – a vessel travelling directly from Vietnam. Every boatload of asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia has been successfully halted. Where the vessel has been deemed seaworthy, it is forcibly turned around. In other instances, orange lifeboats – complete with internal motor, life jackets and on-board supplies – have been used to ship asylum seekers back to (e.g.) the Indonesian mainland. Such vessels, it needs to be remembered, are practically unsinkable, so any safety issues are all but non-existent.

In any case, if the goal of turnbacks was to maintain the country’s maritime borders and dissuade asylum seekers from such an irregular – not to mention dangerous – means of travel, then the policy has “worked” perfectly. Even the outgoing director of the International Office of Migration’s Indonesia station, Mark Getchell, has stated that boat turnbacks have been the “single biggest” deterrent in the Australian government’s effort to reduce sea-borne asylum seeker flows (“Turnbacks best deterrent, says IOM chief”, The Australian, February 1, 2019; article paywalled). Now, Mr Vargas may dislike the policy; he may condemn it morally. At this point, however, he has chosen to critique Australia’s approach on practical grounds. The ethics of turnbacks is a distinct — though related — argument (I for one am not exercised morally by the enforced repulsion of asylum seeker vessels, provided such practices are conducted in a safe and humane way. Turnbacks have also been crucial in preventing deaths at sea, which means they can, in part, be defended on ethical grounds as well). As far as I can tell, its utility cannot be gainsaid.

Second, it’s somewhat ironic that Mr Vargas should castigate Australia for a policy that apparently places people in mortal jeopardy. His favoured approach – “…rescuing them [i.e., asylum seekers], bringing them to safety and then figuring out how best they can be helped” – is sure to lead to the very loss of life he so desperately wishes to avoid. I don’t doubt Mr Vargas’ sincerity or good-will. I assume he is genuinely concerned about the plight of asylum seekers, refugees, and internally displaced persons around the world. But what he is advocating has been shown to lure asylum seekers to their deaths.

How has this been demonstrated? Well, soon after winning office in 2007, the ALP began dismantling the border protection regime implemented by the Howard government. Whether or not they intended to, the Labor Party offered a fairly clear signal to both asylum seekers desperate enough to make the dangerous voyage across the Indian Ocean and to the (often unscrupulous) people smugglers who were only too willing to facilitate their passage. The result was an explosion in the number of vessels bound for Australian territory, far beyond anything the Royal Australian Navy could handle. In the five years that followed, at least 1,200 people either drowned in open water or were dashed against the treacherous shorelines of outlying islands. Navy personnel have recounted the trauma of having to retrieve the decomposing bodies of infants and children from the ocean, after yet another unseaworthy vessel sank. Labor policies between 2008 and 2013 – policies to which Mr Vargas would like to see Australia re-commit itself – set in motion this tragic state of affairs.[1] Again, one may wish to question the ethics of boat turnbacks. But I wouldn’t be too quick to condemn something as potentially fatal, especially if my preferred solution was likely to lead to precisely that outcome.

***

Mr Vargas’ views on this issue are a product of the rigid application of globalist logic to what, in many respects, is a national or inter-national problem. As an employee of the UN, he is of course wedded to the idea that these problems must admit of a global, multi-national solution; any effort on the part of individual states to carve out an independent response to irregular migration is condemned as intrinsically immoral. Perhaps. But states do have a right to maintain the integrity of their borders, something that needs to be weighed against the rights of individuals to seek asylum. Notwithstanding efforts to trivlialize the concept of national sovereignty, it remains one of the basic building-blocks of the international order.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as wholesale support for Australia’s current border protection regime. As I have indicated elsewhere, the country’s system of offshore processing facilities has clearly failed on multiple levels, exacerbating the trauma and mental ill-health that asylum seekers have already experienced. The government’s response to that troubling body of evidence looks increasingly stern and cold-hearted; many people on Manus and Nauru, meanwhile, continue to languish under the weight of acute psychological distress. I also think Mr Vargas is right to criticise the government for dramatically reducing the numbers of refugees it selects from Indonesian detention centres. It simply seems churlish to exclude asylum seekers based in Indonesia from the opportunity of re-settling in Australia — and, in light of the overall success of the country’s border protection regime, completely unnecessary (accepting people from mainstream, legitimate sources probably won’t encourage a re-activation of the people smuggling trade. If anything, the present policy would likely be an incentive towards irregular migration to Australia, at least in the absence of a broader deterrence approach).

But put all that aside for now. Mr Vargas’ views on the issue at hand aren’t simply in diametric opposition to reality; they unwittingly – and indeed, ironically – contain the seeds of a policy that would see the kinds of tragedy he earnestly seeks to avoid.

[1] I realize this is a contentious point, and that not all commentators agree that there is a causal link between Australia’s policy settings in this space and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. I shall attempt to substantiate my position in a forthcoming post.

 

 

A Listing Ship: the Modern-day Liberal Party

Some rambling thoughts on the Australian Liberal Party’s current malaise…

The Liberal Party’s Identity Crisis

With each passing day, it seems harder and harder to discern any kind of coherent philosophical base uniting the Liberal Party. Even its alleged commitment to small government and the virtues of free markets is more theoretical than real these days. That particular axiom has been hollowed out recently, as the Coalition has sought to retain the favour of the electorate by embracing traditional Laborite, “big government” programmes. Promising to fund bloated schemes of questionable financial wisdom – the NDIS, the NBN and the Gonski school reforms are just three that come to mind – the Liberals have even abandoned any substantive devotion to economic liberalism. This is of a piece with their rather anaemic (non-)defence of key centre-right/conservative values. The party is now languishing in an agonising period of ideological confusion.

The question concerning the Liberals’ governing principles has taken on a new urgency in recent times, as the various ideological factions composing the party – the so-called “moderates” and “conservatives” – have descended into rancorous, internecine debate. This isn’t to say the issues besetting the Liberals weren’t present beforehand; something like this doesn’t just spring up overnight. Clearly, they have been percolating for some years now, with the party’s past two leaders, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, acting as standard-bearers for the warring blocs. But the unexplained (not to mention incompetent) removal of the former member for Wentworth has exposed the fact that the present-day Liberal Party is, philosophically-speaking, rudderless.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the party of Menzies faces a crisis, one of existential import. But what has caused this ideological drift? Such a situation, slow to take shape, is unlikely to be mono-causal. Rather, it is the product of a complex confluence of factors, both proximate and distal.

Mapping the Crisis

At one level, the Liberals’ current woes can indeed be seen as a by-product of the party’s apparent inability to reconcile its two main philosophical streams. The increasingly schismatic quality of its internal ructions has obviously had an enervating effect – when any group is this consumed with collective navel-gazing, a period of drift is inevitable. The same-sex marriage debate showcased some of these divisions, with that particular question unveiling deeper fissures concerning the basic direction of the party. Tensions have been intensified immeasurably by the simmering personal feud between Abbott and Turnbull, who came to embody contrasting visions of what it meant to be a Liberal. Partly as a consequence, the party now seems beset by a kind of philosophical inertia, increasingly torn between two ways of articulating conservative/right-leaning politics in Australia. Such conflicts continue to smoulder, not only within the parliamentary party, but also at the local branch level.

Nevertheless, one shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the sole reason for the Liberals’ problems, important though it is; nor is it the only lens through which the party’s listlessness may be viewed. For several years now, the Coalition has been afraid to advance a principled, coherent, conservative approach to the many issues with which the country must grapple. Instead, it has either evaded those issues outright, or engaged in abortive and half-hearted attempts to give voice to a right-of-centre perspective. Worse, it has wholeheartedly embraced positions that were first propounded by its ideological opponents, and which in many cases undermine the strength of the conservative position. This sad state of affairs is doubtlessly connected to the party’s internal divisions, such that it persistently struggles to present a unified view on a clutch of controversial questions. But one doesn’t have to look too far to find examples of even Liberal warriors capitulating on principle for the (increasingly elusive) prize of electoral popularity.

It might be recalled that it was none other than Tony Abbott – a conservative pugilist, if ever there was one – who on the eve of the 2013 election promised that there would be “no cuts” to education, health, and the like. At best, the pronouncement jarred horribly with what many regarded as basic right-leaning approaches to the role of the state, fiscal rectitude, etc. (even if one ultimately concludes that no cuts were required, how wise is it to blithely promise that much before one has been able to conduct a proper audit of federal spending?). Moreover, it was Abbott who in 2014 abandoned efforts to dilute S18C of the RDA in the interests of some Quixotic goal of uniting all Australians – including Muslim Australians – behind a raft of new anti-terror laws. Once again, conservatives watched in dismay as a putative champion abruptly abandoned another article of (political) faith.

The point of this exercise in recent political history is to suggest that the evacuation of the Liberal Party’s binding philosophy began before many of the internal divisions we have been witnessing came to the fore. Abbott’s uncharacteristic timidity and awkwardness during the debate around S18C is a clear example.

This goes well beyond the events of the previous six months, or even the past five years. As John Roskam, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs, has pointed out, the Liberal Party has been in a state of ideological flux since the retirement of John Howard after the 2007 election defeat. Writing just after Peter Dutton’s ill-fated attempt to wrest the leadership from Turnbull last August, Roskam observed:

“[It does not] settle the fundamental question the Liberal Party has been grappling with since the retirement of John Howard and Peter Costello. For a decade the Liberal Party has struggled with the question of what should be its philosophy and its principles…”

Roskam went on to correctly note that the Liberal Party has, over the past ten years, embraced a number of economic positions that would make any Keynesian proud (to take just one policy domain). It has increased taxes, expanded the welfare state, and presided over the entrenchment of new and burdensome regulations. Meanwhile, members of the party shy away from several controversial – though nonetheless important – civic debates. The result of this timorousness is two-fold: a now-chronic inability to outline an agenda that can appeal to both intellect and lived experience; and the public’s (understandable) failure to grasp the party’s vision for the country.

In Search of Adequate Leadership

Roskam made an interesting, albeit fleeting, point about the identity crisis with which the Liberal Party has wrestled. It is obvious that the party of the Howard-era was a far more united, far more coherent political body. It was a “broad church”, of course, composed of both social conservatives and small “l” liberals. But with uncanny political nous, as well as an ability to articulate his party’s position in a clear and consistent manner, Howard was able to maintain a degree of institutional and philosophical cohesion – based largely around a shared commitment to economic liberalism – not seen since. Elsewhere, Roskam suggests:

“In simple terms, at the federal level the parliamentary leader of the Liberals sets the party’s philosophical direction and Liberal MPs then follow it.”

Is it a case, then, of faulty leadership? Can the Liberals resolve their painful wrestling by finding an effective “pontiff” who can successfully hold together this broad church, whilst outlining a compelling vision for the country that grounds itself in centre-right principles? Howard achieved this goal with consummate skill as he led the Liberal Party to four consecutive election victories. Whatever one thought of his basic political stance, such leadership is sorely lacking these days. Its absence, and the sense of drift that has ensued, is indelibly linked to the party’s present malaise. The fact that it has now had three leaders since winning office in 2013 – with the third coming to power despite never having explained why his predecessor’s demise was necessary – is perverse evidence of this reality. Although some sporadic efforts towards the construction of a positive agenda have been made, the current leadership of the Liberal Party seems just as diffident as previous iterations. Conversely, a talented leader can draw together the disparate elements of a party in an act of remarkable political alchemy. Roskam’s observation is therefore true in many respects: philosophical cohesion and fidelity to a party’s traditions depend in large part on the quality of the person leading it.

On the other hand, I think Roskam’s dictum may overstate things somewhat, if simplistically applied to today’s context. The political, social, and economic landscape has shifted markedly since John Howard was in office, which I think makes it far more difficult for a centre-right leader to articulate and prosecute his or her party’s agenda. At this point, the Liberal Party is in such a perilous state that it seems incapable of producing anyone who can rise about the intellectual torpor in which it is mired. This isn’t to say that the environment in which the Howard Government found itself was entirely benign; nor am I suggesting that the re-vitalisation of the Liberal Party under a competent leader is impossible. However, it appears that on a number of fundamental questions – questions that go to the heart of what the party stands for – the electorate has either drifted leftward, or fragmented politically in a way that eludes any one party’s control. In such a climate, even the most gifted of leaders is constrained in what he or she can accomplish.

The Economy: A Window into the Liberals’ Woes

Economics, which is so consequential to the Liberal Party’s identity, is a case-in-point. The Global Financial Crisis proved to be something of a watershed in regards to the way a government’s relationship with the economy was conceived. Rightly or wrongly, that catastrophe was attributed by many commentators to the evils of unbridled capitalism – a consequence of the free market’s alleged moral failings. Since then, consecutive governments of both ideological persuasions have adopted an increasingly interventionist approach to economic management. The GFC provided the rationale for the Labor Party to dramatically increase public spending – a trajectory from which its parliamentary opponents have only marginally dissented.

Voters have become habituated to such increases. The notion that government ought to play a relentlessly interventionist role in the economy, or should provide a panoply of income supplements as part of an ever-expanding welfare state (regardless of need), are now axioms of modern Australian life. Note, for instance, the victory of Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government in last November’s election, which was attributed in part to promises of massive infrastructure spending projects. The electorate was impressed by what it saw as an activist government “getting things done”. Unfortunately, such promises carry with them the likelihood of fiscal profligacy – a risk that did not prevent Victorian Labor from notching up a huge win. That win is one sign that the expectation of governmental largesse is now an accepted norm; when such a climate prevails, even the mere suggestion of reform in this domain is a risky prospect. Just look at the discussion around company tax cuts. As current polling data around the reduction of company tax suggests, the public is at best bemused by – and in many instances, quite hostile to – the idea that large businesses should be afforded some relief in this area.

Such scepticism is no longer confined to the progressive side of politics: many on the populist right, for example, hold economic views that are antithetical to a free market philosophy (think One Nation). Though a minority force within Australian politics, right-wing economic nationalism is not negligible. Thus, on the issue of the economy – to say nothing of other urgent questions – the Liberal Party is confronted with a much more malign political landscape. Finally, splits within the party itself reflect what one observes within Australian society-at-large. They manifest themselves in debates around economic philosophy, with some Liberal members calling for a move away from a “dry” approach, in favour of one that is claimed to be more “centrist”. Whether they are genuinely convinced by such notions, or have merely proposed them for the sake of electoral gain isn’t the point; however, a prospective Liberal leader wanting to stake out a distinctive position on (in this case) economics will not only face external hostility, but internal intransigence as well. Fiscal restraint and economic liberalism, meanwhile, continue to dissolve as core tenets of the Liberal Party’s platform. (As an aside, it’s ironic that the Liberals are still castigated for their apparent devotion to a harsh, unsparing economic philosophy, when in so many instances their policy position either mirrors, or merely shifts by degrees, the agenda of the ALP).

What I’m trying to say is that the issues confronting the Liberal Party are institutional and structural. The tectonic changes that Australian society has experienced have made it much harder for a leader of the Liberal Party to offer up an agenda that maintains some fidelity to centre-right principles, whilst also appealing to large swathes of the electorate. The party itself it adrift, having long ago slipped its ideological moorings on the question of the economy; some putative Liberals are being formed by a political culture inimical to liberal economic values, whilst others are advocating an entirely post-ideas approach to political engagement (a meek capitulation if ever there was one). As a consequence, the party faces the reality of at least the partial collapse of a common agenda. This is made all the more acute by a complementary breakdown in a shared conception of authentic centre-right social values, which has now become contested territory.

An Uncertain Outlook

Thus, even if the Liberal Party were to engage in another round of blood-letting – a real possibility if they lose this year’s federal election – there is no guarantee that a leader capable of supplying intellectual ballast could be found, given its parlous state. What’s more, taking the helm of the party now means having to contend with the fact that much of the electorate is either ambivalent towards, or deeply sceptical about, many of the tenets that have traditionally formed the party’s base.

If correct, this means we are left with a sobering conclusion: the absence of clear direction within the Liberal Party (in economics, as in so many things) is not merely symptomatic of political incompetence or a lack of unity, but is a product of the unfavourable historical juncture at which it finds itself. The Liberals must wrestle with the tension of trying to remain a party of (in this case) economic liberalism whilst appealing to an electorate whose mood on that issue has substantially shifted. That tension can be seen in the increasing internal confusion that besets the party, and its faltering efforts to respond to a changing economic landscape. Grappling with deep disagreements over their basic philosophical orientation, the Liberals are now at the mercy of centrifugal forces, both internal and external, that threaten to sunder them entirely.

Herein lies a devilish conundrum. On the one hand, the party of Menzies can choose to bravely unite around a coherent set of values, and hew to those policies that have traditionally formed a core part of its identity. That of course risks an indeterminate period of electoral failure, since the party can no longer rely on a neat dovetailing of economic liberalism and the voting public’s majority sentiments. But on the other hand, if the Liberal Party elects to move (further) away from its natural home on a raft of issues, it only succeeds in raising vital questions concerning its commitment to a distinct, coherent, stable philosophy. Abandoning its governing principles merely for the sake of electoral gain means that it alienates itself from the very thing that supplies its reason for being in the first place. Similarly, if the party seeks advantage by aping the ALP – all the while maintaining a superficial commitment to superior economic management – it merely exposes its own desiccation. Producing a leadership team capable of outlining a credible agenda would form only a partial solution to this dilemma. Given the welter of structural changes over the past decade or so, wholesale reform is beyond the capacity of any one individual. It confronts an uncertain future, regardless of the direction it chooses.

Having said that, the Liberal Party as a whole will probably need to bite the proverbial bullet and re-embrace a principled, centre-right agenda, despite the possible electoral consequences of such a decision. At least on the question of economics, the party will need to be resolute as it tries to persuade a doubting public that relatively free markets, small government, fiscal restraint, strong property rights, and the like, offer the best avenue towards national and personal wealth. This alone is how its identity crisis might be definitively resolved. I’m not saying this will be easy, or that it offers a straightforward path to success. For the time being, at least, I’m fairly certain it won’t. But what other alternative is there, save for a cynical (and so far unsuccessful) attempt to mimic the party’s political opponents? Whether Liberal members are willing to place fealty to principle above such cravenness, however, remains to be seen.

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth

Introduction

The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.