It's the American Alliance, Stupid!


Any analysis of the Howard Government’s policy on Iraq must start with the real reason Australia got involved. Forget WMDs, brutal dictators, terrorism, regional stability, oil and all the other red herrings. It’s the American Alliance stupid!

So the success or failure of Australian policy depends on whether or not our participation in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ has made it more likely that the US cavalry will come thundering over the hill to rescue us in any future hour of need.


This is usually called the ‘insurance policy’ argument and it is one that has been widely accepted by all major political Parties in Australia as well as by the general public. We are the smaller partner in the American Alliance so, if we want protection from the major partner, then we have to pay our premiums by supporting the USA when it wants our support. The justice of the cause (whether it’s joining in the invasion of Iraq or blockading North Korea) is not at issue what our support for the USA needs to establish in the minds of the US policy-makers (and the US public) is that Australia is a country whose loyalty should be rewarded and, therefore, we should be protected if we are threatened.

Remember that we are talking about threats to Australia that are not also threats to the US. World War II is a classic case of the US protecting Australia in order to protect US interests. We did not have an alliance but we were a useful springboard from which to retake the Philippines and eventually move on to Japan. Today, we could expect the US to be with us in a similar situation, so we do not need the Alliance for that. We only need it to protect us from threats to Australia only.

So, has our participation in an unpopular failure boosted our stocks in Washington? Obviously it has with the current Administration and the Free Trade Agreement was a result of this. (What readers may think of the FTA is not relevant; the Government wanted it and the Government got it.)

It is, however, very hard to gauge the long-term value of our Iraqi adventure. It can be argued that identification with a disaster does not do us any good, but it can equally be argued that standing by the Americans when all others deserted them is the act of a true friend and will not go unrewarded. Only time will answer this question but it is important not to forget that insurance premiums must be paid regularly and that whatever brownie points we may gain from Iraq will only last for a few years. When the US gets itself into another war, we will get a premium renewal notice.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

The AWB scandal has not helped our image and we can expect the US wheat industry to show no mercy. It will probably diminish our public image in the US, but I suspect that it is not something too many Americans will focus on.

It follows that when the US decides it is time to get out of Iraq, Australia will follow. To say that Australian policy will be essentially decided in Washington is not a cheap sneer but a logical result of the insurance policy argument. If the Americans pull out, we have nothing to gain by staying.

We might also consider the possible collateral damage to our interests in other countries of our support for the US. It is easy to exaggerate this damage and I see little evidence that our bilateral interests have been significantly affected. We have always been seen as a close supporter of the US, so what’s new?

The one area that could be cited is the increased terrorist threat to Australia as a result of our high profile in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq has clearly opened Pandora’s Box and focussed potential terrorist interest on Australia accordingly. The Government’s increased expenditure and warnings on the terrorist threat to Australians can only be interpreted as confirmation that it agrees with this assessment. Otherwise, what is all the fuss about?

However, for all that, we remain a less attractive target for terrorists because attacks in Australia would not get the global publicity that they got from attacks on the US or the UK or even Spain.

Judgments will depend largely on opinion, ideological preconceptions and future developments but we should not be led down irrelevant byways. The argument must remain focussed on reality rather than rhetoric. Has Australian policy achieved its real aims or not? Do we have a higher positive profile in the USA because of our membership of the Coalition of the Willing?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.