From Deputy Sheriff to Lone Ranger


While our Coalition partners debate the value of George W Bush’s new strategy in Baghdad, the debate in Australia has barely progressed beyond ‘staying the course’.

The problem goes beyond an uncritical mainstream media. As short-sighted as much of the Australian media has been in its discussion of our nation’s involvement in the second Iraq war, the silence of Australia’s defence and foreign policy establishments has been more disturbing.


In the US and especially the UK, there has been no shortage of often highly conservative public figures prepared to speak out against the war. Indeed, the debate has moved far enough in the UK to make Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for the conflict highly unpopular. British troops are beginning to withdraw.

Yet in Australia, criticism of the war especially from the Right has been surprisingly muted.

Four years into a losing war, even if the justifications for intervention were originally unimpeachable, one would expect to see robust criticisms mounted about the conduct of operations from the realist centre of the Australian foreign policy debate.

What is the strategic interest for Australia to remain engaged in Iraq? Is it now time to consider whether continued support for the war is counter-productive? Now that we have abandoned ‘staying the course’, what does a statement like ‘If we leave, the terrorists win’ actually mean, anyway?

John Howard’s Australia now stands remarkably isolated in world geopolitics, maintaining a hard-line, pro-war foreign policy even as the political environment that has supported George W Bush and the neo-conservatives in his Administration erodes.

John Howard and Alexander Downer’s rhetoric on Iraq in 2006 may soon come to resemble the geriatric rantings of East Germany’s President Erich Honecker in 1989, who held fast to a Marxist-Leninist party line long after Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms made East Germany’s repression a political embarrassment in Moscow.

In the US, the victory of the Democrats in November’s congressional elections has changed the political environment. President Bush’s recent high-profile announcement committing 20,000 ‘new’ troops to Iraq drew heavy fire in Congress; US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice copped a rare grilling in a Senate hearing as she tried to invent synonyms for ‘escalation’.

Whether it’s an escalation or an ‘augmentation’, the value of the ‘Surge’ strategy has been questioned   by most military analysts, who ask whether a mere five extra combat brigades  deployed over six months will represent enough infantry on the ground to make a difference.

Bush’s vaunted new commander in Iraq, Lieutenant-General David Petraeus, has a PhD in the military history of the Vietnam War. He recently helped author the US Army’s Counter-Insurgency Manual. The manual itself says that effective counter-insurgency operations need approximately 20 troops per every 1,000 citizens in the occupied country. Bush’s latest strategy will still leave US forces well below this ‘winning’ level.

Thanks to Bill Leak

But in Australia, John Howard is still stonewalling criticisms by claiming ‘we were right to go into Iraq’.

Perhaps the best illustration of the cowed and craven nature of Australia’s foreign policy debate is the position of the government-funded body that is supposedly our peak independent foreign policy think-tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

ASPI, which has been a spirited critic of some of Australia’s defence acquisitions, has until recently been reluctant to say anything about Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war. Its most recent contribution by Dr Rod Lyon was a highly equivocal two-bob-each-way that argued  ‘it is far from clear that either it or the region would look much better if the Coalition withdrew’.

As former ASPI Director (and current Howard Government defence advisor) Aldo Borgu has publicly observed, there is a level of dishonesty at the heart of the Howard Government’s rhetoric on the war in Iraq:

We certainly have the capability to deploy at least a battalion group of some 1200 personnel in Iraq (which means doubling our presence in Iraq) without jeopardising our ability to respond to unforeseen contingencies in our own immediate region. A deployment of this size certainly would be more in tune with the government’s rhetoric about how important the future of Iraq is to Australia’s security.

Australia ‘s contribution to the Coalition of the Willing is militarily small. We have never committed a large number of troops, and we have never stationed them in a dangerous part of Iraq. Australia’s presence or absence in Iraq has essentially zero impact on the security situation there. Nor has Australia made the sort of multi-billion dollar commitment of foreign aid to Iraq that might make a difference to the country’s economy and unemployment rate. (Instead, we’re giving AWB Limited a $290 million tax break for their pre-war bribes to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.)

To quote Rod Lyon: ‘I think it could be argued that in every major war that Australia has fought in, our force commitments have not been œdecisive  to the outcome. So what? Australia isn’t going to stop making those commitments.’

If Australia really is, as John Howard says, fighting a high-risk War on Terror in which leaving Iraq means handing victory to the terrorists, then the real scandal is our paltry military and economic commitment to that war.

Despite our tiny commitment of forces, Australia now finds itself indelibly associated with the US’s adventure in the Middle East, and the geopolitical settlement that will eventually ensue, which will almost certainly include an increasingly powerful Iran and probably result in a nuclear cold war in the region.

Long before then, Australia will find that its usefulness to the US in the Coalition of the Willing is essentially political and therefore subject to winds of change in Washington. Australians may also begin to ask why more of us didn’t stand up to Howard, Bush and the M
urdoch press as our country heedlessly plunged into a tragic and foreseeable folly.

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