Abbott Can't Afford Iraq Any Longer


Buried deep in the Coalition’s most recent cuts to our foreign aid program was a small detail loaded with symbolic value. Although it drew almost no attention, it marked the end of a major chapter in Australia’s history: after more than a decade of involvement, we are now on the verge of completely disengaging from Iraq.

The Coalition’s new numbers confirmed the further defunding of aid to Iraq. Just $3.7 million will go to Iraq this financial year, one fifth of the amount provided by the 2012/13 budget, and a huge reduction from the $366.9 million we gave in 2008/09.

When Australia joined George W. Bush’s fraught coalition in 2003, we began making major aid contributions to supplement military support. Despite withdrawing the majority of our troops in 2008, generous aid continued to be provided to Iraq.

Whatever good has been done by the training, scholarships, and debt relief, Professor of strategic studies and former defence adviser Hugh White argues that both Coalition and Labor governments used aid to Iraq primarily as a strategic device.

"For successive Australian Governments, aid to Iraq was primarily an adjunct to our military effort – a (relatively) low cost, low risk way to supplement our modest troop numbers and show our credentials as a good ally to America," he told NM.

The deaths of Australian soldiers in other countries’ wars once helped birth our foundational national myth, but in the contemporary they are more likely to wreck the polling of prime ministers. By providing money instead of men and women, Howard could protect his standing with the US while minimising the damage to his domestic standing.

“[It was a] way of saying to Washington ‘hey, we’re doing our bit’,” White said.

Under Rudd, aid became a Band-Aid. As Australian troops were withdrawn, our financial contribution was boosted to soothe ties with the White House. After the huge amount he initially contributed, levels fell back to $46.3 million in 2009/10 falling only marginally the next year to $45 million. Then the decline accelerated, with just $17.3 million given in 2012/13. As this shows, the cuts to Iraq have been a bipartisan project.

Aid spending in Iraq over time (in millions), not including the last year's cuts. Source: DFAT.

With America pulling out of Iraq, our strategic interest appears to have been extinguished. The only rationale for continued assistance to the country is humanitarian. But as our aid money slows to a trickle, things remain bleak. 2013 was the deadliest year for the country since 2008. In a single day last week, 75 people were murdered in a spree of bombings and shootings across the country. As the violence has worsened, we have grown immune to it. Like government cuts here, the reporting of massacres in Iraq has become perfunctory.

Though not responding directly to questions, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, into which Abbott has incorporated AusAID, pointed to Iraq’s improving economic situation as an explanation for the most recent reductions in our aid to the country.

“Australia is phasing out development assistance to Iraq in response to Iraq’s growing capacity to finance its own development through increased revenues from oil production,” a spokesperson for the department noted in an email to NM. “The reduction in Australian development assistance is in line with other major donors…"

There are indeed good signs that progress is being made in some areas. Iraq itself made a small contribution to the UN’s most recent Syrian fundraising drive. But AusAID’s own 2013 budget paper, which acknowledged growth, provided a brief and sobering reminder of conditions in the country:

“Although the Iraq Government’s capacity to provide basic services is improving, overall levels of poverty are high and many Iraqis, especially women and children, still live in extreme poverty."

If Iraq is improving, it has not been at the same rate that our aid contributions are falling. Our aid has been pulled swiftly and quietly, leaving a void where there should have been debate about our ongoing obligation to provide support to the nation whose invasion we supported.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, a long time observer and critic of Australia’s involvement in Iraq as well as cuts to foreign aid, says that the country is struggling.

“Iraq at the moment is anarchic; Fallujah is in rebel hands, Ramadi is at risk of falling into rebel hands, the government clearly has little authority outside the capital,” he told NM.

“We clearly have a moral obligation to help rebuild the country that we helped wreck,” he said, describing the new level of aid as “miniscule” and “appalling”.

But beyond the moral case for ongoing aid there is also a practical question. In an increasingly violent country on the other side of the world, how effective can our assistance be?

Supportive of the idea of an ongoing obligation, Hugh White pointed out the difficulty in delivering any aid to Iraq.

“I think there is a perfectly legitimate argument to me made that … because we took part in the invasion… [we]have therefore a degree of moral obligation in what has happened in Iraq since then,” he said.

“There’s a separate question as to whether giving aid is a cost effective way to do that.”

Robin Davies, an associate director at the Development Policy Centre and former senior member of AusAID, said it was not significant that Australia was reducing its contribution and that our previous assistance was only “a drop in the bucket” compared to the enormous contributions from others such as the US. “I think Australia’s departure would not be noticed at all,” Davies said.

Wilkie acknowledges the difficulties but argued that cutting our aid only hastens Iraq’s decline. “It obviously becomes more difficult but it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we stop aid. We’ve just got to try harder to deliver what aid we say we effectively can,” he said.

He added that providing assistance to nations like Iraq and Afghanistan still had a practical justification, given such countries act as source and transit locations for refugees who end up in Indonesia.

As Australia’s final extrication from Iraq takes place we must look closely at the recent history and ask if it bears repeating. Our aid to Afghanistan, still healthy and initially slated to increase this year, is now predicted to drop below its previous level as a result of the Coalition’s most recent cuts.

If we are to make a decision as a nation about how much support we are morally obliged to provide, and what form that assistance should take, the conversation must start now. Otherwise, as the Coalition searches for further savings and continues to shift aid closer to home, the decision may be made for us.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.