12 January 2007

We're there because we're there

Much has been written about US involvement in Iraq, but not nearly enough has been written about Australia's participation independently of some wider western-alliance context, as though the reasoning that applies for or against aspects of US involvement also apply to Australia by default.

Clearly, Australia can't distance its involvement from that of the United States. The nearest thing to a justification of Australian involvement in Iraq from Australian commentators is that we have to humour the Yanks and provide them with a figleaf of internationalism in their crusade, and such comfort as comes from an offsider, a kemosabe, an Enkidu. The whole notion of "whither thou go, I goest" falls apart when the US is essentially engaging in a folly, waging a war that can't be won. Australians generally perceive the US alliance as generally benign and A Good Thing for the most part, with distance adding some allure without the cultural suffocation sometimes felt by Canadians.

Apart from supporting our great and powerful friend, what else is Australia hoping to gain from involvement in Iraq?

Australian frigates patrolled the Persian Gulf in between the Gulf Wars, to uphold UN sanctions against Iraq (while letting whole boatloads of Saddam-bribe wheat sail by). In the 2003 invasion Australian SAS troops went hunting for bandits in western Iraq. Currently, Australians control air traffic at Baghdad airport, protect a small Australian presence in the diplomatic compound ("Green Zone"), look for WMDs (stop that sniggering!), and about 500 Australian troops are in rural Iraq (i.e. far from Baghdad, where apparently 80% of attacks occur) guarding a Japanese engineering project. There's a frigate and an aeroplane in logistical and surveillance support, and some training of Iraqi personnel.

None of that can be said to be winning hearts and minds with Iraqi communities. Australian troops are not being strewn with flowers as they walk the streets of grateful communities, despite the pic in the above-linked brochure, with impressed natives imploring them not to leave and engaging in the kind of cultural exchange that might lead to them being inspired to emigrate here. The Iraqi government does not and need not care whether Australian forces stay or go.

The Japanese could look after their engineers themselves if they had to. The Americans could do the air traffic and other support tasks, especially with their surge. Why the Australian government has not outsourced embassy security in Baghdad, like it does elsewhere, is a mystery.

Australia's presence in Iraq is a token presence. Australians who complain that American media ignores our contribution have a point about the insularity of that country, but it is more than outweighed by two considerations. First, the number of Americans who have died in that conflict is almost four times bigger than the entire Australian force there, and this sacrifice must be respected even by those who are passionately against the whole shooting match (the appropriateness of that sacrifice is a matter for Americans themselves). Second, the absolute tokenism of Australia's presence: the US has 15 times the population of Australia, and even if you take that into account a force of 800 is a tiny proportion of the overall allied force there. It is not making the sort of tactical difference on the ground that Australia's small force made in Vietnam. It would not be missed if it were gone, and the fact that Australians are not required to boost our contribution in the I'll-see-you-and-I'll-raise-you rhetoric surrounding Bush's surge underlines the insignificance of Australia's contribution, and hence its impact on the alliance.

Then, yes, there's wheat. Iraqis are entitled to be upset with us over the whole oil-for-food scandal, without any obligation to be grateful for bellies filled years before at such enormous if unwitting cost. That bribe money has been spent on killing people, Iraqi civilians and Americans. You don't have to be a bleeding heart to be ashamed at that, a shame that winning the Ashes can't even address let alone balance. You'd think we'd tiptoe quietly away out of sheer decency, like Australian troops did from Gallipoli.

Australian forces are doing a great job in Iraq. They'd do a great job wherever they were deployed, really. They'd be better off deployed in and around Australia, as part of a sign that we are finally taking seriously the area in which we live. The threats Australia faces are mostly cultivated close to home. Australian forces are best deployed in addressing threats to Australia.

This is not an argument for Fortress Australia, nor even for the popular but farcical notion that countries in the Pacific (or even Southeast Asia) constitute the Australian "backyard". It is an argument for recognising that Australia has a role in its alliance with the United States, and we have done too little in warning them against folly in the first place. To that extent the Australian government was right to invest so little in the pending disaster, without the hurt of snubbing them altogether (though the small number of Australian casualties makes such warm feelings easier). Australia has a role in sending forces far from its shores to uphold that alliance and its values, in line with this country's military history. It will be all the more effective in doing so with a greater forward presence in Polynesia and Melanesia.

Australian policymakers can be forgiven for floundering on defence issues in the aftermath of the Cold War, and commended for resisting the butter-not-guns populism of those who thought that military forces had become largely unnecessary - a sentiment that dominates official thinking in New Zealand. They cannot be forgiven for maintaining a pointless, unjustifiable presence in Iraq that lacks legitimacy from locals or any recognition worth the name from the Americans. Australian forces have done a great job as always, but they are not needed in Iraq. They are needed elsewhere. What they - and we - need is a government with the sense to deploy them to best effect.


  1. Australian policymakers can be ... commended for resisting the butter-not-guns populism ... that dominates official thinking in New Zealand.
    Why? It seems to me that the ADF is an instrument in search of a role - which suggests to me that it has no role. And your previous post pointed to how little bang for buck we get from them, due to the massive inefficiencies that always bedevil Defence acquisitions.

    After all, NZ doesn't seem to have seriously missed its power-projection capabilities, and God knows we could use a lot of those funds in strengthening our future economy through infrastructure and education spending. A consistently strong economy would do far more for our future security than most of the billions we currently spend on "defence".

  2. Australia's position relative to Southeast Asia is different to that of New Zealand.

    An institution that is being misapplied is not "in search of a role" and nor is it lacking any kind of valid role. The Australian Defence Force could be better deployed to benefit Australia within our region, allowing for the occasional but sensible deployment far from these shores. Its value can be measured in averting both costly and destructive high-intensity conflicts, as well as the slow decay that comes from being too open to people and goods to the point where a stable and prosperous social, economic and political environment unsustainable.

    I agree with you about the infrastructure and education spending. Defence spending has economic benefits and the mobility of Defence personnel provide a powerful force against parochialism within state/territory education systems. This isn't to say that Australian defence spending is overwhelmingly significant economically, but it's true that it's not an either/or proposition. If it is, then the need for defence spending will always trump that of economic development.