06 December 2006

Iraq, Fiji and Australia

Never thought the first two countries had much in common, eh? Me neither.

Australia has 500 personnel in Iraq who are guarding a detachment of other foreign troops (foreign to both Australia and to Iraq). This is not a significant strategic deployment in itself. It is a non-UN peacekeeping mission, currying favour to an ideal more important to the current government than involvement with the UN. The Diggers are there because Australia needed to maintain good relations with the Bush Administration, and are still there because this need has not entirely disappeared.

At this point I'll just take time out to express my irritation at the Prime Minister of Australia referring to the President of the United States as "the President". One can understand why Americans refer to Bush as the President, and one can understand that if you are briefed relentlessly by Administration officials then in time you might also, as they do, refer to "the President". Bush is not the President, he is not our President; indeed thanks to Howard we do not have a President of our own, assuming we need one. There are other Presidents. The argument by his supporters that Howard is not in lockstep behind Bush fails until Howard has the discipline to stop this verbal tic, which may however become another indication of the twilight of Bush.

Iraq has an elected government which cannot govern that country without help from US and UK forces (other forces, such as Australia's, make little difference and need not be missed by Iraqis if they weren't there. Withdrawals might embarrass the US and British governments but the difference to the balance of power in Iraq would be scant). The Iraqi government faces threats from four sources:

  • well-organised and funded Sunni and Shia forces;

  • Saddam loyalists who can't imagine Iraq without him, funded by AWB money and other scumbags; and

  • a criminal rabble, not entirely separate or separable from the Saddam loyalists.

The rabble is the weakest link because one or both of the two major forces will demonstrate their power by wiping them out or co-opting them. The Shia have 60% of the population of Iraq and 85% of that of Iran, apparently, so they have to be the favourites. Getting the rabble off the streets is one of the central features of any government, so the first cleric who does this is a long way toward supplanting the government.

According to the Prime Minister, the elected Iraqi government asked for our help, just like the "invitation" from the government of South Vietnam in 1965.

Australia has military personnel near, but not in, Fiji. They are offshore despite the fact that the elected government asked for Australian help. The elected government proposed to grant amnesty to the fools behind the 2000 coup and this would have caused more trouble than it's worth in terms of the stability of that country, let alone its future. The overly large Fijian army has already got the rabble off the streets, and hopefully the Australian force of the coast is large enough to pose a threat and keep the Fijian army from doing anything too rash. The personnel are there to react to any possible damage to "Australian interests", though it is more likely that attacks on property will be overlooked in favour of any damage to Australian people, represented in greater numbers in Fiji than in Iraq.

Australian property interests in Fijian tourism, real estate and manufacturing are significant, in a way that Australia's presence in Iraq is not. It has become a destination for outsourcing production that Australians will buy but for which we won't pay top dollar, like clothing. Drugs and illegal fishing moves past or through Fiji and other countries. They receive aid and the Australian government has a responsibility both to minimise wastage, and to overlook any wastage occurring as part of the longterm good.

In both countries, with its different tactics, Australia is trying to ensure longterm stability, with a view that instability there could ultimately threaten us here. However, in Iraq Australian troops are a figleaf for someone else's embarrassment, while in Fiji Australian troops play a vital support for Australian interests and a check on excesses by belligerents.

In the late nineteenth century a German military officer, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote that war is a continuation of politics by other means. His successors practiced, and had practiced against them, war on such an overwhelming scale that we may now regard the insertion of military forces as an expression of political failure and limited imagination. One can support the job the military have to do, and accept the necessity of them having to do it, while at the same time condemn the ineptitude of the policies - and yes, the policymakers - who led them there and us here.

The insertion of troops into Iraq represents a failure for Australian policymakers to imagine an alliance with the United States as a whole rather than just the Current Occupant. The waiting game off the coast of Fiji represents a failure for policymakers to recognise our true national interests and engage effectively with leaders of that community, and other communities across the Pacific, over time. The imbalance in our foreign policy is clear: too little focus on important foreign policy matters, to much focus on marginally relevant but big-picture stuff.

The fault of this failure is political, and generational.

While Australian politics and policy has undergone profound and far-reaching change since 1983, foreign affairs has been run by only three ministers - a political stability unmatched in any other area of policy, including the economy. Each of them liked to grandstand on the world stage more than do the nitty-gritty on the security of our region.

It's fair to give the benefit of the doubt to Australian diplomats in both Iraq and Fiji, they did what they could: but what they could do was limited in the absence of political support, all the more if their stern warnings and alarums were ignored. It is, however, an indictment on their work when one of Australia's genuine experts on the region is not a diplomat, not an academic, but a long-serving correspondent from the hated ABC.

There is also a generational issue. Australian diplomats have experienced a minister who doesn't want to be told anything controversial, and a chain of authority that also practices a blind-eye, deaf-ear, passive-aggressive approach to accountability. Even those who are working their way up DFAT on the eminently diplomatic get-along-to-go-along principle know that consistently ignoring bad news leads ultimately to disaster (they'd know it all the more immediately if Terence Cole's guns had been trained on DFAT). The future of Australian foreign policy will involve a greater focus on the region. Those who would be part of Australia's foreign policy going forward need to change the way they work. But what they might need most of all is a new minister, maybe a series of new ministers.

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