(or – when you get in a hole, stop digging)
To the sound of approaching drumbeats, first the ever-reliable Jim Molan, then Peter Jennings, and after them Liberal MP Dan Tehan have been wheeled out to tell us in recent days that the RAAF should start bombing in Syria. Right on cue, on 13 August Kevin Andrews said Australians would soon direct drone attacks into Syria, and Tony Abbott said expanded RAAF raids across the border had –wait for it – ‘been discussed’. Always briefed, Greg Sheridan informed us on 14 August that Australia was in discussions with the US, Iraq and other ‘coalition allies’, which he did not name, but some of whom had ‘already joined the US in attacks inside Syria.’ (Sheridan, ‘RAAF Syrian bomb missions loom’, Australian 14 August 2015, 1,2. David Wroe, ‘Australia in talks to bomb IS in Syria’, 14 August 2015, 3)
Australians with long enough memories will be smiling grimly as the band strikes up again for the old song-and-dance routine, Mission Creep, nicely orchestrated to distract from noises offstage about travel rorts, captain’s picks, and climate change. This latest re-run stars Abbott in Iraq III, reviving Howard’s 2003 role in Iraq II, which he understudied when Menzies starred in Vietnam. All Australia’s undeclared wars since the 1960s have had the same plot, and all of them have been disastrous flops, yet our leaders expect the punters to rock up to the box office every time.
Here’s what always happens. First, conservative governments press the US to ‘do more’, offering Australian support in return. They then make a surreptitious preliminary contribution, while the major deployment is organised. When that’s ready, they dribble out the ad campaign, denying we’re at war or even thinking of it because it may be illegal. Still they point to atrocities and dangers, real or fabricated, claiming the enemy (Communists, Terrorists, Death Cult, whoever) can reach Australia, so we’re all under threat. Then off the troops go, and patriotic support kicks in, particularly if anyone is killed, right in time for the next election.
There are a lot of problems with putting the Mission Creep show on yet again. Everyone knows we have not won a war with the Americans since 1945. We also know – even though the government refuses to hold an inquiry into the invasion of Iraq – that it was illegal and disastrous. We know too – even though we are told very little about what our troops are now doing in Iraq – that the Baghdad government won’t let them out of the bases where they train soldiers who are conspicuously underperforming against IS. Since late last year, Australians have been refuelling US aircraft flying missions into Syria, and many US drone strikes are coordinated from bases in Australia. What we don’t know is what would change if we sent more of them, or managed to get a Status of Forces Agreement that would let them do more. We also don’t know what effect the RAAF bombing has had, or what would be gained by expanding it into Syria. Even the loyal Sheridan admits that any difference it could make is ‘very marginal’.
We remember from Vietnam and Iraq II that local movements can metastesize across borders, particularly artificial ones. Even if IS is ‘defeated,’ the tumultuous reshaping of Iraq and Syria will continue. IS must right now be planning new publicisable atrocities, hoping that Shorten will be forced to share Abbott’s righteous outrage, and Australia and other US allies will be drawn into a wider war. This, surely, is the last chance for Shorten and Plibersek to restate Labor’s opposition to any Australian mission creep into Syria. They should ask the government to explain what we want from such a civil war, how we propose to win it, and how Syria is to be governed and reconstructed. If the Opposition stood up now and denounced Mission Creep as a time-worn farce, Australia could avoid responsibility for another disaster.
Instead, the shadow Foreign Minister put out a statement on 15 August http://gu.com/p/4bg9v/sbl
echoing Tony Abbott’s line about ‘Daesh’ as an evil cult, and calling it ‘a shockingly brutal force that is destroying the lives of many innocent people.’ The fact that Australia has sent one solider to Iraq for every 24 000 of our citizens has clearly not made much impression on IS. Plibersek didn’t say why we should fight them, and not other nasty groups like Boko Haram. Nor did she mention that when President Assad was the enemy of choice, the US subsidised IS in the first place http://universalfreepress.com/former-dia-director-gen-flynn-says-obama-created-isis-supposedly-to-overthrow-syrian-government/ )
Most significantly, she didn’t repeat Shorten’s condition of Labor support for the Iraq mission last year: that it now overflowing into Syria. ‘If the government has a case to make about a potential change to Australia’s existing mission in Iraq,’ she said obligingly, ‘the Opposition is ready to hear it.’
Alison Broinowski was formerly a senior officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Director of the Australia Japan Foundation. She is a Visiting Fellow at the ANU. She recently edited a book ‘How does Australia go to War’. The book carried a foreword by the late Rt.Hon. Malcolm Fraser.