Now that ISIS has for all intents and purposes been driven out of Mosul and Raqqa the time has come for the Australian government to step back and review its diplomatic policies, and military commitments, in that region and focus back on the region of primary concern: East and Southeast Asia and the Southern Pacific. Whatever becomes of Trump himself there is little likelihood of the US reverting to the status quo ante as existing under the Bush and Obama administrations.
Doubtless ISIS will regroup and pursue its objectives in what pickings may remain for it in Iraq, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Libya.
That is a working out for the affected tribes and the regional players now deeply immersed in their respective proxy wars. Australia’s engagement there was on the understanding that it would be contributing to regional stability and development, resisting terrorism, in support of the nation state system then existing. That system is now broken. It is their issue, not ours.
This chain of events began in 2001 with our military deployment in Afghanistan, an honest enough commitment with UN Security Council approval, in search of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of the Twin Trade Towers atrocity.
It shifted in 2003 in support of unrelated US campaigns in Iraq (and again in 2014) with two major consequences: the seeds of ISIS were deeply sown, and Iraq became in effect a vassal state of Iran, which both the US and its ‘partner’ Saudi Arabia regard as the ‘enemy’ – regardless of whether Iran could play, or may wish to play, a constructive role in resolving the worst of these conflict situations.
Even now we remain joined at the hip with Iran’s de facto protectorate, Iraq, whose government has not provided us with a covering invitation to intervene in its civil war, nor a Status of Forces Agreement to underpin our troops involvement in that country. So much for protocol.
Lately we have been bombing a sovereign country, Syria, without its permission – an act of aggression – whose government was considered to be in retreat but now likely to be revived only to be torn further apart as Iran and Turkey seek separate strategic advantages there along with the Russians. Turkey for its part considers both Iraq and Syria to be failed states whose borders are bound to be redefined – as much to thwart the Kurds, ever keen to establish their own homeland. (If ever there was a force that has fought hard and effectively against ISIS it is the Kurds.) Australia has no overriding strategic interest in the region. That we might wish to increase our arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the like does not justify placing our armed forces at risk on their behalf or facilitating war crimes in places like the Yemen.
Where do we go from here in this squalid and self-destructive region? Is this a watershed whereby we can and should extricate ourselves from these commitments and avoid further entanglements in misconceived US campaigns, orchestrated as may be by President Trump, instigated by his Saudi and Gulf State cohorts essentially for the latter’s purposes? What would be the implications of a strategic revision of this nature?
There is understandable uncertainty in Australian foreign policy quarters about any major change of direction while the full nature of the Trump phenomenon remains unclear. Some believe it will pass and the status quo ante will be restored. The better view is that regardless of Trump the policy course taken by the two Bush Administrations is finished and without being altogether isolationist, ‘America First’ will now resonate. It is thus clear that first and foremost Australia must exercise its own independent judgment about its priorities and act strongly and consistently in accordance with the national interest. We should recenter our diplomatic policies and military commitments in the region that will matter most to us over the coming generations – i.e. East and Southeast Asia and the Southern Pacific.
There are enough actual and prospective diplomatic and political issues in this area to give us headaches aplenty, but none that should lead to armed conflict in the foreseeable future without substantive regional support. Maritime boundary issues and terrorist interceptions at sea are not unlikely but these scale down compared with the consequences of foolish actions on the part of major powers in the broader field. After nearly four decades of military entanglements harnessed to failed US policies, it is only reasonable that our armed forces when next required to risk life and limb should be assured that they would be doing so in a cause that all Australians shared. That would be good also for the credibility of future Australian governments in matters of defence and diplomacy generally.
Meanwhile talk of developing an independent anti-ICBM capability in response to exaggerated fears over North Korea is plain nonsense and would entail a massive misdirection of scarce financial and physical resources. These resources would be better utilised on infrastructure developments and enhancing our maritime defence capabilities. North Korea is a problem for China, Russia and Japan in addition to the US, and when the correct non-military pressures are applied it will resolve itself. North Korea will want to survive and have a better future for its people. Missiles per se won’t achieve that. Getting from here to there requires good diplomatic sense. If the US lacks that then hopefully others will not. Regardless of Australia’s residual responsibilities under the Korean Armistice of the 1950s they do not commit us to military operations there in these very changed circumstances.
The DFAT Foreign Policy White Paper is awaited but on present trends one may wonder whether it will be out of date even before delivery.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser, and former senior academic in public and international law