Australia’s response to US Trumpeting in Iraq has been muted and said nothing about whether we agree in principle that it is acceptable to assassinate foreign nationals in other countries. Russia in Britain?
US policy designed to protect American live and assets has had the opposite effect including on Australia. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric is disturbingly like that of Teddy Roosevelt and George W Bush both of which led to aggression. Will Australia be dragged into yet another fine mess? This raises questions not just about what interest we have in the Middle East and how we protect them but also leads to heretical thoughts about the value of the American Alliance. We have been found wanting on climate change. Will we also be found wanting on geopolitical change?
Fine articles from Bob Bowker and Mike Scrafton in Pearls and Irritations have examined the details of the current Iran/US imbroglio which understandably has tended to be burnt out in the media by the bushfire crisis. I want to look at some of the more general implications. What does this tell us about American policy and about Australian policy?
It is hardly news that Trump is unpredictable and has been getting increasingly belligerent. To a large extent he sees the world through American domestic concerns no doubt including his desire to be reelected. He seems also to be strongly influenced by hawks like Pompeo, Pence and John Bolton. Patriotism of a jingoistic kind is nothing new in the USA. Theodore Roosevelt and the Hearst press spring to mind as an earlier incarnation of emotion driving aggression. The failure of US decision makers to clearly analyse the implications of their actions is also nothing new as the Coalition of the Willing illustrated.
As always, there are American academics, journalists and even politicians who see things more clearly and are publicly critical of their government’s policies and actions but they are not the decision takers. So while the justification for the latest assassination and rhetoric is that it will protect American lives and assets, a number of experienced observers of the Middle East have pointed out that it will have exactly the opposite effect. Will Trump and Murdoch emulate Roosevelt and Hearst? More recently, US policy has been erratic. They supported the Taliban against the USSR without thinking about local reality and longer term factors with predictable results. When Australia was on the Security Council during the Iran-Iraq war we were constantly urged to support Iran!
An issue which seems to be largely ignored is the question of whether assassination in other sovereign states of people you don’t like is justified. If we accept that what was in effect an attack on another country was justified because the target was a bad guy, as we did in the case of Osama bin Laden, then who decides what is justified? We condemned Russian assassination in Britain of people they presumably saw as a threat but how does that different in principle? Or is it OK if we do it but not if people we disaprove of do it? So much for the rules based order.
Australia has rightly called for all parties to be restrained but has asked Iraq not to kick out Australian troops who are said to be training Iraqis to fight Daesh. Of course if you train other people’s troops you have no say in how they will use that training. We are there, as usual, because the Americans want us there, not because the Iraqis want us there. Having joined in an illegal invasion of Iraq to please the USA we are now stuck with the consequences of that ill advised action. By leading with our chin publicly we make it more likely that Australians will be targeted as part of any revenge attacks on the US. Direct criticism of the US action has been absent which would not be the case if a country like China or Russia had done the same thing.
So here we have another example of Australia’s alliance driven foreign policy. We are putting all our eggs in a somewhat shaky basket. Some praiseworthy efforts have been made by the government to work more closely with our neighbours but this is very much a second prong in our policy. We have been shown to be wanting in our approach to climate change so perhaps it is time to show more imagination on our approach to geopolitical climate change? A thorough and realistic look at our long term interests should start from zero and take nothing for granted. Two minute sound bites are not good enough.
Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat.