Australia’s strategic folly: lessons from Barbara Tuchman

Aug 29, 2019

We arein a situation where decisions that seem simple can commit Australia to fundamental errors of strategic judgement. The decision to send a ship and a plane and headquarters staff to a new venture with the United States in the Middle East is foolish. It is described in isolation by the government but is additional to ongoing ADF operations in the Middle East, which have lacked legality since 2003.  The late US historian Barbara Tuchman wrote two books of great relevance: about the lack of non-military options in 1914, and the tendency of governments to make decisions contrary to their core strategic interests. The first of those, The Guns of August, saved us from nuclear war in 1962, the second, The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam, is less well known because… well, because statesmen are not foolish and don’t make mistakes.

In early 1962, American historian Barbara Tuchman published a book about the beginnings of the First World War: The Guns of August, UK title August 1914. It quickly appeared in the best seller list of the New York Times. President John Kennedy read it and urged his National Security Council to read it. Then in October 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is generally recognised that Kennedy’s reading of The Guns of August was a major factor in the rejection by his National Security Council of advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to go to war. Tuchman’s lesson was that the war went as it did because of the absence of alternatives to war in strategic thinking.

But Tuchman’s lesson was forgotten well before the 9/11 events of 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Not only did the invasion fail, but our vocabulary, our benchmarks and capacity for debate and strategic though have been shifted dramatically. Military options rule and strategic advice in Australia as in the US has come to mean the advice of the military, intelligence and security industries. Trump’s first National Security Advisor, A R McMaster rose to his brief fame as author of Dereliction of Duty, which begins with a diatribe against Kennedy for rejecting the advice of the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1984 Tuchman published The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, setting out as commonplace the paradox of governments adopting courses contrary to national interest. Less popular than The Guns of August: who wants to acknowledge folly? Apart from Tuchman we should take note of Clausewitz, so often quoted for observing that war is an extension of diplomacy by other means. What is generally forgotten is Clausewitz’s advice that statesmen should be aware that war, once embarked upon as an instrument of policy, tends to drive out policy and pursue its own ends. As has happened in Afghanistan and the Middle East and now with China, where policy arises significantly from navy heroics in the South China Sea, where we are supposedly entitled to venture, though China makes scandalised headlines sending a surveillance ship to observe US-Australian exercises in Australia.

I have argued the folly of raging against China recently here.

Is it a folly to be sending a ship, additional aircraft and headquarters staff to the Gulf to safeguard shipping? While both sides of an argument may call the other foolish, I offer these considerations:

* First, that the government’s decision is in the direction of war as opposed to diplomacy. It is as much about war avoidance as the ventures of knights in crusades to protect holy sites in Palestine centuries ago, where war drove out policy.

* Forget about notions that this is just a small operation, we are not just joining up with a tanker-escorting minor team, the US Navy deployments at this moment are public here. Australia’s current Middle East deployments are listed here. Use Wikipedia for details.

* Our entry into the Vietnam war began with small numbers of advisors, and crept upwards. We lost;

* We went into the Iraq war in 2003 on the basis of spurious arguments and deceits, we helped remove a very bad government by violence and made Iraq ungovernable; we effectively handed Iraq to Iran;

* We have never had the guts to review our involvement in the Iraq war by serious inquiry, unlike the UK. No one here is politically accountable;

* the Iraq invasion was illegal as have been our ventures since in support of US forces in Iraq and Syria;

* at the present time just as in Iraq after the invasion, US leaders and planners, much as here, have had no idea of how to manage the peace, sustain order, achieve a future. The focus of US policy recently has been to more destabilisation in more places, now with the tweets of Trump and the fist shaking of Bolton creating uncertainty and adding to the resolve of the threatened and revelation to many more of the ineffectuality of US war dances;

* the US has overturned a nuclear agreement with Iran endorsed by the UN. The US has threatened sanctions against allies who have sought to sustain that agreement. There is no international legal basis for such sanctions;

* In the Middle East it is Israel, not Iran, that has a nuclear weapons force… and now the Trump team are helping Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear industry and capability;

* There is a lack of historical awareness of the fundamental central conflict in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iran basically Shia and Saudi Arabia Sunni; Iran via Hizbollah the only country to defeat Israel in war; Saudi with direct connections to Al Qaida, Islamic State and the Taliban.

* The word ‘oil’ is now on the table: now there is a noble crusade to save oil from bad guys. But all these decades have been about oil, control over oil reserves, by violent means. The US has become an exporter of fossil fuel energy and its need for imports has declined since 2006 … as has its need for markets grown. In this new phase, the US has disrupted Venezuela’s oil production (for years before and then contributing to the recent crisis), the US has fought against Europe, especially Germany, securing new gas supplies from Russia, demanding purchase of US fracked gas instead, and the US has sought a total blockade of Iran’s oil exports (though interpreters of oil prices suggest the embargo may not be working). The US has diminished its dependence on oil imports, but its readiness to control oil by domination or disruption is undiminished.

Those are broad strategic problems with entanglement in the Middle East. There are battle-related issues. The United States is poking a stick, threatening war, with a country geographically bigger than France, Germany and Britain combined. Iran has borders with Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan; over the Caspian Sea a short distance to Russia and Kazakhstan (plus an abundance of non-state actors in the region). Iran is not a ragged revolutionary country as in the 1980s when the US grabbed Iraq from Soviet arms and supported Iraq in a long, disastrous war with Iran, that Iraq lost. Iran is now a highly organised state with thousands of years of state management experience. Iran has built more than any other on the terrorist legacy of Lawrence of Arabia. Iran now has effective links and power involvement, not least in suppressing IS, from the border of Pakistan to the Mediterranean. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [Pasdaran] makes Iran a superpower. No scoffing and baiting and shouting campaign will make Iran defeat-able. Compare with the fantasy expectations of 1914.

After Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, with celebration of arms sales and talk of alliance in the region, Saudi Arabia organised with others the isolation of Qatar, not least in fury at the open news reporting of Qatar’s Al Jazeera news agency: border and air and sea space were closed to Qatar. Since then Qatar has, not least for food, built up relations with Iran and Turkey. Turkey is now buying air defence missiles from Russia and again is advancing in Syria against US interests. Qatar and Iran share ownership of the world’s largest natural gas reserves…While Qatar is host to the major US base in the Middle East.

All this… now in the context of destabilising and unpredictable utterances from Trump and Bolton. We should be very glad the Iranians are so quiet and patient. But quiet does not mean inactive. As Robert Baer observed in See No Evil, when the Pasdaran moved into Lebanon in the 1980s no reports to headquarters were required, headquarters only needed to follow the BBC News.

Government must take the public into its confidence and encourage more open sensible discussion of international strategic issues. Whether media can do that is uncertain. It will never be easy to step back from integration of minds and forces with the US, but it will only be more difficult later than sooner. A good ally is one that gives sensible advice, not just one that just slips into someone’s order of battle without national debate.

Dennis Argall was a former Australian Ambassador to China.

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