HENRY REYNOLDS. When will it end?

Jan 21, 2019

Three days after the Abbott government was sworn in on the 18th of September 2013 the new defence minister Senator David Johnston made a statement to the media. He told the Sydney Morning Herald that he wanted the military to be ‘battle ready for future conflicts in the unstable Middle East and south Asia.’ After 14 years of involvement in overseas conflicts the defence force had a ‘strong fighting momentum that should not be lost.’ He planned to maintain and ’augment our readiness for future fights in the unstable region stretching from Pakistan to the Middle East’. This was the area that’ we might need to go back into at some point in the future.’  

The statement itself was extraordinary; the underlying assumptions even more so. The minister clearly saw war as something to be courted rather than avoided. He wanted one of his own. But there was also the calm assumption that Australia had the moral right to intervene wherever it chose, any- where that was ‘unstable.’ It takes us back to an era when the great Imperial powers bestrode the world with their superior fire-power and invincible assumption of racial superiority

Johnston only survived as defence minister for a little more than a year and left the parliament in 2016. But not much has changed. Johnston wanted to get his troops back into the Middle-East. The present government doesn’t want to bring them home regardless of rapidly changing circumstances as Scott Morrison made clear when he visited them in Iraq on the eve of Christmas. This was after the American announcement of a withdrawal from Syria .And a few days after Morrison returned to Australia Donald Trump’s visit to Iraq ended badly with significant opposition leaders calling it a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and declaring that the U.S occupation of the country was over. Clearly many Iraqis want all foreign troops to leave the country.

So whatever are 800 Australian military personnel actually doing there at our expense? The answer provided is usually that they are training the local army although the story has recently changed. We are now training the instructors who will actually conduct the training on the ground. Eight hundred personnel for that limited task? Seriously? There seems to be considerable confusion about why we remain in Iraq. It is as though we are waiting around for something else to do. In evidence to a Senate Estimates Committee in February last year Air Chief Marshall Mark Biskin remarked that the training would continue but that meanwhile Australia would remain’ closely engaged’ with U.S planning to allow the forces’ to advise the government on any future contributions as this may evolve’ .The Governor-General Peter Cosgrove was even more uncertain about our future in Iraq when he visited the troops a month later. He explained that they were there to help ‘in whatever form.’ He continued :’It’s not for us to say we’ll stay in this form or that form but it is correct to say Australia has set itself to be of assistance in the future.’ Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has just returned from his visit to Iraq. He was quite emphatic. The troops would remain there ‘until the job we set out to do is done.’ And what will happen if there is growing tension between the Trump administration and Iran? It is certainly possible that the Australians will be targeted by the powerful Shia militia being seen, not unreasonably, as American proxies. Have we actually made any commitments to the Americans in the event of hostilities with Iran breaking out?

So why choose to stay on? Clearly the government sees political advantage in having forces overseas. Scott Morrison declared that he would ‘maintain the war against terrorism in the Middle East’ despite the American withdrawal. Australia, he asserted, could not’ be complacent about the threat of an IS resurgence.’ It would have been more convincing if Mark Biskin had not earlier told a Senate Estimates Committee that the Australian forces would continue training the Iraqis ‘despite the defeat of Islamic State.’ Cosgrove made the same observation about the defeat of Isis.

The fact that the Prime Minister can make such reckless statements without fear of contradiction illustrates the parlous state of public discourse in relation to foreign and defence policy. It has been like this for a long time now. How poorly we are served by both government and opposition, by the mainstream media, the universities and the various think tanks.

Where is the alternative view? It clearly will not come from the Labor party which has given up on the role of opposition in relation to defence and security policy. It is by any measure a shameful abdication which robs us all of the serious debate we so urgently need. Fear of being accused of being weak in relation to security has led to a situation where party members rarely ask the questions that we have every reason to expect of an opposition. And if there are few dissident voices in parliament they are not provided by think tanks clustered most obviously in Canberra staffed with men and women who have worked in the armed forces, the defence bureaucracy or the security services. The universities no longer appear to nurture dissent and there is even less in the main stream media.

So how can Australia have a serious debate about defence and foreign policy? Without sufficient intellectual space we are unable to critically assess current policies or to formulate radical alternatives. Consequently large and serious questions go begging. There are so many they crowd in upon us. None are more compelling than those relating to our continuing engagement in the Middle-East. We have been there on and off for almost 30years. Is there no end in sight, no timetable for withdrawal? These are questions which in normal circumstances the government and the defence establishment would be forced to answer. The rationale for our involvement has changed over time but why stay? The whole Middle-Eastern Adventure has coincided with truly epoch making changes in our own immediate strategic environment. How can it not be seen as a pointless distraction?

There are, then, as many questions about the past as there are about the future .Why did we become deeply engaged in a part of the world so far away and about which we knew very little which, in itself, necessarily diminished the effectiveness of our forces. Is it simply that Australia has not been able to grow out of the idea of the expeditionary force at the centre of much defence thinking since Boer War at the turn of the C20th.Has it been with us so long that it is a matter of ingrained habit; that Australians have a sense that overseas involvements are just what we do and as long as our forces live up to ‘the Anzac Spirit’ further interrogation is either nugatory or unpatriotic.

And when do we assess whether the long involvement was a good idea in the first place? When will we conduct the rigorous accounting of what, if anything, has been gained? When can we expect to have a ministerial statement pointing to real and demonstrable benefits worth the billions spent and the lives both lost and impaired .Have Australian governments ever considered the means to measure the cost-benefit analysis of overseas military ventures? Have they ever wanted to? Perhaps it is just too convenient to place defence and security out of the reach of normal democratic procedures.

If past practice is anything to go by none of this will happen regardless of who is in power. When it comes to war the everyday standards of governance are eschewed. Leaders can take the country into wars which end up being wasteful and strategically disastrous and yet nothing happens. Blame is not visited on the perpetrators; the morality of carrying war into other countries is never explored. We both begin and end with the unspoken assumption of our civic virtue and our good intentions.

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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