HENRY REYNOLDS. When will it end?

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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6 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS. When will it end?

  1. Wayne Fyffe says:

    Hear hear Henry Reynolds. May “The Force” be with you, John Menadue, James O’Neill and the too few other notable kindred spirits with the guts and moral fortitude to speak out.

    I’ve for so long now felt (since anti-Vietnam War protest days) I’m a citizen of a fawning, non-sovereign Washington vassal.

    In the face of all the F&D policy disasters our political leaders have foolhardily drawn us into in past decades, the Labor “Opposition” has long been so pathetically weak and shamelessly gutless on the F&D policy front.

    “What is to be done?”

    Perhaps the only slim way out for us from this Washington vassalage is for you and other abovementioned leading kindred spirits to seek to initiate and lead a grass roots political party, The Independent Australia Party (?), primarily, but not solely, with an independent F&D policy focus.

    If anyone among “us” can think of a better and more efficacious alternative, we should be glad to hear it. We have to find a practical way of getting your and our message out to the broad Australian community, and not only largely to just us “insiders”.

  2. tasi timor says:

    The disposition of ME nations like Saudi towards the interpretation and teaching of Islam affects our SE Asia neighbourhood directly. It’s in our interest that Turkey, Saudi, Malaysia and Indonesia [and factions within] don’t support spoilers in Mindanao. I.S has partners in Mindanao. The Marawi war forced a very reluctant Congress to accept Duterte’s push for upgraded autonomy, if only out of fear that if another compromise failed then a new war would see the hawks and doves in Mindanao join to fight Manila. The ensuing destruction of Marawi still has the potential to radicalise another generation and challenge the Bangsamoro Organic Law. We still require a level of goodwill from potential spoilers in the ME and will still need to work with them to shape outcomes in our interest in SE Asia. An ADF presence in the ME, when it engenders goodwill and supports our diplomacy, is an asset.

  3. steve johnson says:

    Henry Reynolds makes many good points and I agree with them all. Journalists do not seem to have the sense or competence to ask difficult (and obvious) questions. Gough Whitlam tried to make Australia an independent country in control of its resources, economic and foreign policies but a conspiracy involving our “friend’s” ambassador Marshal Green, the CIA, MI6 and a certain governor general put an end to that valiant attempt. It was the coup d’état that no one noticed but that is only a theory. I do not see anyone on the horizon who might take the stand required to bring about our independent status, but it will come as the US further deteriorates.

  4. Kerry Faithfull says:

    Thank you Henry, very well said and ditto to the comments made so far.
    I am a “peacenik” and its outrageous that we are paying to participate in wars that have nothing to do with us but beyond that we are guilty of war crimes and murder of our fellow human beings. There is never a justification for that.

    I remember protesting against the Vietnam War in the 70’s and could not understand why the government wouldn’t listen to us. Now I see why: there is secret concensus on supporting the US, no questions asked by our two major parties.

    So far only the Greens are anti war and I believe that war is THE issue of our time. With the thousands of toxic bombs and war chemicals dropped every day somewhere in the world there is no hope for the environment unless peace is restored.

    We should never vote for a pro war party, whether that be by sending our soldiers, or making and exporting weapons.

  5. Jon Stanford says:

    You don’t need to be a peacenik to agree with Henry Reynolds’ view that the government should withdraw the ADF (including what is a very expensive naval commitment) from the Middle East. Many strategic experts in the universities and elsewhere agree with him, while also proposing that we should focus our efforts on developing self-reliance in our own defence in the Indo-Pacific. For example, Paul Dibb, writing in The Strategist in September 2018, concluded his article in these terms:

    “Finally, and above all else, we must recognise that we now face the prospect—for the first time since the Second World War—of a potential major power adversary, with whom we do not share fundamental values, operating in our neighbourhood and capable of threatening us with high intensity conflict. To counter this eventuality, we must develop a stronger defence force capable of denying our approaches to a well-armed adversary.”

    Dibb focussed on five key challenges, the first of which was:

    “First, we need to focus more on our own region of primary strategic concern, which includes Southeast Asia (including the South China Sea), the eastern Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. We should get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East and reassert our influence in our own region, as China moves increasingly to challenge our strategic space and constrain the projection of our national power.”

    Reynolds’ other proposition, with which it is difficult to disagree, is that the level of debate over these issues both in the Parliament and the Australian media is pathetic. The two major parties are united in not frightening the horses, while seeking to remain in lock step for the sake of political advantage. In the media, the Murdoch press makes the running in national security issues and is dominated by Greg Sheridan, who, even in the Trump era, seems quite unable to contemplate a time when Australia may be unable to rely on the United States for our defence.

  6. Pamela Curr says:

    I could weep for the utter sense of this article and the fact that so few actually question our state of perpetual war-making. Surely any slightly intelligent Australian must shake their heads at the bullshit ‘Training Fighters” line but they don’t.
    Most recently the careful silence over the blatant Saudi murder of a journalist and subsequent butchery of his body stands out as the ultimate exercise in cynicism. Even the media shut up on government silence.
    It is all too sickening. Three decades of warmaking in the Middle East at the behest of our American ‘friends” has turned the region into a pile of ruins with millions of lives on all sides broken and damaged beyond repair. Ah Yes but then there is the money and the oil- no doubt the politicians see the upside.

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