HENRY REYNOLDS.- When will we see a cost-benefit of our meddling in the Middle East?

By the end of this year Australia will have begun the process of removing our armed forces from the Iraq and Afghanistan or at least be considering what can fairly be termed a retreat after a series of engagements lasting almost twenty years.

It will be the time when assessments are required and questions asked and answered. But neither Government nor Opposition will respond and there will be no official investigation as to whether our involvement in the Middle-East was a good idea in the first place. No-one will be pressed to explain if we would be at all worse off if we had avoided engagement in such a troubled and turbulent part of the world which as a nation we know very little about. What benefit did we receive from an expenditure of billions of dollars as well as the loss of life and the physical and psychic trauma suffered by many of the veterans? When dealing with defence the normal processes of government are eschewed. When will we see a cost benefit assessment of our meddling in the Middle East? When will our politicians be pressed to publicly explain how we benefitted from their collective folly?

In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald the ANU’s Professor Clive Williams discussed the reason for the Middle Eastern engagements which, he explained, was ‘to show we are a willing ANZUS and Western Alliance partner in order to be well regarded by the U.S.’ It is reasonable to consider this as a view commonly held among members of the defence and security establishment in Canberra. And no doubt such assessments frequently pass without comment. But when looked at from outside that closed circle it is a deeply troubling proposition indicating a remarkably casual acceptance of why and when any nation state should go to war. Do they ever consider the morality of invading a country far from our own borders presenting no possible threat to our homeland, adding to existing turmoil and killing by serious estimates at least 5000 Afghan men all in order to be well regarded in Washington? The 5000 dead are clearly only part of the story. Parents, partners ,siblings, children and other members of extended families would number over 20,000 people devastated as a consequence of our military operations. It is a reasonable question to ask of our strategists whether there is any upper limit to the price they are willing to pay with other peoples’ lives in order to please our great and powerful friends. Australian strategists no doubt consider themselves hard headed realists. They might equally be seen as simple minded supplicants. Either way their consideration of international morality appears to be, at best ,perfunctory. That is all very well but when it comes to realpolitik the measure which must be applied is demonstrable success or failure. Clearly our intervention in American wars in both south-east Asia and the Middle-East has produced little of lasting benefit. It is not clear that we have won more respect in Washington. And how is one to measure such an incommensurable thing? Fumbling idealists often elicit qualified admiration. Incompetent realists should be roundly derided.

There are more enduring problems about Australia’s international belligerence and our casual acceptance of an entrenched habit of going to war in far- away places. The country it seems is still anchored in the era of Empire and expeditionary forces which is where we were when the federation was founded and for much of the last century. In its classical form it embodied the sense or racial superiority, of being what has been called the Lords of Human Kind. Inferior races could be treated with disdain and punished with impunity. This showed up in the Australian’s notorious brutality towards Africans during the Boer War and their contempt of the Egyptians and Bedouins during the First World War. Race lost its conceptual authority after the Second World War but the residual sense of superiority surfaced again during the Vietnam War and was graphically illustrated in the recent Four Corners Programme about the behaviour of the SAS in Afghanistan. Over and above the specific acts of violence and brutality was the unmistakable evidence of the contempt expressed towards the Afghan people.

It was evidence of the kind which helps uncover a fundamental conceptual flaw running through the centre of Australia’s engagement in the Middle East. The differences between contemporary Australia and traditional Islamic societies are as great as those apparent anywhere else in the world. Our armed forces inevitably represent main stream Australia. Members are no better informed about the Middle East than the rest of us. How then do we imagine that Australian personnel are well placed to engage intelligently in what have been essentially civil wars? As white infidels from far away they inevitably appear as latter-day Crusaders intent on repression. For every young man killed our presence helps recruit larger numbers of those who want to drive foreigners out of their homeland. It is part of our inherited cultural hubris that we imagined our interference could possibly end well.

Another question which needs to be asked again when the troops come home is the challenge bequeathed to us by the late Malcolm Fraser that America is a dangerous ally. It is not as if this is a new idea. There has been a minority tradition apparent since the late C19th which stressed the point that a close relationship with a great power be it Britain or America would inevitably involve Australia in wars neither of our own making or our own choice. Great powers have world- wide interests, numerous enemies and an enduring need to assert their power and prestige. They are always at war somewhere in the world. By sending a warship, the frigate HMAS Toowoomba, to the Persian Gulf ostensibly to ensure freedom of navigation for other country’s ships we have already prepared the way for involvement in yet another Imperial war.

The problem outlined by Fraser is a very old one. It was given its classic enunciation by Thomas Paine in a pamphlet addressed to the American colonists in 1776 urging them to sever their connection with Britain:

‘Because, any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and set us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint’.

Henry Reynolds is an Australian historian.

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Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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8 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS.- When will we see a cost-benefit of our meddling in the Middle East?

  1. John Battye says:

    The “Cost-Benefit Dividend” that was supposed to come from “meddling in the Middle East” never came because the Anglosphere never finished the Job. Factors which came together to stop that Job being finished were:
    (1) UN interference – courtesy of the Islamic dominance in the General Assembly and in various UN quangos involved in “refugee-ism”,
    (2) the “Islamophobia” lobby,
    (3) the “anti-Racism” and “multicultural” lobby,
    (4) failure to “internationalise” the production and supply of Oil and strip its control from the producing countries,
    (5) failure to close down the skies over the Muslim Middle East and North Africa,
    (6) failure to exclude Russia & China from the Middle East,
    and so on.

  2. Kien Choong says:

    I’m curious why none of the think tanks (e.g., Lowy Institute) or national security colleges (e.g., in the ANU) have done the sort of cost-benefit analysis that H Reynolds rightly calls for. (Or have I missed them?) Even a ball park estimate (pending a more rigorous assessment by a future Parliamentary inquiry) would be useful.

  3. John Salisbury says:

    This piece deserves publication in all major newspapers.

  4. Gavin O'Brien says:

    Henry, a wonderful critique which I wish our politicians and the Heads of Defense at Russell would read and digest .
    As a keen follower,(and with pride a teacher of history for over three decades) , I had the misfortune of being called up to serve in the Army as a conscript in the latter part of the Vietnam war. I witnessed our involvement in the United States ‘adventures’ at first hand. Misled by the propaganda of the time, that we were holding back the Communist hodes,it was not until our defeat in 1975 that I started to question why we had been there. I was fortunate while there, to learn about the long history of Vietnamese culture, unlike most of our troops.
    Like many who served, I suffer psychological and physical problems. The cost will be magnified greatly in future years as veterans of subsequent conflicts in Australia was involved seek help – often decades later . Be warned young veterans reading this, the path to repatriation through the DVA is strewn with red tape. Many have given up! Too many by suicide.
    Henry, from the Boer Wars to the present, Australian Governments have been keen to demonstrate to our ‘great and powerful friends’ , how keen we are to support without question, their wars. I cringe at this time of year when the pollies start spruiking about the ANZAC Legend. If my experience is any guide and in view of what we are learning about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, the whole saga is a myth.
    There was no Inquiry into Vietnam, there should be, there has been no inquiry into Iraq or Afghanistan and there is a crying need for one.
    I hope , pray and indeed plead for the sake of our serving Service men and women, please don’t send them as ‘cannon fodder’ to another senseless war. The Taxpayers will be paying for your stupidity for at least a generation afterwards.

  5. Kevin Bain says:

    PS. ADF troops were quietly withdrawn “temporarily” from Afghanistan and Iraq last week due to the virus. Perhaps they won’t return, and it’ll be time for a reckoning.

  6. Kevin Bain says:

    I completely support the call for a summative assessment and accounting for Australia’s recent wars. Our arrogance is such that we still can’t face the music with a Chilcott-type inquiry into the Iraq invasion. The Three Trillion Dollar War book by Joseph Stiglitz received a lot of US attention, with its sheer numbers but I presume his were the US costs, which is different to Prof R’s concerns. A BCA here would inevitably become a monetisation of decisions reflecting ethical judgements and arguable weightings of the effects on internal and external participants, with the benefit of hindsight ie. a foggy conclusion. (Our current situation shows big $ are no longer scary anyway!)

    So framing it as a cost-benefit analysis in the widest sense sounds like a mistake. If there is to be a changed awareness, it won’t be because of an accounting statement, but historians and writers who can reach people’s inner selves, just as Prof R has done so much to change the thinking about our frontier wars, the role of Chinese migration, Mabo etc. and it is bearing fruit.

    • John Battye says:

      COVID19 is about to thoroughly discredit and bury forever the “Black-Armband” perspective / interpretation that Henry R has given to us concerning our “frontier wars”, the role of Chinese migration, Mabo etc.

      Expect to see a return to Geoffrey Blainey’s “Three Cheers” perspective as the only viable and legitimate “take” on these issues after COVID19 has run its course.

      It is already discrediting Neo-Liberal Free Enterprise Market Economics, expect the same on these issues.

      • Kevin Bain says:

        An assertion without any attempt at an argument at all! Did you come to this website by mistake?

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