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

Mar 30, 2020

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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