JULIAN CRIBB. The war drums are beating…

May 18, 2017

Australia risks being drawn into new US wars in Asia. Having been continually at war since 2001 at America’s behest, it is time the Australian people had their say about whether we should continue to engage in belligerent actions in Asia, which are also costing us our freedoms. 

Australia may soon be drawn into a new Asian war. Possibly more than one. And Australians will again have absolutely no say in the matter.

In the space of two months, US President Trump has launched military actions in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, turned up the heat on North Korea and risked a confrontation with Russia. He is displaying all the signs of an uncontrolled aggression which has only one endpoint: new conflict. Turnbull has just met him in New York, to receive his marching orders.

Rhetoric from Australian governments has been consistently supportive of US action, even when it may have been illegal. Of our eight overseas conflicts since WWII, Australian governments have followed the American lead into six. Under that lead, our country has been continuously at war since 2001 – over sixteen years – by far the longest period of sustained conflict in our history.

Of these six wars, Australia was committed to fight on five occasions by Coalition governments and once by a Labor Government. Under the present system, support for war is generally bipartisan. The evidence is overwhelming that, no matter who is in power at the time, Australia will obediently follow the US into a war that, very often, doesn’t concern us directly, whose grounds may be illegal (as in the cases of Vietnam, Iraq and Syria), is based on confected ‘evidence’ (Iraq) or which was probably unnecessary (Afghanistan – since Bin Laden was ultimately removed by a small covert action, not by a war).

The slide into international armed conflict has become all too easy and frequent an event in the lives of Australians – who are expected not only to support and pay for the war, but also to risk ‘terrorist’ reprisals, and suffer the loss of freedoms resulting from heighted state surveillance of individuals, security clamp-downs and more draconian powers for the security services. Our governments’ unquestioning support for American military adventures comes at the price of our own liberty.

Many of these conflicts – like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – are quagmires, without a visible endpoint. They were all entered into without any real idea, strategic or political, of the outcome. Having helped to destabilise an entire region we are now facing the inevitable consequence: endless war.

This was bad enough when America was merely throwing its weight around to suit its own agenda. In the hands of a new leader whose mental stability and capacity to understand what is happening are being seriously questioned all around the world, it is a nightmare. A meeting of 35 eminent American psychiatrists at Yale recently concluded their President was “paranoid and delusional” and that his psychological state posed a danger to his country. They based their conclusion on his compulsive lying, grandiosity and obsession with personal slights.

Posing a parallel risk to Australia is the supportive rhetoric of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over Trump’s attack in Syria and his stance towards Russia and North Korea. While Turnbull did not commit this country to war, he made it pretty plain that Australia was still “all the way with LBJ”.

Trump’s uncertain mental state is compounded by an age-old power struggle within the US military and politics, characterised as the ‘hawks’ v. the ‘doves’. How much of a say the military had in the final decision to launch a cruise missile attack, drop the world’s biggest bomb, stage a botched raid in Yemen or talk up the Korean crisis is unclear – but it is probable that, under Trump’s febrile leadership, the narrow view favouring a short-term military ‘solution’ prevailed over the cooler stance adopted under Obama. The concern is that the hotheads have captured the presidential ear.

All of this poses a real danger that Australia, joined at the hip to an unstable and increasingly erratic ally, will find itself sucked inevitably into another bloody, interminable, costly and probably unwinnable vortex. One that will cost the lives of, and traumatise, our service men and women, whose primary duty is to defend Australia, not reinforce American adventurism. One that may even have nuclear consequences.

Unless Australians speak out.

At present, the “war prerogative” rests with the Governor-General as Commander-in-Chief of the ADF.  However in practice, recent deployment decisions have been taken by a cabal of Government Ministers – not even the full Cabinet, though Cabinet and even Parliament may later be asked to rubber stamp their decision.  The 2003 decision for Australia to take part in the invasion of Iraq was taken by one man, John Howard. The approval of Parliament is not required for Australia to engage in a new war. This is an immense blind spot in Australia’s Constitutional and governmental arrangements. In today’s context, with war clouds once again gathering, it is deadly.

It is entirely feasible and proper that the power to enter or declare a war, especially an overseas war, could be vested in the Parliament as a whole, by a vote of both houses combined.

This would not prevent the Executive from taking immediate action in the event of a direct threat to Australia itself. But it would stop them embarking on foreign military adventures without substantive democratic backing and a national debate to determine the level of public support.

Since the modern nation state arose in the mid-C19th, 200 million people – mostly civilians – have died in wars between states. Nearly all those wars were started by governments, not by people. It follows that the unconstrained power to make war held by governments is, itself, the proximate cause of war. Only when that power is constrained by democracy, does the risk of war recede.

As a nation which aspires to be a democracy, Australia must now reform our authoritarian war powers by removing them from the hands of the ‘Executive’, whom we do not choose, and placing them in the hands of the Parliament, which we do.

This will not prevent the nation going to war in future, but it will increase the likelihood that resort to conflict only occurs in the face of dire necessity and with the majority support of the Australian people – not on the unpredictable whim of an ally.

Julian Cribb is a science writer and author of ‘Surviving the 21 st Century’


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