MACK WILLIAMS. Alliance management ” It’s the elections now…stupid”!

Jan 16, 2020

The New Year has confirmed that the US Presidential election cycle is up and running and will pick up speed soon to dominate all forms of political discussion in the US until November. To paraphrase that old American cliché : “ It’s the elections stupid!”

This will have enormous implications for the rest of the world and not least Australia. It is bound to put our alliance with the US under increasing stress as our political elites struggle to ensure that Australian national interests are determined genuinely by ourselves. We must be rigorous in avoiding being dragged (however consciously) into that extremely polarised internal US political debate. To put it bluntly, helping Trump or his opponent (whoever that might turn out to be) in their electoral battle should not be factored into any balance sheet of Australian national interest.

Australia has to be much more careful about running headlong in to support any Trump policy initiatives in the international or strategic arena because they all will have been developed with the 2020 elections uppermost in mind. Domestic political pressure will build up on Trump not only on Ukrainegate. The seemingly total collusion between Trump and the Senate leadership on rejection of the House Impeachment decision will likely fuel a continuing public debate that inevitably will seriously damage Trump’s historical image and enrage him. But he will also be struggling to demonstrate achievement on most of his pre-election international promises – especially regarding Iran and North Korea on both of which he had forlornly hoped to have achieved at least partial success by the end of 2019.

Trump’s attempts to force Iran into a new negotiation on nuclear issues through stricter sanctions and chest thumping in the Persian Gulf have failed so demonstrably – and in so doing increased tensions with the Europeans who have managed to stay in dialogue with Iran. There have been some limited signs of growing social discontent within Iran , probably aided from outside sources and widely publicised by the US propaganda machine. Secretary of State Pompeo’s rapid tweet of footage of a small antigovernment protest in Iran so backfired !

Then followed the Soleimani assassination, for which Trump was so quick to claim personal ownership and then boast that he should have “terminated” him much earlier. Initially, the reason given for this killing by Trump was that Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of so many Americans through his powerful Revolutionary Guards sponsored militia operations across the Middle East. But, as this did not stand up to media and Congressional scrutiny, Trump volunteered that Soleimani was planning attacks on four US embassies. Only to have his Defence Secretary and military leaders contradict him publicly by saying that they had seen no such intelligence. No doubt Soleimani was a ruthless commander who had been responsible for many deaths and casualties – American and others. There is still much to emerge about this incident – such as reports that Soleimani was carrying a private message for the Iraqi Prime Minister to pass on to the Saudis as part of a secret dialogue between Iran and the Saudis, to which the US had not been privy. The net outcome is that it is difficult not to accept that Trump had ordered this killing to help bolster his domestic political standing. And therefore, one on which Australia should be cautious to comment. Eerie echoes of WMD!

As questions about the assassination grew and the Iranians unsurprisingly threatened serious retaliation, Trump let fly with an extraordinary (even for him) tweet threatening that he had a list of 52 Iranian targets which the US would attack immediately if any American was killed by any Iranian retaliatory strike. To add to the vitriol, he claimed that the list contained “cultural” targets – presumably historic sites such as palaces and mosques. Again, the Defense Secretary and military leaders were forced to step in to clarify that there were no such sites in the list of 52 targets. But Trump repeated the charges the next day. The world feared that this was a step towards war as the stock markets globally reflected.

Subsequently the Iranians carried out retaliatory missile strikes on two Iraqi bases which contained large US personnel and equipment assets. When it was clear that the strikes had not caused a single US or Iraqi casualty Trump changed his tune. He claimed that the Iranians were “standing down” and that his only response would be more sanctions. It is still unclear why Trump blinked but the Iranians naturally were quick to portray it as such. It also reactivated the House of Representatives to push ahead with a War Powers Bill to restrain the President’s ability to take the country to the verge of war without prior consultation with the Congress. An excellent BBC video coverage of one of the Iraqi bases revealed US soldiers saying that they had received warning several hours before the raids and all had been protected in special bunkers. They also pointed to substantial damage to the base infrastructure and equipment etc. Coupled with a US media report that the Swiss Government had been involved in passing messages between Tehran and Washington this might provide some of the answer to the “standing down” claim made by Trump. The Iranian “prior warning” ensured no US casualties at the bases – the trigger for the Trump threats. Of course, it also confirms the level of anti-missile defences at the bases were probably non-existent ! Clearly the US military establishment has worked hard since to play down the “standing down” line by insisting that the potential threat from Iran should not be lowered as it still has the potential still to strike the US in so many places.

It is probably not surprising that the Australian Government’s response to the above was also confused. As with the WMD decision it is likely that we have very little of our own intelligence on this affair and had to rely very much on the US and less on the other Five Eyes members. Even within the US administration there were obvious serious contradictions with Trump having to be pulled up several times for issuing wrong information. The usually careful Congress leaders left little public doubt about the inadequacy of the highly classified briefings they received from the intelligence agencies. An initial comment from Prime Minister Morrison stressed the need for care for all sides to maintain peace in the Middle East but when asked about the US he said :” I would also say that we have been aware of the concerns that the United States have had in relation to some practices by the Iranians for some time and I will leave it to them to talk to what their actions are. But we’ve been aware of their strong views about those things for many years and I think that speaks for itself.”

In the event , the departure of HMAS Toowoomba ( announced months ago as not being able to be deployed until now) was of more than passing interest. Like Japan and the ROK, we have been under strong US pressure for a long time to provide support to their operations in the Gulf. Both those countries have resisted US pressure to provide forces to the US led coalition opting instead to ensure that their national deployments not be covered by US command and control. In her speech at the Toowoomba’s departure, Minister of Defence Reynolds said that the ship’s mission was:” to support both the Combined Maritime Force and the International Maritime Security Construct. Both are critical to promoting maritime security, stability and prosperity in the Middle East, a region of ongoing and vital interest to Australia.” No specific mention of Iran but the timing meant that the media presented it as military support for the US in its current tension with Iran. When the Commander was asked about the ship’s likely role, he fudged a bit repeating the Minister’s comments and then saying he was sure that Defence would be watching the situation very closely and be communicating its tasks to him while ensuring that the ship and crew would be well protected!

Mack Williams former Ambassador


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