Australia is currently courting offence rather than, as governments so often assert, defence – a transformation which might only charitably be attributed to absent mindedness if the alternative, stealth, is excluded. It is, moreover, a change wrought, in the first instance, as a consequence of the ways in which Australia thinks about its national defence, but also of both the logic and the inherent dangers arising from and within the Australia – US alliance. While an extraordinary number of avenues of inquiry are possible, there are four which are pursued, the drift to offence itself, followed by, second, the emergence of the “post-democratic” military and security complex in the US; third, the strategic dimension to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and fourth, Australia’s developing relationship with NATO.
Part 2. Reflections on Australia and the Post-Democratic Military of the United States
“Post-democratic” is used in strict accordance with repeated and robust research which concludes that the US is now dominated by elites and organised groups representing business interests where government policy is concerned. Expressed differently, if the tenets of democracy in the US require a government that reflects the expressed demands of the people who elected it and is, furthermore, accountable and responsible to them, then the research concludes that democracy is absent. Specifically, and depending on the definition used, the US functions as either an oligarchy or a plutocracy. In sum, Australia’s dominant alliance partner has been, and is now drifting a Republic worthy of the title to an exhausted, overcommitted superpower directed by the very wealthy and the very few.
That being so, it is important to understand that the US military, also for some time now, has exhibited patterns of behaviour across a broad spectrum of its operations that are contrary to democratic tenets and to the conduct of good government. Among the more notable: the increasing belligerence by the United States towards Russia at both the official (NATO) and semi-official levels and which cover a spectrum from imminent war to going so far as to advocate a pre-emptive attack on Russia and the covert killing Russians and Iranians as the price for their roles in Syria; and a renewed enthusiasm for the actual use of nuclear weapons, including first use even, in US strategic thinking despite the history of near disasters of accidental nuclear war that have attended their existence; and the manipulation of intelligence by senior US Central Command (CENTCOM) officers so as to present a “more positive [view] regarding the capabilities of [Iraqi Security Forces] and the progress of the fight against ISIS.”
For Australia, two further developments in the immediate context of the War on Terrorism in general and the fight against ISIS in particular, and to which the ADF is committed, are deserving of closer attention. Both are vortices that have already not only drawn Australia into strategies conflicts of a dubious nature, but also have the potential to significantly increase that commitment to the prejudice of the country’s defence.
The first and overarching development concerns one of the myriad faces belonging to the transformation of war that the US has effected through what are deemed “special forces” and the “special operations” that they conduct. Here we should be aware that members of the US military now rejoice in their description as “warriors” without even a suspecting glance back to the Federalist Papers or even to centuries of history wherein the warrior was a caste in an otherwise militarised society.
Absent a national service obligation and the existence of what is in effect a “poverty draft” in such a society, the military becomes self-selecting and separate from society at large. The concept of the citizen-soldier has no referent. Even when manpower is an imperative, the US solution is to engage mercenaries supplied by Private Military Corporations whose atrocities and outrages have for the most part escaped prosecution by the wilful refusal by Washington to make them as subject to law as the military itself.
Within the “warrior” culture, furthermore, are the elite forces of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM): some 70,000 personnel operating in 150 countries, mainly from the 800 bases of various descriptions that the Pentagon maintains. The best estimate derived from unhelpful US government sources is that, on any given day, 10,000 special operations forces (SOF) personnel are in one form or another of active “deployment.”
In the words of SOCOM commander General Joseph Votel III the present is “ a golden age for special operations.” Predicated on the logic that the world is as unstable as it is interconnected, he then admitted, “We want to be everywhere.” And everywhere includes Australia, which is part of “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners” and thus hosts Special Operations Liaison Officers (SOLOs) who are embedded in the US Embassy as advisers to the Australian military. Ironically, but appropriately, in some quarters SOFs are seen as the US military’s “Jesuits” – a metaphor, if taken to heart, should concern any democratic polity given the historical proclivity of the Jesuits to act independently of central authority.
Any claim that there is a tight control over the Department of Defense in general, or the operations of these forces is difficult to accept in the light of the well-documented political character and strategic incompetence of the United States which has created a climate of not only perpetual war but, since 9/11, winless wars, rampant criminal activity, irresponsible arms dealing, scandals, atrocities, intervention blowback, and a proliferation of enemies to the US and its allies.
The second development is really a corollary of the first: if political action is rightly undertaken according to only one of two criteria – either making a situation better, or preventing, a situation from getting worse, then the warrior military of the US with which Australia cooperates (when it is not embedded somewhere within it) is an abject failure, strategically and operationally. Consider the current war in Syria. US strategy in the conflict promoted a sectarian war which was almost inevitable in the light of the conditions which existed prior to the involvement of its Sunni allies, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding that Syria under Assad were those of a brutal tyranny, the declared basis for US intervention (that an effective, moderate opposition existed) was always chimerical, as was any notion that the consequences would be other than disastrous for Syria and the wider region.
Of particular concern is that, Saudi Arabia, a principal patron state of the US, is a central cause of Middle Eastern instability. Its destruction of Yemen has allowed al-Qaeda to thrive there; and for years it has exported Wahhabism globally to all Muslim population centres, including to Asia where it is seen as the “Saudization” of Asian Islam. The consequences have already been seen in, for example, the transformation to fundamentalist orientations in Indonesian Islam and the ensuing violence which this encouraged.
Exacerbating this is that the alliance partners of the US are either complicit in some of the worst blunders – Iraq for example (as the Chilcot Report re the UK makes clear); fully supportive (Australia) of them, or passive and thus acquiescing. To this extent they are part of the problem; worse, the functions of Pine Gap within what Desmond Ball refers to as the “war machine” which is integral to the above developments, makes Australia complicit in a programme for perpetual war. Given the centrality of Pine Gap, it seems almost certain that it will be unavoidably connected to the US expanding counter-drone programme, and perhaps even the development and deployment of autonomous and human-machine weapons systems. While the latter might be in the realm of speculation, the extant Australian involvement is contrary to any concept of a national interest which minimally requires prudent strategies towards the objective of a stable Asia-Pacific region.
Part 3 and 4 of this series will be posted over the next two days.
Dr. Michael McKinley formerly taught International Relations and Strategy at the Universities of Western Australia and the Australian National University; he is now a Visiting Fellow in the College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU.