Jan 1, 2019

While Prime Minister Morrison was visiting Australian troops in Iraq this month (but not Afghanistan -‘ too dangerous’), President Trump was preparing to pull US ground forces out of Syria. Nothing Morrison said indicated that he or Joe Hockey, our Ambassador to the United States , who is supposed to have special access inside the Washington beltway, appeared to know that this was going to happen. Once again, Australia was treated with the lack of respect that our subservience to American military policy deserves.  

And it is a sad commentary on both the Australian Opposition and the Australian media that Morrison’s ignorance has not been roundly criticised and held up to derision. Why has the Labor Party not condemned Morrison or at least demanded an explanation? Why has not one newspaper or one television program on foreign affairs focused on the prime minister’s ignorance? Contrast this with the public scorn that greeted Billy McMahon’s criticism of Gough Whitlam when the latter visited Beijing as Leader of the opposition in 1971. Plainly unaware that Henry Kissinger was visiting Beijing at the same time to prepare for President Nixon’s visit in 1972, McMahon called Whitlam a pawn of Communist China, a spokesman for the enemy Australia was fighting in Vietnam. He never lived down the derision his words provoked.

If Australia continues to genuflect to United States foreign and defence policies, going through the motions of providing tokenistic military support for US wars, it will continue to be blind-sided when significant policy changes are made in Washington. One example of history repeating itself was President Nixon’s decision to ‘Vietnamise’ the War in Vietnam without prior detailed consultation with its most significant allies, Australia and the Republic of Korea. Another was the bombing by US, UK and French aircraft of Syria in April this year in retaliation for an alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack in Douma. If Australia was consulted or advised, that would have been news to us. This time, Morrison was left to make the best of a bad job by avoiding questions as to whether he had been told beforehand of US troop withdrawals, saying that Australia will continue its military training program in Iraq. When the Iraqis’ training will be complete, he didn’t say. Perhaps when – or if – the Americans tell us it is.

Meanwhile, a more optimistic note. Trump’s decision to withdraw ground forces from Syria reflects a new trend in American public opinion, which outside Washington at least is shifting against the continuation of endless and profitless American wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Following the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre, Congress gave the President ‘Authorisation for the Use of Military Support’ (AUFM) against any country known to have supported or harboured terrorists involved in the attack. This licence is being increasingly questioned in Congress, and opinion polls are saying that a majority of Americans want the country to pull out of overseas military engagements. A growing number of members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, want the country’s foreign adventures to end, to be replaced by a foreign policy of wisdom and restraint.

Trump may be aware of this, or he may simply be fulfilling his pre-election promise to stop America losing successive wars. Unable to fund his border wall, he is counting the cost of wars that (according to him) should be shared more equally by allies. Crucially, what he has not said is if he will not only withdraw ground troops, but stop the bombing that has brought so much suffering to civilians in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan. According to an article in the US Independent Media Institute’s publication Local Peace Economy, the ‘War on Terror’ ( has resulted over the last 17 years in 291,880 American bombs being dropped in seven Middle Eastern and African countries. But that doesn’t include drone operations directed from antiseptic war rooms in far-off Nevada, or Army helicopter strikes, or operations by US AC 130 gunships and A 10 Warthog ‘tank busters’ which intensify the devastation of cities and increase civilian casualties. Mosul in Iraq was devastated by such assaults in 2017 and so was Raqqa in Syria in 2018.

Nor should the use of American air power be seen only in the context of the 17-year War on Terror. Bombing as a means of inflicting terror was in its infancy in World War One with Zeppelin raids on London and pilots in frail bi-planes dropping grenades by hand on enemy trenches. Hitler raised the stakes during the blitz on London, Birmingham and Coventry. The RAF’s Bomber Harris and the US Army Air Force raised them again in raids by thousands of bombers deliberately targeting German cities and civilians. Curtis LeMay destroyed Tokyo with fire bombs, and was responsible for attempting to bomb Korea and Vietnam ‘back to the Stone Age’. The logical extension applies to nuclear forces, the proponents of which have either a complete contempt for civilian life or actively encourage their destruction.

The modern United States Air Force has attempted to modify this image of indiscriminate destruction of civilians in Middle Eastern war theatres by reporting that it checks and double checks against accidental attacks on non-military targets. But bridal parties continue to be massacred, civilians killed and essential infrastructure destroyed, probably more than we hear about. In October 2015, a C-130 gunship attacked the Medecins sans Frontires rehabilitation hospital in Kunduz, killing 42 civilians.

President Trump has got it half right by pulling the troops out of Syria and halving them in Afghanistan. If he goes on to end the bombing of both countries, he could spend his second term pointing the US in a different direction. Consultation with Australia about what that should be is unlikely.

Richard Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat and immediate past president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Institute of international Affairs

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