RICHARD BUTLER. Malcolm’s Anzac Day Gift. Australian troops will be in the Middle East for the ‘long term’.

Apr 27, 2017

The Prime Minister’s statement that Australian military forces will need to remain in Afghanistan and the “Middle East” indefinitely must be clarified as must be the powers under which such decisions are legitimately made. 

Speaking from Kabul on Anzac Day, our Prime Minister said that Australia’s military presence in Afghanistan and the “Middle East”, presumably meaning in Iraq and Syria, would “need to be a long term commitment”. That is, longer than the 13 years in which we have already been there. The reason he gave for this was the sweeping generalisation, that “terrorism still poses a global threat”.

As a clear understanding of anything, especially a statement as opaque as this one; relying as it does on non-sequiturs and implied common understandings, is its context and origins. These could be: his meeting that day with the US Secretary of Defense; his meetings with the Vice President of the US a few days earlier; and, his angling for a meeting, on 4th May in New York, with President Trump.

His Anzac Day gift would appear to be intended mainly, for his American partners, but, of course, it reflects his calculations about his Australian domestic standing, especially within the coalition he currently leads.

Two points need to be made; one about our own political processes, the other about our US partners.

First, on what basis did the Prime Minister arrive at his decision, in the name of our country. Who did he consult or was this another captain’s pick. Did he consult relevant ministers, the defence and intelligence experts, the other governments concerned, the Treasury (will we see this in the budget in May?), the lawyers. The last of these is particularly important because our actions in “the Middle East” from our participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to our current actions in Syria have all violated international law, and involved possible war crimes.

Its not only international law that has been at issue but also our own. The decision by Australia to go to war is not simply in the gift of the Prime Minister or a group of Ministers. Under our Constitution any such decision should be sent to the Governor General, as advice to him as Commander in Chief of our armed forces, and he/she needs to be satisfied that it is supported by the Parliament. The Parliament has not been engaged in any serious way in any such decisions, from John Howard’s disastrous decision in 2003, to send Australia into the illegal invasion of Iraq to this latest posturing by PM Turnbull.

If there are national interests that need to be defended in Afghanistan and the “Middle East”, such as to warrant our military being there and staying there indefinitely, the Government should explain this to Parliament, when it returns on 8th May, provide space for a debate, and seek the agreement of the parliament to its policy and proposed actions, so that the Governor General can be properly advised and that our people can be favoured with more than the broad brush of good intentions and patriotism.

The case for a clear understanding of the legitimate process which needs to be followed is being made, in detail, by the Group Australians for War Powers Reform ( The Government and members of the Parliament are aware of this, as is a growing body of our citizens. AWPR is non- partisan. It is not opposed to Australia deploying military force, as such. It is opposed to this taking place illegitimately and for good reason. We are witnessing, so graphically in the Middle East, the reality that the illegitimate use of force authors disaster.

Secondly, our willingness to follow the US anywhere is reaching a level that is truly dangerous to our national interests, security, and values; that is, values for which we had stood, in the past, and insist that others should implement.

As Cavan Hogue pointed out, with such clarity, (Let those who are without sin cast the first stone: Pearls and Irritations: 25 April, 2016) significant and numerous US commentators are alarmed at the state of affairs in the Trump administration’s handling of its responsibilities, across the board, but including in its international relations.

By contrast, our Prime Minister has spoken appreciatively of President Trump’s leadership. This beggars credulity. Does his oppression by the right wing of his party demand this of him? Our self-respect as an independent nation deserves better than this. And, where is our own commentariat, especially in mainstream media?

A telling example of sober US commentary is in Steven Pearlstein’s blog, “What happens if the president doesn’t matter?”, Washington Post April 21st, 2017. It is worth reading in full but in summary states:

“ it hardly matters what Trump says because what he says is as likely as not to have no relationship to the truth…What he says bears no relationship to any consistent political or policy ideology or world-view. What he says is also likely to bear no relationship to what his top advisers or appointees have said or believe, making them unreliable interlocutors even if they agreed amongst themselves, which they don’t….the president, despite his boasts to the contrary, knows very little about the topics at hand and isn’t particularly interested in learning. In other words, he’s still making it up as he goes along.”

Two days after the publication of Pearlstein’s blog Trump gave an extended interview to AP. It was received with widespread dismay because of: the ignorance he displayed; and, the number of errors and plain falsehoods with which he sought to answer the questions put to him. He could not have done a better job at justifying Pearlstein’s analysis.

Perhaps if Malcolm Turnbull does meet Trump next week he will see for himself the reality and think of Australia first.

Richard Butler AC formerly Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

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