Richard Butler. RAAF to bomb Syria: another Captain’s pick?

Within the next ten days, the National Security Committee of Cabinet will discuss the US request to Australia to deploy RAAF assets in bombing IS targets in Syria. Presumably, senior defense, foreign affairs, intelligence and government policy staff will be preparing assessments of such military action for Committee consideration. It would be normal for such assessments to include: the nature, aims and duration of possible military actions, including target selection, their command and control, risk assessment, actions needed in the event of downing of RAAF aircraft, relationship to Australia’s national security and the impact of such action on its international relationships.

Whatever might be a rational preparation of analyses for consideration by Cabinet, Prime Minister Abbott has already stated his preferred position, predictably, in an exclusive interview with The Australian newspaper.

He stated that the US request to Australia is “a very serious request…We’ll take it very seriously” and on the substance of what might occur, the depth of his analysis was to declare that there is no moral difference between attacking sites in Syria from those already subject to attack within Iraq, and on the international legal aspect, national borders for example, he asserted “This (ISIS) is an evil movement whether it is operating in Iraq or in Syria, it is an absolutely evil movement, and in the end, when they don’t respect where the border is, the question is why should we?”

In the light of these declarations from the Captain, the preparation of fundamental analyses of what our reply to the US might be can now stop and be replaced by papers simply describing operational and search and rescue arrangements.

The Prime Minister’s assertion that no difference should be drawn between what is now happening in Iraq and what is planned for Syria, apart from being glaringly wrong, shockingly illogical – justifying a dubious decision by arguing that it’s not as bad as an earlier one – further obscures the fact that the decision to commit Australian military assets to Iraq was itself done without consideration by the Parliament or any consultation with the public.

The absence of any such consultation on the decision by the Howard government to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the woeful inadequacy of mechanisms through which a decision by Australia to go to war is considered is fully explored by Australians for War Powers Reform. (

Abbott is continuing the conservative practice that asserts that such matters as Australia going to war are too difficult for ordinary people to understand. Ordinary people did understand Howard’s 2003 decision. They marched against it in Australia’s streets in record numbers, were ignored, and turned out to have been right. That invasion of Iraq violated international law, killed at least half a million people, settled nothing, and is widely regarded as having given rise to the present chaos in that region, including the emergence of ISIS.

Prime Minister Abbott is evidently guided by his belief that our national interest, and his domestic political interest, dictate that we agree to this latest US request. He appears to be amongst the most enthusiastic supporters of the notion first enunciated by Menzies to justify our sending troops to support the Americans in Vietnam, that Australia must have a “great and powerful friend”, and crisply encapsulated by Prime Minister Holt at the height of the Vietnam War; “all the way with LBJ”. According to reports just published and not denied, Abbott in fact asked the Americans to request Australia to undertake this proposed action against Syrian targets. This echoes the action by Menzies in 1962 when he claimed Vietnam had invited Australian participation in the war. This was shown to have been false. Menzies had misled the people and the Parliament. Australia had in fact asked Vietnam to invite it to enter the war. So an infamous conservative tradition is extended.

The idea that we are obliged to align ourselves with the US, abandoning an independent foreign policy, raises among other important things such as our integrity, the risk described by Michael McKinley ( Pearls and Irritations, July 16th, 2015): “minor powers aligned with major powers share the risks and eventually the significant costs of conflicts that are, at root, derived from a status that is beyond them”.

Virtually automatic commitment to the US’ wars is a prospect that is now almost as limitless as what has become the US’ current continuous commitment to war. On the latter reality, McKinley cites the 2014 report of the Congressional Research Service that, inter alia, between 1990 and August 2014, the US deployed military force 5 times more often than in the prior 193 years.

In Abbott’s version of great and powerful friendism, as is his wont, he has introduced a moralising element. The problem this raises is not to be found in the notion that there is a moral aspect to international relations, but in the entirely inconsistent and dogmatic application of notions of morality employed by Abbott. His attachment to morality in the field of dealing with “the death cult” stands in stark contrast with his sense of morality on a range of other issues: Aboriginal Australians, taxation of individuals and corporations, education, climate and the environment, asylum seekers. The list is well known and brutal.

When the current military commitment to Iraq was announced by the Prime Minister, in April 2015, he rejected the notion of mission creep. Yet, here it is, after only five months. Again, no Parliamentary or public discussion is planned. Abbott will consult with opposition leadership, but Leader Bill Shorten has already signaled his readiness to offer bipartisanship on the issue. A commentary published recently in the Guardian newspaper on the current argument in the UK Labour Party about the prospect of a new leader from the left of the Party, was headlined “What is Labour For”, meaning if not for defending social justice and decency in politics. Indeed.

Leaks from Tony Abbott’s Cabinet indicate that he has been insisting to his colleagues that the key issues for them to remain in power are taxes and national security. What else in new from the conservatives; the conviction that the important human motivations are greed and fear. Abbott is obviously convinced that the latter, in particular, is a winner. So, the drafters of position papers for the National Security Committee can indeed turn off their computers, they have received their basic instruction. The Captain has made his pick, we will again go to war with the USA.

The Americans can be certain of this as, after all, we asked them to ask us to do so. What Abbott may be less able to rely on however, is that in the crucial by-election in Canning, where environmental issues are considered to be very important, his belief that militarism and xenophobia will always work to his benefit may be tested.

Richard Butler AC, former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, and Head of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq.


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.

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2 Responses to Richard Butler. RAAF to bomb Syria: another Captain’s pick?

  1. Tessa Morris-Suzuki says:

    How refreshing to read some sane comment on this issue! Recent media reports seem to suggest that the decision as virtually been taken already, with no public or parliamentary debate. We do not even know what the precise goal of bombing might be, how we could tell when the goal is achieved, or what the exit strategy might be, let alone what possible moral justification there could for (in effect) allying ourselves with the ghastly Syrian regime. This scheme is a disaster in the making. Let’s stop it before it is too late!

  2. Vern Hughes says:

    I disagree with this assessment, as a long-time opponent of the US Alliance. The West’s failure to support the non-violent Arab Spring in 2009/10 was a tragic failure of leadership that has so far cost 250,000 lives, displaced 3 million people, shattered the democratic hopes of a generation throughout the Arab world, and created a military vacuum which ISIL has exploited very effectively. Australia and the international community should have intervened five years ago, initially with air strikes against the Assad regime. The lack of a UN Security Council resolution authorising the action should never have been accepted as an excuse for inaction – the exercise of a veto, or lack of it, by Russia or China, is a flimsy basis for determining legality, and should have been ignored then, as now.

    Australia should participate in air strikes against both the Assad regime and ISIL, and support the Free Syrian Army wherever it can. We should do this not because of an Alliance obligation with the US, we should do it because it is the only decent response we can now make to end the current genocide, given our shameful snub to 250,000 idealistic Syrians who have paid with their lives for our inaction. Australia should get out of the US Alliance, act as an independent country in world affairs, and make our own independent judgements about when and where to participate in international efforts against tyranny and genocide. This is one where we should say yes.

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