Richard Butler. The Cost of Having no Independent Foreign Policy

How is it possible that the Australian people: citizens, elected representatives, media staff, academics, to name just some relevant categories, allow the Abbott government to spend $1 billion this year on Australian participation in war in the Middle East, and accept that there is no need for this to be discussed? *

Prime Minister Abbott considered it enough to announce the commitment of 1000 ADF personnel and 8 military aircraft, immediately before they departed, saying that they were going to take part in the US defined and led fight against ISIS. The full majesty of his understanding of the ISIS phenomenon, the situation in the Middle East, and his assessment of the intellect of the Australian voter, has been displayed in his mantra that ISIS is a “death cult, a death cult”, which we must fight.

Abbott is simply continuing what John Howard started 12 years ago with his decision to take part in the US invasion of Iraq. That action violated international law and was based on US claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were false, fabricated by the Bush Administration and endorsed by Tony Blair. Even John Howard has recently admitted that the WMD data was “wrong”.

Then and now, it seems to be sufficient for us to commit Australian lives and money to war, simply in order to support the US’ actions. And, lamentably, the ALP opposition has acquiesced in, indeed now supports this source of policy determination.

Today, apart from being self evidently manipulative of the politically much favoured notion that we are under dire terrorist threat, the Abbott government’s analysis that there is simply one good side to the conflict in the Middle East, the one we are on, is pathetic: “Team Australia”, as if its all a bit like a footy match.

The situation in that region is the consequence of repeated western interventions for the last 100 years. 2015 has seen the Centenary of Gallipoli, but also of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the British and French divided up the Ottoman Empire.

Among other deeply flawed dispositions, this created Syria and Iraq without respect to precisely the kinds of ethno-confessional conflicts that are now being played out.

The US/UK/Australian/Spain invasion of Iraq in 2003 was seen across the region as consistent with this interventionist history. It is now widely regarded as having provided the impetus for the growth in Al Qaida and the emergence of ISIS.

The purported cure for all of this, as currently envisaged in the US, NATO, and by the Australian Government, is more military intervention. Fix the problem by increasing the dose of what caused the problem.

But, it’s all become much more complicated since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, that is, the decision by Assad to crush protest against his hold on power. His group represents the Alawite minority in Syria, the group patronized by the UK in the Sykes-Picot disposition.

That war has endured for almost 5 years, has killed some quarter of a million people, and driven 11 million into external and internal displacement. The UN has declared it to be the worst refugee crisis since WWII.

The destruction of Syria and the impact of the 2003 intervention in Iraq has seen the entry into a region wide contest by Iran, Saudi Arabia, some other Gulf States, Russia, Jordan, and, Turkey. The non-State groups, in addition to ISIS; Al Qaida, AL Nusra Front etc. have proliferated This is to say nothing of what has obviously been the deep clandestine involvement of Israeli, US, British, French, Russian, and other intelligence services.

The decision, last week, by Turkey to commence direct military action in Northern Iraq and Syria and to allow the US to do the same from Turkey, is a significant development. Its origins are dubious.

The Turkish government did not gain a parliamentary majority in the elections held on June 7th. It was prevented from achieving this by the substantial support given to the Kurdish based party. It is therefore engaged in negotiations to form a coalition with other parties. But, it has terminated peace negotiations with the Kurdish group in Northern Syria and in its bombing campaign against “terrorist” groups in Iraq and Syria, it is targeting both ISIS and Kurdish groups. NATO has endorsed Turkey’s actions.

It appears that Turkish President Erdogan’s aim is to destroy the influence of Kurdish groups within Turkey so that in a re-run election his Peace and Justice Party (AKP) will win a majority. Within Turkey the AKP caretaker government is contemplating banning the Kurdish party and arresting at least its leader and possibly other members as well, on the ground that they are connected to terrorists.

Consistent with this mess of mixed motives, within the overall region of conflict, there are areas, such as Yemen, where Saudis and Iranians are on the same side and others where they are deeply antagonistic. Similarly, there are areas where, incredible though it may seem, the US is enlisting the support of Al Qaida sympathetic groups. These are merely two examples of a diabolical patchwork. As John Stewart sometimes remarks, “ you can’t make this stuff up”.

On Australia’s role; we have not been told, without propaganda, what interests or values our commitment to war in the Middle East purports to advance, how our effort will contribute, what is its limits, important given the ubiquitous phenomenon of mission creep, when might it end, who’s in charge – us or the US command.

It is a terrible lapse that the ALP opposition has not demanded such explanations and has agreed that a debate in Parliament is not needed. These are distant days from those in which the ALP opposition demanded that the Menzies Government table the invitation it claimed to have received from the Government of South Vietnam to join it in war there. ALP action revealed that there had, in fact, been no such invitation. Menzies had misled the Parliament. Menzies had asked the South Vietnamese Government to invite us, because he believed that this was what the US wanted.

So, here we are again. This time in the Middle East because Abbott and friends believe this is what the US wants. This is the same US that is currently seeking to impose a Pacific Trade Treaty on us, which inter alia, would make pharmaceuticals more expensive in Australia and enable US corporations to sue Australia on the basis that our national policies might be impeding their right to operate without regulatory restraint.

There will be no externally induced solution, military or otherwise to the political and ethno-confessional conflicts in the Middle East. For the US to think otherwise is folly, but that’s perhaps understandable because there remains in the US a widespread reluctance to accept that they did not win the war in Vietnam.

Our participation with the US in this folly will bring us nothing but affirmation in the minds of others that we are a mere clone of the US and, thus possible heightened exposure to external terrorist attack. Above all, it will further retard the urgent need for us to craft an independent Australian foreign policy that serves our national values and interests.

As a first step, the ALP opposition should demand that the Government allow a debate in Parliament on our commitment in the Middle East.

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

* For more detail on the $1 billion, see, Anthony Ricketts article, Canberra Times, July 26th.

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