Tony Abbott was asked this week to state Australia’s mission in Iraq. His answer: “our mission is to work for the betterment of mankind.”
“Betterment” is a new addition to Australian military doctrine, very different to the military missions statements I was trained to craft. It’s a noble sentiment, but hard to measure, and makes for inscrutable policy and loose strategy. It is clear however, that in conjunction with the United States and other allies the government intends to “do something” about the growing Isis threat in Syria and Northern Iraq.
It is also clear that Australia’s process of going to war is somewhat flawed. By instinctively reaching to deploy military combat forces, Australia may be overlooking other more prudent strategies and failing to learn from the conflicts of the past decade.
Over the past three weeks the government – and the opposition too, it should be noted – have escalated their rhetoric on the threat posed by Isis. The prime minister has described Isis variously as a “death cult”, a “hideous movement”, and “pure evil”. Yesterday, when queried about the latest Isis hostage execution video, the prime minister’s rhetoric hit fever pitch, describing them as “abominable, unspeakable, repellent, abhorrent”.
To be sure, Isis are a murderous band of fighters, but they can be targeted like any other enemy. Hyped, comic book descriptions of their villainy only serve to breath oxygen into Isis’s propaganda operations.
The overblown rhetoric informs the political case being made that Australia must intervene to protect Iraqi civilians from imminent genocide and ethnic cleansing. But there is a disconnect between the picture of an urgent humanitarian crisis that the major political parties (and former elected officials like Gareth Evans) are painting, and the paucity of Australian efforts thus far.
If the humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq is the greatest moral challenge of this parliament’s time, then why has Australia’s total response to date been two planeloads of dry biscuits and weaponry for the Kurdish peshmerga? The reality is that Australia’s political rhetoric on this crisis has advanced well beyond the front line of our capabilities, or intentions to date.
The pressing question now, is what Australia should do next when Barack Obama determines whether the US should seek to crush, or merely contain Isis. The prime minister’s position is that Australia should demonstrate its utility as an ally by offering military assets to the United States early and enthusiastically. Judging by background briefings his office has given to journalists, this should be in the form of combat strike capabilities, like special forces and the RAAF’s F-18 Super Hornet aircraft. Of course, special forces deployments come with the convoluted caveat that they’re not “boots on the ground”.
There are three views in the parliament on this. There are enthusiastic supporters, found amongst the MPs lining up to repeat the government’s sparse talking points on Iraq. There are slightly less enthusiastic supporters, found amongst the opposition who, lacking foreign policy expertise on their front bench, are cautiously endorsing the government’s approach. And finally the Greens are re-raising their objections to the 2003 Iraq war.
I don’t support the Greens’ war powers bill. It frames conflict in terms more suited to 1914 than 2014, failing to appreciate that the line between war and peace has blurred and that the cadence of conflict has quickened. If passed, the bill would dangerously tie the hands of the government. I also disagree with those this week who, rather undemocratically, have argued that the parliament should not make decisions about the use of military force.
One of the lessons learned from the past decade’s experience in the Middle East is that it is critical to forge domestic political consensus before the going gets tough in sustained military campaigns. I watched from Afghanistan as public support for the war evaporated, and as the last parliament struggled to frame a relevant debate after nine years of deployments.
It’s true that, conventionally, the Australian parliament has not authorised the use of military force. It is also true that our allies in the United Kingdom and the United States have seen fit to better incorporate their parliaments in war decision-making. Allowing retrospective majority endorsement of lengthy military action is one way to do this. For example, the parliament might need to authorise a military campaign expected to last more than three months within 30 days of forces being deployed. This would allow the government to rapidly deploy military force to meet a crisis, but still allow parliament to fully consider why such force was necessary.
Parliaments have been debating going to war for hundreds of years, it I unclear why ours is so much more reticent to do so than our allies. A parliamentary vote would help build political consensus, would require every MP and Senator to have an accountable position on risking Australian lives in conflict, and might lead parliament to actively consider a wider range of strategies.
So what other strategies should be considered? Assuming our objectives are to disrupt Isis’s momentum, help maintain global good order, and maintain the strength of the United States alliance, there are a few alternative strategies we might consider. The first is to do nothing at all. That’s the strategy that the Netherlands, a Nato ally with a similar sized military to Australia’s, is pursuing.
We could do nothing until the United States announces its planned strategy, then decide on our response. We could even, quite legitimately, decide to do nothing in support of this intervention, after having spent much of the past two decades contributing forces in the Middle East. This would not wreck Anzus or destroy our international reputation. There are reportedly 81 countries with citizens fighting for Isis, many of whom have more direct national interests in Iraq and Syria, and none of the regional security responsibilities Australia has closer to home.
Alternatively, as the US shifts attention and resources to the Ukraine and Middle East, Australia could take on a night watchman type role in Asia: offering to monitor and lead any necessary response to ongoing hotspots, such as Thailand.
If government is committed to involvement in the Iraq/Syria crisis, we could adopt a range of differing national strategies, not all of which are military led. Australia might take the role of lead interlocutor with Iran and Syria, with the advantage of carrying less diplomatic baggage than the US. We could simply send humanitarian aid funding and focus on diplomatic efforts in the UN Security Council. Such was our strategy in March when Australia committed $111m in aid and co-authored UNSCR 2139 on humanitarian access to Syria, as the body count there topped 130,000.
If we seek a more active role still, Australia could use its cyber-security forces to offensively pursue and shut down the propaganda, social media, and email communications that Isis relies on to command its troops and muster its supporters. We could contribute treasury and tax officials to investigate and cut off ISIL’s finances, using our expertise and clout in financial services.
Few of these other strategies have been considered. Instead, Australia seems to be reflexively defaulting to the strategies of the last decade: incremental tactical contributions of combat assets, problematic promises to avoid conflict and combat deaths, and vague political articulations of what we are doing and why. Though we have been sending our military to the Middle East for the last two decades, its clear we still have much to learn about formulating national security strategy.