Commentary | 16 June 2015

Public support for fight in Iraq despite big risk

Public support for fight in Iraq despite big risk

Anthony Bubalo

Australian Financial Review

16 June 2015

 

  • Anthony Bubalo

Public support for fight in Iraq despite big risk

Anthony Bubalo

Australian Financial Review

16 June 2015

 

  • Anthony Bubalo

Executive Summary

Few will be surprised that terrorism topped the list of national security concerns in 2015's Lowy Institute Poll. Slightly more surprising was the support for Australia's current military commitment in Iraq, even though most Australians fear it will increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks at home.

But what is perhaps most interesting about these and other results in the 2015 poll is the way in which they highlight a divergence between the security concerns of ordinary Australia and those in the country's strategic community.

Asked to rank eight possible risks to Australian security over the next 10 years, the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ranked highest (69 per cent saw it as a high risk), followed by terror attacks on Australians overseas (55 per cent) and home-grown terrorism in Australia (53 per cent). Meanwhile, maritime disputes between China and its neighbours ranked fourth - only 26 per cent ranked it as a high risk. And Australians seem sanguine about the prospects of military conflict between the United States and China. It was ranked last in the list of security risks, with only 20 per cent rating it as a high risk.

In the aftermath of the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney and recent terrorism-related arrests, this result is pretty unremarkable. Nevertheless, if you asked strategic experts inside and outside government to rank the same list of security risks, I would bet the order would be reversed. This is not because they think the risk of a conflict between the United States and China is higher than the risk of a terrorist attack in Australia. But rather they understand that the impact of a US-China conflict on Australia's security and prosperity would be far greater than any terrorist attack. The government talks publicly about the threat posed by terrorism, but privately its greater fear is about China's military modernisation and Beijing's increasingly aggressive posture in the South and East China seas.

Does the disconnect highlighted by the poll between how the public ranks security risks and how the strategists assess them matter? I think, potentially, it does.

The public's concern about Islamic State seems to have translated into strong support for the government's decision to participate in the current US-led efforts to combat the movement in Iraq. A majority (69 per cent) said they either strongly supported those efforts (36 per cent) or were somewhat in favour (33 per cent). Only 22 per cent said they opposed such action.

That support exists despite the view of more than half of those polled (55 per cent) that participation in military action against Islamic State will actually increase the risk of terrorism.

But when it comes to taking military action in our region Australians are more ambivalent. We did not ask who Australians would back in any US-China conflict, or indeed whether they supported recently mooted proposals that Australia join the US in military patrols in the South China Sea.

But what we did ask was what position Australian should adopt in any future conflict between China and Japan. In recent years tension between the two countries over the East China Sea has been high and while it has abated somewhat it has not gone away. The Australian government has also been very public about its strategic embrace of Japan.

Yet a very strong majority of Australians (84 per cent) think Australia should remain neutral in any future conflict between Japan and China. This echoes Lowy Poll results in previous years, which showed that Australians were more reluctant to follow the United States into military action in our region than they were in the Middle East.

All of this might simply reflect Eisenhower's maxim that "what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important". But it might also reflect another result in this year's poll, that an overwhelming majority of Australians see China as more of an economic partner than a military threat (77 per cent to 15 per cent).

This means that getting public support for future military commitments in our region won't necessarily be straightforward, particularly if the threat to Australia is not clear cut. It was perhaps no surprise, therefore, that when a US official suggested that Australia might host B-1 bombers in response to Chinese military activity in the South China Sea, the government was quick to shuffle away from the idea.

 

Anthony Bubalo is research director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. The 2015 Lowy Institute Poll is available at www.lowyinstitute.org