Last week my friend Ely Ratner echoed views he heard in Australia that Tony Abbott is spreading Australia too thin by committing RAAF fighters, surveillance planes and transports, as well as 200 SAS troops, to the fight against ISIS. Much better, the argument goes, for Australia to focus on South and Southeast Asia than to embark on missions in a far corner of the globe.
This is a debate Australians should have, but since the Interpreter editors have pulled Ely and me into it, here are my five reasons why Abbott is right:
- ISIS is indeed an evil scourge that directly threatens Australian security. If a brutal Islamist caliphate is established in the Levant, does anyone doubt that it will immediately focus on sending fighters back to their homes in the West or against moderate Muslim states to engage in acts of terror? The leadership of ISIS has made as much clear, so it woud be foolish to wait passively for the threat to emerge.
- Australia will hardly be alone. The Obama Administration has pulled together a broad coalition to reverse the ISIS offensive, including ten Arab nations and other leading US allies. For Australia to bow out amid such international consensus and immediate peril would be unprecedented.
- The deployment of 400 RAAF and 200 SAS personnel and associated equipment to Dubai is not going to undercut Australia's strategic engagement with Indonesia, India and the rest of South and Southeast Asia. Australia is hardly a one-dimensional player in Asia, and has more than enough capacity to shape regional developments through navy-led exercises, diplomacy in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum, and in trade negotiations such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. I don't hear Jakarta or Delhi clamouring for those 200 SAS to please stay at home.
- Australia's deployment will strengthen the overall deterrence capability of her forces and the US-Australia alliance. As any Australian military officer engaged with CENTCOM on previous deployments can attest, US-Australian military operations in Southwest Asia have involved far more intensive sharing of intelligence, logistics, and operational skills than would otherwise be the case. The US and Australia don't commit forces for the purpose of strengthening overall jointness and readiness, but joint operations do have that important effect — to the benefit of peace and stability in the Western Pacific.
- Australia is a global power in large part because of its influence on US strategy, and that flows from being at the 'pointy end of the spear' when there are dire threats to global order. Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses know who America's real friends are, and that counts for a lot when it comes time to call in the chips in Washington.
Australia has the capacity to contribute to the reversal of ISIS without detracting from security in South and Southeast Asia. To do otherwise would leave Australia — and Asia — less secure.