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Being America's friend

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COMMENTS

24 February 2010 11:27

Sam and Crispin have each put a finger on a delicate spot. First to Sam, whose question is one I often ask myself. The answer of course is, 'Yes, it can be wise, and good policy as well, to try to save the US from starting a dumb war rather than following them blindly into it.' 

But that is not the choice we face today in Afghanistan. Today we are already in a war which I believe is pointless, but we no longer have the choice about whether to get involved or not. The question we do have to answer is: now we are involved, do we press on?

I find this a very hard question, with strong arguments on both sides. I take the alliance with the US very seriously, and I believe that our standing as an ally has, for the last few decades, depended a lot on our willingness to support the US in small wars in the Middle East. This has worked for us in the past, and I think if we pulled out of Afghanistan now it would have a disproportionately damaging effect on our standing in Washington. 

I italicise 'I think' because I'm not sure about it. But it's a real risk at least, and not one to be run lightly. (Some might ask, 'if the Dutch and Canadians can get away with it, why not us?' I would say it is because our alliance works differently from NATO, and is inherently much weaker, but that's another story.)

Against this we have to weigh the costs of staying. If it just costs us money – even quite a lot of money – then I think on balance it is worth staying while America stays. That call is made easier by my expectation that the US itself will not stay long – Obama told us that much late last year.

But when it costs lives, the calculation shifts. We are, fortunately, not very practiced here in Australia at weighing the costs in lives of our strategic policy decisions. People do not quite know what to say when the topic comes up. I touched on this in The Monthly  last year. I don't think the alliance benefit of being there is worth soldiers' lives, so if staying on costs more than a very few casualties, I'd leave.

As it happens, this is the Government's view, too. I think it knows Afghanistan is pointless, but it takes the alliance seriously, and also fears the domestic politics of withdrawal. But the Government is also very concerned to keep casualties down – hence the strict limits on the size of our force and the kind of work it does. The policy is to stay on and stay safe, until Obama starts to pull out. It's not very noble, but on balance it's the best we can do in a tough corner. 

But of course it's much better not to get into these corners in the first place, which brings us back to Crispin and the art of shopping with friends. His metaphor, and the prescription it embodies for the interrogative style of alliance management, is spot on. Moreover, I think it could have worked in the case of Iraq. 

Had Australia started, way back in early 2002, to ask simple questions like, 'Why exactly are Saddam's WMD so dangerous to us?' and 'Who is going to govern Iraq after Saddam is gone?' and 'How many troops will be needed to keep the peace before the new government emerges?' then some in Washington might have listened. 

Many people there always thought the Iraq invasion was dumb, but they got no voice because the normally ferocious Washington process of contestability was short-circuited by the politics of fear and anger. Our questions might just have helped them find their voice – especially if we and the British had both played Friend C. 

The fact that we didn't reflects not just flaws in our alliance management methodology, but the deeper problem that the government of the day didn't realise it was making a strategic decision until after it had been made. For the Howard Government, the politics was so pungent that it blocked everything else out. 

One last point: the approach to alliance management which underlies all this has worked well for Australia in the decades since Vietnam. But the world is changing, and it might not work so well in future, whatever happens in Afghanistan. Time to rethink the alliance from the ground up.

Photo by Flickr user HKmPUA, used under a Creative Commons license.

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