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Does Abbott have a military-first instinct?

Does Abbott have a military-first instinct?
Published 13 Aug 2014   Follow @SamRoggeveen

There's a pretty extraordinary revelation buried in today's Paul Kelly column in The Australian regarding Prime Minister Tony Abbott's response to the MH17 downing:

In the early days of the crisis several weeks ago Abbott wanted to put 1000 Australian troops onto the crash site in conjunction with 1000 Dutch troops. Nothing better testifies to his outrage at the event and his keenness to deploy Australian assets in a cause that affected Australians. This option remained on the table for a few days.

It was never going to be viable. Yet debate around this idea continued before the Prime Minister was talked around and decided it was too dangerous and inappropriate an option. Putting Australian troops into that highly charged situation would have been far too risky.

Yet it offers insights into Abbott’s approach to military issues: he is impatient with limitations relating to logistics and deployment. When Australians are involved Abbott wants to make a difference as soon as possible.

Kelly's claim is not sourced but assuming it is true, the idea presumably foundered on the fact that such a deployment could only have happened with Russian acquiescence, which was never likely. Still, the instinct to consider such a large deployment is telling, as is Kelly's broader conclusion about Abbott's impatience with those in uniform who want to put the brakes on such initiatives. I have heard a similar account of Abbott's disposition from another source.

'Abbott’s every instinct is to deploy Australian military and police assets and he needs to be persuaded by his advisers from such options', says Kelly. He might have added that, on MH370 and Operation Sovereign Borders as well, Abbott also chose to get the military involved.

But against this we need to weigh the fact that Abbott was wary of America's proposed military intervention in Syria in 2013, which President Obama abandoned at the last moment (Abbott: 'We have to be very careful because if we break something, we own it.'). And although Abbott was a supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he has since defended it in only the most qualified and diffident ways. [fold]

Furthermore, Kelly makes much of Abbott's 'profound moral code' and how it affects his approach to foreign policy. But Kelly's examples draw heavily from the MH17 incident where, as I have argued elsewhere, Australia has no major foreign policy interests in play. It's easier to show moral rectitude when very little is at stake.

I'm not ready to say that Kelly is wrong about Abbott's alleged instinct for morals-driven military activism. I have been following Abbott's foreign policy thinking for some years, but even during the last election campaign, I was torn on this issue, listing five reasons Tony Abbott will be a steady-as-she-goes foreign policy leader and four reasons he won't.

At the core of this debate is the question of Abbott's political identity. Yes, he is a conservative, but this masks the fact that Abbott's worldview draws from two distinct sources which cannot comfortably co-exist: British conservatism (cautious, realist, wary of military adventurism) and American neo-conservatism (Manichean, confrontational, willing to impose democracy by force).

Depending on the quotes you choose, Abbott could belong to either tradition. It is not yet clear that he has made a choice between them.

Photo by Flickr user US Pacific Command.

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