This is the final entry in this seven-part series. Part 1 is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: part 4 here; part 5 here; and part 6 here.

In the last decade and a half there has been a subtle evolution in Australian policy toward the Middle East.

At the start of this century, the region was largely seen as a place where Australia traded, provided consular services to its citizens and kept a watch (and occasionally expressed a view) on regional developments, particularly those of interest to domestic community groups.

The region was not, however, seen as falling within Australia's core area of strategic interest. The fact that Australian military forces (in different deployments, sizes and configurations) had been present in the Middle East almost continuously since 1948 was largely a function of the US alliance and, to a lesser degree, UN commitments, rather than a reflection of any intrinsic strategic interest in the region.

In the aftermath of 9/11, however, the size and scope of Australian military deployments to the region changed. In the space of a decade and a half Australia made sizeable contributions to the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

These deployments continued to be, largely, an expression of Australia's alliance commitment to the US. But they also had the effect of stretching Australia's strategic horizon to include the region. 

One reason for this was the need to independently develop bilateral defence relationships in support of Australia's military deployments in the region. In particular, the UAE has become a basing hub for Australian forces in the Middle East, but has also become something of a security partner with whom Australia consults and engages in joint training.

Another reason for this extension of Australian strategic horizons to include the Middle East has been the way in which the terrorist threat from the region has come to have more direct security implications for Australia. Of particular concern have been the small but significant number of Australians, but also Southeast Asians, that have joined the ranks of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, most notably ISIS. 

So if at the beginning of this century the Middle East didn't really figure in Australia's strategic calculations (at least not outside the alliance), today the government openly talks about having enduring strategic interests in the region. As the 2016 Defence White Paper noted:

'Australia will have strategic interests in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, including preventing the spread of violent extremism, supporting stability and the security of vital trade and energy flows.'

This subtle evolution, has however, been an uncertain one. It has its critics both inside and outside the national security community. Some question whether Australia's interests in the region really are strategic. Others would much rather see Australia reserving its military for operations much closer to home.

There is also something of an intellectual and diplomatic cringe that accompanies Australian policy in the Middle East. There is a view within parts of the national security bureaucracy (most typically among those who have avoided working on the Middle East over the course of their careers) that Australia has no real expertise to offer on the region and no real leverage to exercise in it, other than in close company with the US.

One consequence of this uncertain, even half-hearted, evolution in Australian policy is that it is not entirely clear what having strategic interests in the Middle East really means. Put crudely, Australian policy in the Middle East today could be largely described as 'we sell stuff and we bomb stuff'.

Matching means to interests

This is, of course, an oversimplification because the terms of Australia's official engagement with the Middle East is broader than this: day-to-day diplomatic, consular and immigration work, and a little bit of aid and cultural engagement also fill out the portfolio. Nevertheless, all of these other forms of engagement tend to be overshadowed by our military activities and this needs to change for a couple of reasons.

First, as I argued in part 5, the West needs to match its current short-term efforts, including military efforts, to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the old order in a number of states, with longer-term efforts to help build new and more stable orders in the region. 

Australia should be a part of this. In the same way that it has been an active and effective participant in military campaigns in the region, Australia should become an active and effective participant in efforts to build more stable economic and political orders in the Middle East as well.

There are a number of opportunities for Australia to help states, societies or groups in the region build more peaceful and durable domestic economic and political orders over time. Those opportunities might include providing technical or financial support for countries engaged in political or economic reform; helping to modernise local education systems; or supporting programs aimed at the development of the private sector. 

Australia might also choose to focus these and/or other efforts in particular countries with which we have strong relations. Jordan is an obvious example. It is strategically important and it has not been plunged into turmoil, but like other countries in the region it is struggling with the consequences of the decay of its old political and economic order, as well as the fallout from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

An obvious objection is that Australia is hardly going to transform the region through such niche contributions. But that is equally true of our military efforts. ADF personnel have made significant and highly professional contributions to military campaigns throughout the region, but these contributions have never been a decisive factor in the outcome of the overall campaigns. 

A focus on development and good governance will also mean abandoning our intellectual cringe with respect to the region. Indeed, DFAT has long had a small but significant cohort of staff who know the region very well, even if they do not always rise to the upper echelons of the national security community. Some of our current ambassadors in the region, for example, are as knowledgeable, and in some cases more knowledgeable, than their counterparts in the US State Department or the UK Foreign Office.

The second reason that we need to think beyond the largely military terms of our current engagement with the Middle East relates to the debate about our strategic interests in the region. Indeed, in many ways this debate misses the point. It's not really a question of whether we have strategic interests in the Middle East; self-evidently we do.

But not all strategic interests are created equal. The real question for Australia, therefore, is whether we are engaged in the appropriate level of national effort relative to those interests. Is, for example, the significant and expensive military effort to defeat ISIS justified by the terrorist threat posed by the group to Australia?

In fact, I would argue that there is a strong case for sustaining our current military efforts in the Middle East. And as I argued in part 1, there are good reasons to believe that coalition efforts against ISIS will prove successful. 

But it is also true if we only think primarily in terms of military engagement with the Middle East then we are more likely to encounter situations where the national effort is not really justified by the national interests involved. Arguably our participation in the invasion of Iraq was one such case.

Moreover, the net imbalance between effort and interest will only increase over time. If indeed, as the 2016 White Paper argues, Australia will have strategic interests in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, we will need to find more creative and less expensive ways to pursue those interests rather than just through new ADF deployments to the region. 

Ultimately expanding our engagement with the region to include efforts to promote development and build better governance and economic opportunities won't just be cheaper than sending detachments of Super Hornets, it will do more good in the region in the longer term as well.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.