28 February 2009

Please address all correspondence to the Secretary

In the days of a Commonwealth Public Service that was more formal in its handling of correspondence and government papers generally, Departmental letterhead often carried the annotation “Please address all correspondence to the Secretary”. This was based on the sound principle that the Secretary was, in the words of the Public Service Act, “responsible for the Department and all the business thereof”. Everyone else in the Department is there to assist the Secretary, so action on all matters is undertaken on authority delegated from the Secretary.

It is worth revisiting this principle because the son et lumiere in Parliament this week concerning the pay of SAS troopers suggests that the Opposition and the media are rather confused about who does what in the Department of Defence.

The first thing to be said about the substance of the issue is that the Department of Defence is a large and complex organisation, with almost 100,000 on its payroll when full-time military, civilians and reservists are taken into account. Mistakes will happen; the important thing is that when they happen, action is taken to rectify them.

The Minister came under sustained attack in Parliament, and was the subject of some unflattering commentary in the media, because he was apparently considered to be insufficiently on top of the detail of what happened to the pay of one or more SAS troopers. To suggest that he ought to be is to elevate the notion of Ministerial accountability to a level that we have not seen in a long time if ever. The Minister’s job is to ensure that the Department has in place all the systems it needs to support the Australian Defence Force, and where performance falls short to insist that it return in a timely way to an acceptable level. He cannot ensure that nothing goes wrong, and he cannot be expected to be on top of every detail of what goes on within the machine he administers.

We have also seen the spectacle of the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army being subjected to sustained and hostile questioning on this matter in Senate Estimates. As one would expect, they both showed grace and courage under fire.

The core roles of the CDF and the Service Chiefs are to raise, train and sustain the Australian Defence Force (ADF), to provide military advice to the government, and to command military operations. The role of the Department is to carry out all of the administrative functions required to support the ADF, to be the custodian of all the assets, and to control the cash which has been appropriated by the Parliament. In relation to the matter of SAS pay, while the Army has the role of determining the qualifications on which the pay of individual troopers is based, it is an administrative function of the Department to run the pay system, to ensure that everyone gets all of the pay that they are entitled to, and to rectify any errors in the system.

Please address all correspondence to the Secretary.

Rushing willingly into Iraq

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As most of us celebrate the setting of a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the important question of how we all came to be involved in this mess in the first place. The most important questions here revolve not around the questions relating to whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did or did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but whether our governments were completely open with us about what they knew and when, at what stage various decisions were taken and commitments given, when we became irreversibly committed to the invasion of another country, and whether this was all some kind of ghastly “intelligence failure”.

The question of who knew what and when has been addressed very thoroughly in a remarkable 2007 essay by Garry Woodard, Senior Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Melbourne University. In previous incarnations Garry was Head, National Assessments Staff in the Joint intelligence Organisation (now DIO), Ambassador to Burma, High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to China. His approach to the issue benefits from his thoroughly researched knowledge of the decision-making process that led to our commitment to the Vietnam War, as described in his 2004 book Asian Alternatives: Australia’s Vietnam decision and lessons of going to war. Garry’s 2007 essay on Iraq, which is a remarkable example of what can be achieved by patient sifting through disparate open sources, has been taken down from the Melbourne University website but can be accessed from my Google Drive here.

Garry tells us:

The three governments forming the coalition of the willing practised deception about when decisions were taken, and why Iraq’s cruel dictator Saddam Hussein had to be removed. The age of spin and elite manipulation in democracies has refined the art of misrepresentation, though often with exaggerated and emotive overtones, to obfuscate, to engender fear, and to bludgeon doubt and dissent. Deception has long-term effects in lowering standards in public life and diminishing democracy.

He goes on to say and demonstrate that we nevertheless now know a lot. It is not a pretty picture, but well worth the read.

The question of whether or not the decision to invade Iraq was an intelligence failure is dealt with more than adequately by Paul R. Pillar, who served as the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. Writing in the March/April 2006 edition of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs Pillar says: 

“In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community’s own work was politicised”.

Pillar went on to say: 

“If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication, it was to avoid war – or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath. What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions of recent decades.”

These assessments deserve to be taken seriously, and the lessons learned – lest we forget.

Note: The full text of Pillar’s essay is available free here to registered users (subscribers), or may be purchased as a high quality PDF reprint for $0.99.

27 February 2009

Let's keep ASC where it belongs

The Government announced yesterday that the sale of ASC Pty Ltd, formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation, will not proceed at this time.

This is a good decision. An even better decision would be a definitive announcement that ASC Pty Ltd will not be sold.

Our submarine capability is a vital component of Australia’s defence preparedness. The Government’s willingness to sign up for the $30+ billion price tag on a successor to the Collins Class shows that the Government itself believes so. This being the case, the ability which currently resides in ASC to build, maintain, sustain, modify and upgrade our present and future submarines is an integral part of that preparedness.

Through-life support of Collins, the construction of the Air Warfare Destroyers and the preparations for the post-Collins build constitute a big enough challenge for the Board, management and workforce of ASC without the distraction and demotivation of working for an organisation which perpetually has a “For Sale” sign in the window.

In announcing yesterday’s decision the Ministers for Finance and Defence emphasised that the current global uncertainty in global financial markets presents significant risks to a successful sale of the company. No doubt that is so, but the fact is that it will never be a good time to sell the company (it has been for sale since 2000). It will always be in the middle of a challenging build program, and the Americans will always have legitimate concerns about the security of their military technology if we try to dispose of the company to one of the submarine builders who are most likely to want to buy it. We should have an equal level of concern about what happens to our intellectual property in the event of a sale.

Governments of both political persuasions need to think a lot harder and smarter about the role of onshore, indigenous defence industry as an integral part of our capacity to defend Australia. Recognising the realities in relation to the future of ASC would be a good place to begin.

26 February 2009

Reading Khamene'i in Tehran

In a recent edition of the New York Times, Op-ed columnist Roger Cohen has made a welcome contribution to the public discourse on how US-Iranian relations might be better managed by the Obama Administration (see Roger Cohen, "Reading Khamenei in Tehran", New York Times, 19 February 2009). Welcome because it is underpinned by the premises that neither supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i nor the Iran he leads is irrational, that Iran has identifiable national interests for the advancement of which it would be prepared to negotiate, and that there is an interest in better relations at the highest level of the Iranian leadership - and welcome because it appears in such a mainstream and influential US daily.

Cohen asserts (correctly) that how to engage with Iran begins with Khamene'i, and examines what this "astute man" might want and what he would be prepared to give. To quote Cohen,

"Khamenei sees his primary task as safeguarding a revolution whose core values include independence, cultural and scientific self-sufficiency, the global revitalization of Islam as a guiding body of law, and social justice. He believes that America demands 'submission and hegemony' ".

Cohen goes on to set out the policy stances that the US must adopt in the light of these convictions:

"Obama must assure Khamenei that not only has America abandoned the goal of regime change, it sees Iran as a central player in regional stability. That deals with the independence obsession.

"Obama must abandon military threats to Iran's nuclear program in favour of an approach recognizing the country's inevitable mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, while securing verifiable conditions that ensure such mastery is not diverted to bomb manufacturing. That addresses Iran's intellectual pride (as well as the fact that the neighbourhood includes the nuclear armed powers of Israel, Pakistan and India).

He must redirect U.S. policy toward Israel-Palesetine to make Hamas-Fatah reconciliation a core American objective, recognition that the "terrorist" label is an inadequate description of the broad movements that are Hamas and Hezbollah and end the Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy that sabotages a two-state solution. This would allow Khamenei to claim that his demands for Palestinian justice - as the self-styled leader of the world's Muslims - have been heard."

Of course there is a price to be paid for these concessions:

"In return, Iran must accept the two-state solution backed by the Arab League (Khamenei,
notes Cohen, has said 'the fate of Palestine should be determined by the Palestinian people'). It must reciprocate American movement on Hamas and Hezbollah by ending its military, but not political, support for them.

"It must back U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. It must improve its poor human rights record. And to show goodwill, it must hit the pause button on the centrifuges once high-level talks with America begin."

I do not find too much in these packages of concessions with which to disagree, but I see difficulties on both sides. It remains to be seen to what extent the new Administration will be prepared either to lay down the law to Israel or to reposition itself on Hamas and Hezbollah, particularly when it is so preoccupied with the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis. The requirement that Iran hit the pause button on the centrifuges sounds to me very close to a precondition, one that the Iranians will find hard to stomach. I think an Iran without nuclear weapons is achievable, provided the threat of military action by the United States and Israel is abandoned, but Iranian acquiescence in anything short of full fuel cycle independence is not.