14 August 2013

Time for a cold hard look at our defence and foreign policy

The article below was first published as one of the essays in Australia21’s Placing global change on the Australian election agenda: Essays on vital issues that are largely being ignored.

Clearly we are not going to hear much about this issue during the election campaign

Time for a cold hard look at our defence and foreign policy
Paul Barratt, Chair, Australia 21

Providing for the nation’s defence is one of the fundamental responsibilities of central government. It classically requires the capacity to think over decadal time-scales, to bring disparate and apparently unrelated issues to account, and to detect underlying trends which have the capacity to change the national security landscape.

Yet there is perhaps no area of public policy in which there is a greater gap between the requirement for astute long term thinking and the short-termism of what we see in practice.

The nation faces a deteriorating security environment. Strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region is increasing. By means of a disastrously ill-judged “war of choice” in Iraq our major ally, the United States, has demonstrated the limits of American military power, gravely reduced its international standing, and impoverished itself in the process. Climate change and competition for water and food security will set up new pressures and new refugee flows, especially in our heavily populated region in which many people depend upon subsistence agriculture.  “Peak oil” and competition for necessary energy supplies add another portfolio of issues to be considered. The growing economic strength of countries in the “Third World” is changing the geopolitical landscape. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and others) are beginning to draw some firm political lines in the sand[1].

There is little sign that anyone in Government is “joining the dots” on these apparently separate but closely linked issues, and political parties of either persuasion continue to make lazy assumptions about the willingness and will of our major ally to come to our assistance if our national security is threatened, and the conditions under which it would do so. We must be prepared, while nurturing the alliance, and all of our defence relationships in the region, to make a much stronger effort and develop much more capacity to act independently and self-reliantly.

Pursuant to the lazy thinking about the alliance, we have a habit of committing to “wars of choice” (Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) alongside our major ally on the assumption that this will be beneficial to our long-term national security, without adequate consideration of:
·         The end state we are trying to achieve, the prospects for success, and indeed what “success” would look like. This is a vitally important matter: the consequences of failed military operations are dire, both for the local population and for the occupying forces.
·         Whether or not the war is legal under international law, conditions which are satisfied only by a UN Security Council resolution or a clear and immediate requirement for self-defence.
·         How the war will be fought at a strategic level. There is no doubt about the capacity of the United States to apply overwhelming military force. What the history of the last ten years in Iraq has demonstrated, however, is that the application of overwhelming military force in the initial onslaught is the easy part. The hard part is managing a successful occupation, militarily and politically, in the face of the resistance that will inevitably develop, and preventing the occupation forces from having to go into a counter-insurgency role[2].
·         How the war will be fought at a tactical level. For example, Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions; our US ally is not. Ostensibly at least we regard these weapons as horrendous, but we will be fighting alongside an ally that considers them an indispensable part of its armoury.
·         Human rights abuses. Human rights abuses occur to some extent in all conflicts but they seem to be part and parcel of the US way of conducting counter-insurgency operations (read: military occupation). Everyone is familiar with the disturbing pictures that came out of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.  As Ian Cobain’s 1 April 2013 report in The Guardian, about human rights abuses at Camp Nama, reveals, Abu Ghraib was neither an isolated, nor the worst, case[3]. Do we really want to be a part of wars conducted on this basis? Do we think such behaviour is an ingredient of a successful military occupation or counter-insurgency? Similar questions apply to the rapidly growing US penchant for assassinating supposed insurgents by means of drones, with the attendant civilian casualties and potential to generate a backlash amongst the local population.
·         The extent to which wars like Vietnam and Iraq are a product of the US political system rather than objective assessments of national security threats to the US[4].

Regarding the selection of engagements to which we should commit, and the decision-making process, the Howard Government’s decision that Australia would participate in the invasion of Iraq is a case study in how not to do it:
·         In the absence of a United Nations Security Council Resolution specifically authorising the use of force in the circumstances at the time, the invasion was illegal and the Secretary-General of the United Nations subsequently said as much.
·         The Australian public was lied to about when a decision was taken. The Prime Minister insisted right up to the eve of the invasion that no decision had been taken, but we were deeply involved in US planning for the war and seems almost certain that a firm commitment had been made to the Americans by July 2002 at the latest.
·         We were even deceived about when Australian military operations commenced.[5].
·         Parliament was deceived as to the intelligence that was available, and its quality. On 4 February 2003, the Prime Minister told the House of Representatives, “The Australian government knows that Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons and that Iraq wants to develop nuclear weapons”[6]., and in a later speech he referred to “Iraq’s continued support for international terrorism”, conjuring up the spurious link to al-Qaeda.
·         The subsequent inquiry into the performance of the Australian intelligence agencies, led by former DFAT Secretary Phillip Flood, found that the evidence for Iraq’s alleged WMD program was “thin, ambiguous and incomplete” – hardly a satisfactory basis on which to commit the nation to armed conflict.

Having committed itself to participate in an illegal war based upon dubious evidence, the Government dissembled about what the objective was. Was it about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or was it about regime change – denied before the invasion but now relied upon as the major “good” to flow from the exercise?

And having committed to putting young Australians in harm’s way for the purposes of this endeavour, the Government seems to have concerned itself not at all with whether it contained the necessary ingredients for success.

The Australian public needs to be much more vigilant about the circumstances in which the Australian Government deploys the Australian Defence Force and for what purpose. This vigilance is unlikely to become habitual while a decision to send troops remains the prerogative of the executive — that is, Cabinet, meaning in practice the Prime Minister and a very small group of key ministers — an arrangement which means that a decision, once taken, can be acted upon without significant debate. Vigilance is much more likely to develop if we embrace the republican notion, one which seems fitting also for a constitutional monarchy, that the power to make war should be vested in the legislature. In any polity founded on the principle that power flows from the people to the state, rather than from the state to the people, the spectacle of the executive clinging to the ancient privileges of the sovereign is both an anachronism and an anomaly.

It is not good enough for the citizens of any modern democratic state to accept from their politicians deceitfulness about the state of affairs we face, nor the deployment of the nation’s youth on ill-defined missions for reasons that have more to do with party-political advantage than protection of the nation’s security, either in the short or the long run. If the public does not insist upon higher standards from its politicians, it will have only itself to blame if the sad experiences of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are repeated in some future conflict.

Thus while it is not possible to be prescriptive about how the Government should deal with the range of threats and contingencies that might emerge, it is possible to be prescriptive about how we should make future decisions about deploying the ADF into armed international conflict. We must avoid the dangers of small group decision making inherent in the current situation in which the power to deploy is the prerogative of the Executive, and place this power firmly in the hands of the Parliament[7].

More generally, to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future within a changing geopolitical landscape, we need to conduct need a root and branch review of the whole basis of Australian foreign and defence policy, in which all of our traditional assumptions are tested for their relevance to the future, and the findings which result are actually acted upon. We gain a great deal from our close relationship with the world’s leading military power, but we need to recognise that our interests are not identical and we need a much more mature debate about what we can expect from the alliance and how to manage it to our own best advantage.

[1] See for example BRICS Summit draws clear red lines on Iran, Syria at http://thebricspost.com/brics-summit-draws-clear-red-lines-on-syria-iran/#.UVzruUpqI3U

[2] See commentary to this effect by Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen on a recent ABC 4 Corners interview with presenter Kerry O’Brien – transcript on ABC website at http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2013/03/25/3720567.htm

[3] See “Camp Nama: British personnel reveal horrors of secret US base in Baghdad” at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/01/camp-nama-iraq-human-rights-abuses

[4] In the 4 Corners interview referenced above David Kilcullen commented:

“If you look at American military history in particular, and you take - you start the clock running around the Mexican War in 1846, there's a very consistent pattern in US military history of the US getting into a large or long counter-insurgency or stabilisation operation about once every 20 to 30 years for that whole period since the middle of the 19th Century - not just Vietnam but a whole bunch of stuff that happened in the Caribbean, the Philippines, the frontier. …

“There's this very consistent pattern of about once a generation they get into a conflict like Vietnam”.

“So I think there's something that's deeply hidden in the way that the United States relates to the rest of the world that tends to lead Americans and their Western allies into these kinds of operations on a regular basis”.

Recent books which bear out this thesis include Paul Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, Columbia University Press, 2011 and Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Scribe 2012 (Australian Edition, with Introduction by Paul Barratt).

[5] In a media conference on 20 March 2003 Prime Minister Howard stated, “I think it’s appropriate that today marks the first indication of our active involvement”. In fact Australian Special Forces had been in operation in Western Iraq since 18 March, 30 hours before the ultimatum that Saddam Hussein and his sons should leave the country, or face military action, had expired. For details see the carefully researched paper on this subject by former diplomat Tony Kevin, first published in September 2004, at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1035771042000260101

[6] House of Representatives Hansard, 4 February 2003.

[7] Distinguished Australian military historian Robert O’Neil summed up the dangers of the current system very eloquently in the final paragraph of his 2009 submission on the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2]

“In the past, especially in the cases of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the decision to commit forces was taken by a small group of ministers, in which the Prime Minister played a dominant role. In such a small group, inhibitions based on concerns about the major ally’s capacity to fight effectively and win within a period of a year or two (if perceived at all) can be easily swept aside by the desire of the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister or the Cabinet at large to remain close to whoever is the US President at the time of deciding. Also in this system of decision-making, broader issues such as the morality of the commitment, which was clearly a major public issue in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, are relatively easy for the Government to ignore or set to one side. The small group setting also makes it easier to believe faulty intelligence reports, or even to dismiss them where they are inconvenient for the government’s preferred policy. Australia’s decisions on commitment to any of these three conflicts would almost certainly have been improved had the proposal been debated in both Houses of the Parliament”.

The submissions relating to this legislation may be found on the Parliament House website at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=fadt_ctte/completed_inquiries/2008-10/dapaosb08/submissions.htm . Dr O’Neill’s submission is No. 5 on the list.

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