The short march to another war
In this story
In the parliamentary backwater known as the Federation Chamber, the debate sputtered a few times but failed to ignite. In truth, it was not a debate at all but a few MPs reading into the Hansard their hesitation about Australia entering a new war.
As Australia in the past week moved inexorably towards military action in Iraq, the government and opposition had already decided there would be no official debate in the house of representatives. “Team Australia” was in this together.
In statements to the parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten were in furious agreement over intervention in northern Iraq, supporting the delivery of not just aid, but also arms, to besieged Kurdish forces there.
“In good conscience, Australia cannot leave the Iraqi people to face this horror, this pure evil, alone,” Abbott said, “or ask others to do in the name of human decency what we won’t do ourselves.”
No debate was needed to ascertain the bipartisan support. “Labor and the Coalition stand as one on the importance of national security,” Shorten pledged.
When Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent Andrew Wilkie sought to have their say, they were silenced and told they would get their turn later, out of the spotlight.
The momentum towards Australian involvement in this war has been building for weeks, amid rising global concern about the barbarism of the al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State.
Abbott’s language has been visceral. He says the insurgent movement is “nothing but a death cult” and is worse than the Nazis in boasting of beheadings and other atrocities. At times, his muscular rhetoric has been out in front of US president Barack Obama, who long resisted those in Washington pushing for all-out war.
As opposition leader, Abbott promised a cautious approach to international conflicts, arguing a year ago that Australia should not “be getting ideas above our station” about its role in world affairs.
Now he is leading a country that will not only host the G20 and chair the United Nations Security Council in November, both events legacies from the Rudd era, but has also in the past week embarked on new military roles in Iraq and Ukraine, sending “non-lethal” military trainers to the latter, and deepening engagement with NATO.
This assertive global role is a departure from Abbott’s promised “more Jakarta, less Geneva” approach, focusing on regional affairs.
Abbott’s justification for Australian involvement in Iraq has relied heavily on morality, reflecting his views there are goodies and baddies in world affairs and that Australia has an obligation to support the former.
The other dimension is the involvement of some 60 Australians, who are among foreign fighters joining the Islamic State.
By early August, Abbott was laying the foundation for Australian involvement in an international effort in Iraq when he made a curious whistle-stop trip to Europe and the Middle East.
His brief visit to London was oddly timed, as British prime minister David Cameron was away on holidays. They spoke on the phone. The main purpose of the visit seemed to be intelligence and security briefings. Abbott emerged from meetings with Britain’s foreign and defence secretaries, sounding gung-ho about Iraq and refusing to rule out military action.
“Australia should do what it can, we should do what we can, to protect people from potential genocide,” Abbott said. “We are talking to our security partners about what we can usefully do to help.”
On the same day, foreign minister Julie Bishop and defence minister David Johnston had been meeting in Sydney with US secretaries of state and defence John Kerry and Chuck Hagel for annual ministerial talks.
Kerry referred to the “disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque” image of an Australian-born child holding a severed head, published by The Australian the day before. But his language about future military action in Iraq was more restrained than Abbott’s. Asked what support the US might seek from its allies regarding Iraq, Kerry focused on the limitations on future action, rather than the prospect of it.
“There will be no reintroduction of American combat forces into Iraq. That is the beginning of the discussion,” Kerry said. “This is a fight that Iraqis need to join on behalf of Iraq.”
Leaving London, Abbott made a brief stop in the United Arab Emirates, addressing Australian troops at the Al Minhad Air Base who were preparing for the first air drop – of biscuits and water – to Iraq. He told them they were doing something “unambiguously good”.
A meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the prime minister of Dubai, strengthened his resolve that Australia should be prepared to deepen its military involvement, that it would find support in the Middle East and could station troops and aircraft in the UAE.
And so he returned to Australia, ready for war.
Last Friday, the government offered Labor a briefing in Melbourne on plans approved by the National Security Committee of Cabinet earlier in the week for Australia to participate in an international effort – including the US, the UK, France, Canada and Italy – to airlift weapons to the Kurds. No briefing was offered over the surprise mission to Ukraine, which the prime minister revealed in question time on Wednesday. This oversight has annoyed Labor, as it could be a risky deployment.
In Iraq, it seems inevitable that what started as delivery of humanitarian aid will progress to involvement in air strikes, though Abbott has ruled out “combat troops on the ground”.
As Labor continues its attacks over the budget, broken promises and “dirty deals” with Clive Palmer, it is wary of allowing the government to exploit any difference on national security. So it was that Shorten requested on Monday morning that both leaders make a statement to parliament, using this to demonstrate Labor’s support.
In the Coalition’s party room on Tuesday, Bishop made a comment that summed up neatly the potential political upside for the government of international conflicts from Ukraine to Iraq. “The ALP have strapped themselves to us on national security, but the left is gritting their teeth,” the foreign minister told her colleagues, reminding them that this was a topic that was traditionally seen as a Coalition strength, and, for good measure, linking it to economic prosperity.
No Coalition MPs used the meeting to raise questions about the military action in Iraq.
Elsewhere in parliament house, at the Labor caucus meeting, several MPs from the left were raising concerns about whether Australia was rushing into a military engagement without proper consideration of the consequences.
That same day, in Berlin, the German parliament was meeting to agonise over its government’s decision to arm the Kurds.
For the first time in postwar history, Germany had resolved to send weapons to a war. It was viewed as a momentous decision and out of step with the public mood, breaking a taboo in the name of humanitarian assistance. The Bundestag debate was only symbolic, as the country’s constitution says the decision rests with the executive, but the symbolism mattered. Dissenting views were aired, the governing coalition had to defend its decision and, in the end, it prevailed.
When Australian MPs had the chance to express their views later in the week, there was no special sitting of parliament. Speaking to a roomful of largely empty chairs, independent MP Wilkie accused the government of “shunting us up here to the Federation Chamber where it will end with a whimper”.
Wilkie, who resigned from the Office of National Assessments in 2003 in protest at Australia’s role in the Iraq war, said there may be good reasons for intervention but it was misleading to describe Australia’s involvement as purely humanitarian.
“We are providing combat support operations for the Kurds and it needs to be seen as that,” he said. “Let’s be honest with the Australian people about what we’re now involved in.”
He said Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war in 2003 had helped created the “vacuum that was subsequently filled by terrible violence”, leading to the current conflict.
Labor MP Melissa Parke raised a series of questions about the consequences of military action, lamenting that little had been learnt since 2003. “What are the possible side effects of arming the Peshmergas in Kurdistan?” she said, referring to the official armed forces of the Kurdish north.
“Does this increase or decrease the likelihood of a stable and unified Iraq? Can we be confident that the supply of arms will not subsequently be the source of further conflict, civil war, or atrocities?”
Parke, a former United Nations staffer, said Australia should be using its role on the security council to seek support for an international effort, as well as airing the issues in a full parliamentary debate.
Greens deputy leader Bandt warned of mission creep and noted that Australians might question the PM’s motives, assuming they were domestic rather than global, if he “flicked the switch to khaki” without a full parliamentary debate.
“Last week we were providing humanitarian assistance. This week we are running guns to one side of the conflict. Who knows what we are going to be doing next week?” he said.
Although the parliamentary debate has been sidelined, the prospect of military action in Iraq has triggered a public debate with unusual fault lines. On the opinion pages of The Australian Financial Review, conservative columnist and former Liberal staffer Tom Switzer backed the Greens’ questioning of where the mission would end.
In The Australian, former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans lauded the government – and Labor – for taking a principled response to the atrocities in Iraq.
Evans was involved in forging UN support in 2005 for the principle of the international “responsibility to protect” people at risk of mass atrocities.
In outlining Labor’s approach, foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek drew heavily on this so-called R2P principle, warning that Labor would not just be a “rubber stamp”. “National security is above politics, but such important decisions are never beyond question, interrogation, or criticism,” she said.
As the government approaches its anniversary on Sunday of one year in power, it seems to have found a new theme, one tinged with khaki, that it may hope will banish the budget blues that have dogged it in recent months.
Abbott’s enthusiasm for using military engagement to pursue a values-driven approach on the world stage is being dubbed within the government as the “Abbott doctrine”.
The dimensions of this doctrine are becoming clear. The risks and costs are yet to be fully explored.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "The short march to another war".
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