Iraq venture has eye on domestic politics. Industry support doesn’t include submarines. US action on Ebola. By Hamish McDonald.

War on opinion polls leads us back to Iraq

Iraqi Shiite militia fighters celebrate breaking the Islamic State siege of the northern town of Amerli.
Iraqi Shiite militia fighters celebrate breaking the Islamic State siege of the northern town of Amerli.
Credit: Reuters

So Tony Abbott is positioning 600 Australian military personnel in the United Arab Emirates, including 200 SAS, along with a flight of F/A-18 Super Hornets and an aerial control plane, to be ready for war against the so-called Islamic State.

The parameters are clear: the SAS will help train the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga fighters of the Kurdish region; the F/A-18s will carry out strikes against IS, inside Iraq.

All this decided after a phone call from Barack Obama, then a hasty call to the new Iraqi prime minister to get his official invitation. It all recalls the creeping entry to the Vietnam War: Australian trainers soon going into battle with the South Vietnamese army; the RAAF Canberra bombers extending their missions from Thailand, the rush of a letter of request to Saigon for the South Vietnamese president to sign after the troops were promised to LBJ. Not to mention the Howard–Downer insistence in late 2002 that no decision had been taken to join the last Iraq campaign.

Electoral politics are driving it. Obama needs to look tough ahead of the November congressional mid-terms. With his domestic agenda a shambles, Abbott is reaching into the political wardrobe for the khaki. The IS have certainly helped, with their gruesome videoed beheadings of admirable Western journalists and aid workers: “pure evil” to be zapped without compunction.

But a lot can go wrong before election day in 2016. For one, “collateral damage”: the F/A-18 strikes could cause civilian casualties − like Hamas in Gaza, the IS will try to arrange things so they do. Mission creep, for another: the SAS troopers might go into combat with their trainees. Why not, when America’s top general says his advisers might? Obama also wants to take the air war against IS into Syria: will the Australian aircraft join in? Would Bashar al-Assad deploy some of his advanced Russian anti-aircraft defences to teach the US coalition a thing or two? Or would he continue to concentrate his forces on the moderate Sunni resistance, which America and its allies have been helping with non-lethal aid? In which case, who are we helping in Syria and doesn’t the Sunni–Shia conflict get even more polarised?

Will the well-armed Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates really join the fight, as promised, or hang back as usual? Will the Saudis seriously try to stop the flow of their volunteers and money going to Salafi extremists throughout the Muslim world? Will the Turks prevent IS shipping out and selling oil from the fields they control? Are we helping split Iraq or keep it together?

Finally, the blowback risk: more terrorist attacks against Australian targets here and elsewhere. It’s no coincidence that Abbott announced the raising of the terrorism alert from medium to high the same day he got the call from Obama.

In summary, why the rush to war? Why not look to work with neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia on a counter-message to young Muslims?

1 . Industry support goes under water

“Abbott to pick winners not losers.” With this headline last week, The Australian Financial Review breathlessly announced in an “exclusive” front-page lead that Canberra had discovered the holy grail sought by economic planners everywhere, down through the ages: an industrial policy guaranteed to direct tax dollars towards successful new businesses.

Known as the National Industry Investment and Competitiveness Agenda, this new industrial policy will see resources including training flow to agribusiness, energy, mining and medical technology, and “advanced manufacturing”. “Our businesses and industries of the future will be increasingly specialised and focused on niche markets, and the skills required will be specialised,” Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane was quoted as saying.

How reassuring to know that the elderly gents of the Abbott cabinet, and their even older clutch of advisers, will know how to spot lucrative niches for new products and help get them to market ahead of Shanghai or Palo Alto. Touching also that the normally dry AFR can give such prominence to the notion Canberra can pick winners. But it did mention in passing that Abbott seems about to scupper one existing example of “advanced manufacturing” − the building of submarines.

As mentioned weeks back, Abbott is inclined against taking regional and industrial impact into the mix on defence acquisitions. The submarine builder ASC is also located in a state that stubbornly refuses to oust its Labor government. Moreover, the ASC and the Collins-class subs it built provide repeated free kicks at the overambitious industrial policy of the Hawke–Keating government, which stole the Coalition’s clothes in other aspects of the economy. So let’s not think the reported decision to buy made-in-Japan submarines is purely about economics.

The accompanying politics have been pretty underhanded. One example is the refusal of Defence Minister David Johnston to publish the recent inquiry into the $300 million cost overrun and two-year delay in the completion of three air warfare destroyers at the ASC yard. Industry insiders believe this is because the report (by former US navy secretary Don Winter and defence scientist John White) puts most of the blame on bungled designs by Spain’s Navantia and Canberra’s bloated Defence Materiel Organisation, not any low productivity and union featherbedding at ASC.

It may well be that Japan’s Soryu-class best fits the Royal Australian Navy’s ambitious requirements for a future submarine. But the idea that eight to 10 Soryu subs can be bought “off the shelf” for $20 billion or so is fanciful. The Japanese keep its performance, structure and metallurgy very closely guarded. The RAN would insist on incorporating the latest Raytheon combat system, propeller and other designs, and Mark-48 torpedoes, which the US Navy shares only with it and the British navy. Safeguarding US and Japanese design secrets, while ensuring Australia knew enough to understand and maintain the machines, would be complex, to say the least. Alternatively, keeping the through-life support in Japan would raise questions of strategic risk, and see a further $40 billion or so spent overseas.

The Murdoch press and some others have seen Bill Shorten’s rant on the union soapbox outside the ASC as introducing wartime hatreds to the debate, but a fair reading of his words scarcely supports that. This is about industrial policy, not the origin of which foreign design is adopted. A close rival of the Soryu, after all, is a “stretch” version of the German HDW Type 214 submarine, and the RAN’s earlier Oberon-class subs were based on Nazi Germany’s Type-XXI U-boat.

2 . Someone else’s war

Meanwhile here’s one war we are not rushing into alongside the Americans.

On Tuesday, Barack Obama announced up to 3000 military personnel would be sent to West Africa to help combat the outbreak of the Ebola virus. Up to 17 treatment centres have been offered to Liberia, the nation at the centre of the epidemic, with 100 beds in each, and a joint command centre would be set up in its capital, Monrovia.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 20, 2014 as "War on opinion polls leads us back to Iraq".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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