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Australia's Syrian combat commitments out of step with Western partners

15 September 2015

In the 14 years since 9/11, Australian political leaders have learnt little about war.

On the 14th anniversary of 9/11, US leaders remain uncommitted to deepening the country’s military involvement in Syria.

The anniversary of September 11 passed quietly last week. Even in New York only a few hundred people, mostly close relatives of those who died that day, gathered under the shadow of the new World Trade Centre building to hear the names recited.

But as events last week showed, the attacks 14 years ago, and the response to them, still shape many countries in striking, and strikingly different, ways.

In Australia, for example, it is hard to imagine that without 9/11 we would now have a black-uniformed Border Protection Force, with unprecedented powers whose limits even its own senior officers seem not to comprehend.

Without 9/11 it is hard to imagine that anyone in mainstream politics, let alone a federal minister, would have for a moment entertained the idea that Australia should discriminate in favour of Christians, and therefore against other faiths, in offering help to Syrian refugees.

And without 9/11 it is unthinkable that the Prime Minister would have found himself announcing that Australian combat aircraft would henceforth be attacking targets in Syria.

In this case it is not just that without 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq that followed, Islamic State would not have emerged. It is that without 9/11 we in Australia would not have developed today’s strangely offhand approach to the conduct of military operations.

We now passively accept that our political leaders commit our armed forces to combat operations because the polls tell them they look good talking about national security.

It seems plain that last week’s announcement, responding to a confected “request” from Washington, was intended primarily as a way to keep national security issues high on the public agenda because that works for the government politically. That’s why the announcement was so ostentatiously drawn out for weeks after the decision had obviously been made.

But Tony Abbott seemed to feel confident that we’d go along with this. Clearly he felt no need to even try to explain how bombing targets in Syria would make a significant difference to the failing campaign against IS in Iraq, do anything to help end the civil war in Syria, or make a difference to the refugee crisis.

Nor did the opposition feel the need to press him on these questions. All of us now seem to accept that since 9/11 war has become just one more tool for the narrative-managers.

We should not excuse ourselves by imagining that the same thing is happening everywhere else. On the contrary, the countries we look to most are moving in the opposite direction. The day after last week’s 9/11 anniversary, Britain’s Labour Party elected a new leader fiercely opposed to overseas military operations of all kinds.

Whatever Jeremy Corbyn’s retro far-left policies do for his party’s prospects, his election marks the utter repudiation of everything Tony Blair stood for, and above all his cavalier enthusiasm for military operations that led Britain into the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Australia these debacles have been shrugged off, or rather completely ignored, as we willingly acquiesce to further ill-conceived military commitments. In Britain they have been searchingly scrutinised, and that scrutiny has produced something of a revolution in British attitudes to its role in the world and to the use of its armed forces. A country that was for decades the most eager to undertake military commitments has now become intensely sceptical.

This is not just true on the Labour side of the aisle. David Cameron’s Conservative government has been extremely cautious about the use of force. Tellingly, the epic budget cuts of its first term in office savaged Britain’s defence forces but left its aid budget intact, and even growing – which is the direct opposite of Tony Abbott’s approach. On current trends Britain will be spending more on aid than on defence by 2030.

What’s more, Cameron has made it clear that he will not be authorising British aircraft to attack targets in Syria. It is not just that he knows he would lose a vote in the House of Commons on the issue because many of his own MPs would vote against it alongside Labour. He seems sceptical himself that deeper military engagement is in Britain’s interest or anyone else’s.

It would be wrong, as well, to see this as a purely British thing. Something of the same is happening in the United States. It is clear that no one in Washington is really committed to the campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria. Everyone can see it is going nowhere. A year since it began, key objectives such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul remain in IS hands. The training of the Iraqi forces that are supposed to win the war for us shows no sign of producing forces that can do so.

Yet President Barack Obama remains firmly opposed to any substantially greater military effort, and he is under no real pressure from Republican opponents to do otherwise. Though they are quick to blame him for the rise of IS and the collapse of Iraq and Syria, even the arch-conservatives jostling for the Republican presidential nomination are not calling for a larger military effort.

They understand that US voters, like those in Britain, take a lot more convincing these days than they did in 2003.

Both countries committed far larger forces to Iraq and Afghanistan than we did, and lost a lot more lives. That is perhaps why they have thought much deeply than we have about the lessons to be learnt from the 14 years since 9/11, and why they are much less cavalier than we are about expanding their commitments now. In this instance at least it is a shame that Tony Abbott is not more closely in step with his beloved Anglosphere.

Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. This piece was first published by Fairfax Media.

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