Tony Abbott confirmed on Tuesday that “some weeks ago” US President Barack Obama had asked him to consider expanding RAAF strikes to Syria.
But senior government sources have told Fairfax Media that the driving force for the formal request received last week from the United States for the RAAF to join the air campaign in Syria came more from Canberra – and in particular the Prime Minister’s office – than from Washington.
…Mr Abbott and Mr Obama are understood to have discussed the possibility of Australian air strikes in Syria during a telephone call in July initiated by Mr Abbott who had rung his American counterpart to offer sympathies over the Chattanooga shootings.
Government sources say it was Mr Obama who raised Syria as a topic and then made the first suggestion of Australia’s expanded role.
With respect, please explain how is this in the Australian national interest?
In all of its international engagements, the Abbott Government is operating under the broadly disseminated term the “national interest”. It was one of John Howard’s most oft-used and politically impressive rubrics as well. But under Howard it had clearly defined parameters of supporting the US alliance, of ignoring and often disparaging any institutions of “global government” and of being open to international business. As a doctrine it had historic ballast and was supported by the times. The problem is, we still don’t know what the Abbott Government means by it and the times very clearly demand something more nuanced.
The phrase the “national interest” evokes a body a of thought in international relations known as “realism”. It’s most famous champion is the US diplomat George Kennan and most notorious practitioner is Henry Kissinger. In more contemporary times it is associated with the always impressive Owen Harries, one of Australia’s most significant intellectual exports to the US as the founding editor of the US journal “The National Interest”.
Put simply, as a guiding principle in international relations, realism is to operate in a state of perpetual distrust of one’s neighbors. It eschews values and pursues naked self-interest for the nation lest the temptations of empire overstretch power. A prime example was George Bush senior’s first Iraqi invasion and withdrawal, leaving the tyrant in place to torment his people but leaving the US with a limited bill, cheaper oil and a suppressed strategic threat. Compare this with George Bush junior’s second Iraq invasion, which left the US with paralysing debts, an exhausted military in a quagmire, promoted a new strategic threat in Iran and you get some idea of the value of “realism”.
The primary alternative frame of reference in international relations is “internationalism”. It is a doctrine that holds that national self-interest is advanced more through cooperation than it is contest. Bill Clinton is more an example of this school of thought with his efforts to defuse various global conflicts multi-laterally. For better or worse, using institutions like NATO and UN Security Council to rally coalitions for action. It too had its hard-nosed successes, most notably in the former Yugoslavia, a war which was probably shortened by NATO intervention, even if it was atrocious first.
There are other schools of course, most prominently the neo-conservatives that invaded Iraq a second time in a weird fusion of “coalitions of the willing” and delusional ideas of democratic dominoes etc. But the polarities between which most international relations thought is suspended remains “realism” versus “internationalism”
In the local context these polarities operate somewhat differently. Australia is not a super power. On most measures it’s barely a middle power and it’s influence is shrinking relative as demographically much larger nations embrace liberalisation and their economies catch up. A such Australia has a tradition of operating further towards the “internationlist” end of the spectrum. With some differences, especially during the Cold War, this has been bipartisan for decades, though it was ruptured somewhat by John Howard as he privileged US relations during the War on Terror.
The logic behind Australia’s greater orientation towards internationalism is itself somewhat realist. As a small to middling power, it serves our strategic interests to enmesh larger powers in a net relations. Giving free reign to rule by the biggest stick doesn’t make much sense when you only possess a twig.
The Coalition has involved Australia in a number of wars and incursions in recent decades that have made good strategic sense. John Howard joining the international force in Afghanistan was one. His bold stabilisation project in East Timor was another. Iraq was clearly a bridge too far that did irreparable harm to the internationalist agenda, though Howard did play it well it terms of risk management.
But Abbott and Syria is none of these. Strategic bombing can be used effectively to unseat a regime via demolition of key infrastructure, so it can sit comfortably within an internationalist framework of advancing human rights (say, in the Balkan wars) or within a neo-conservative agenda of unseating a tyrant, as in Iraq. Targeted drone strikes can eliminate enemy combatants with tactical precision.
But openly deploying the airforce against an insurgent army hiding in a foreign nation? That is surely deeply counter-productive in the broader context of combating the ISIS brand. Is there any better way to radicalise disaffected Muslim youth here and abroad than dropping bombs on vague targets from great heights, ignoring sovereign borders and inevitably eviscerating innocents?