Brothers in Arms

11 minute read

Seven months ago, opposition leader Mark Latham announced on a radio talk show that if his Labor Party won the upcoming election it would pull Australian troops out of Iraq “by Christmas.” Two weeks earlier, a terrorist bombing in Madrid had helped elect a socialist government pledged to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. For voters, Latham’s vow is not the main issue in the Oct. 9 election, but for observers around the world it’s practically the only one.

“There is no point, in a situation like this, being an 80% ally,” Prime Minister John Howard said after 9/11, pledging military support for his country’s closest ally. How much commitment would a Labor-led Australia give to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq – and to the two nations’ 53-year-old alliance, one of the most amicable and enduring in modern times?

Not enough, most voters seemed to think: after Latham’s announcement, his approval rating fell 14 points in as many days. He soon clarified the pullout plan – which will cover only about 340 of the 920 Australian troops still in or near Iraq – and his attitude to the ANZUS pact, which lost its N.Z. component in 1985. “We believe in the value of the alliance,” Latham said. “We support the U.S. alliance 100%.” To underscore the message, he named Kim Beazley – a former Defence Minister credited with holding the alliance together after New Zealand’s exit – as Labor’s defense spokesman, and yielded the microphone on foreign affairs to Kevin Rudd, a centrist well known and respected in Washington. “The calculation of the political hardheads in the party is that no Labor party can win an election in Australia on a position of anti-Americanism or opposition to the American alliance,” says Alan Dupont, a defense and strategy analyst at Sydney’s Lowy Institute for Public Policy. A Beazley-Rudd foreign policy would differ in emphasis from the Coalition’s, says William Tow, professor of international relations at Griffith University. But “in office, the two sides’ positions on the alliance would be closer than either would like to admit.”

Iraq has heightened their differences. In the government’s view, Labor’s hostility to the war reflects all that is wrong with the leftist world view: excessive faith in the United Nations, failure to grasp the global nature of the terrorist threat, and an unwarranted suspicion of the world’s most powerful nation. For Labor, the “rush to war” in Iraq exposed the blind spots in the government’s foreign policy: excessive closeness to Washington (“sucking up” is Latham’s term), insufficient respect for the U.N., and a wrongheaded readiness to fight other people’s wars.

“If you are going to be pro-American and contribute to Iraq,” says Dupont, “then the way Howard did it” – sending small but highly effective forces and bringing most of them home quickly and without casualties – “is a textbook example of how to make a minimal commitment militarily and reap maximum political and alliance dividends.” At the Republican National Convention last month, President George W. Bush thanked the Australian P.M. before any other leader. “America is grateful,” he said. “And America will not forget.” The U.S. has already remembered its Aussie ally with a free-trade agreement that could boost the $A800 billion Australian economy by $A5 billion a year. Signing it in June, Bush said, “The United States and Australia have never been closer.” That deal “wouldn’t have gone through so quickly with so little opposition in the U.S. if we hadn’t been seen as a good ally,” says Dupont. “The idea that Australia is looked down on in Washington as a lickspittle is wrong,” says Stephen Morris, a historian of U.S. policy in Asia at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. “Australia is respected and its role in the alliance is appreciated. It has built up credit in the eyes of its friends, so it is listened to.”

In Labor’s view, it doesn’t say enough. Latham scorns the government’s “fawning compliance” with Washington’s demands and says that for his party, the alliance “has never been a rubber stamp.” Labor traditionally differentiates itself from the conservatives by “saying it stands up more independently for the Australian point of view,” says Peter Edwards, a historian of the alliance at the University of New South Wales/Australian Defence Force Academy. “A Coalition government will express disagreement with the U.S. on various issues, but they will tend not to let the differences get too public. A Labor government would let it be known from time to time, in a carefully calibrated way, that they disagreed with the Americans on this or that issue just to show they were sticking up for the national interest.”

Putting the U.S. alliance ahead of the will of the U.N. is not Labor’s idea of acting in Australia’s best interest. “Our first and foremost responsibility is adherence to the U.N. system of collective security,” says foreign affairs spokesman Rudd. Labor would have supported intervention in Iraq only if the war had U.N. backing. If a future American call for help conflicted with U.N. rulings, Rudd says, “we would act in concert with our ally consistent with our obligations under the treaty.” But “we’d note that Article 1 provides for partners to seek to resolve any challenge to security through the Security Council.”

“We don’t put the U.N. before Australia,” says Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. “We put Australia’s national interest first. Institutions like the U.N. are important – the question is how are you going to relate to them in the national interest.” The Howard government committed troops to lead the U.N. peacekeeping effort in East Timor (about 1,000 remain there). But it sees Labor’s faith in the U.N. as unrealistic, given the world body’s failure to enforce its resolutions on Iraq or bring peace to Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia or Sudan. In a post-9/11 world of terrorism, black-market nukes and bioweapons, the U.S. is the best hope for Australian security – and the world’s – says Downer. America’s “unrivaled intelligence and military resources provide the most potent weaponry to disrupt and destroy the terrorists. Through the alliance, these vast resources are exploited for the protection of all Australians.”

The size and power of the U.S. make some Australians on the Labor side wary of getting too close. “Following a U.S. President who’s got the wrong strategy in the war against terror is very, very dangerous for our country,” said Latham before the Iraq war. Sending troops to Iraq “has made Australia into a greater terrorist target,” says Rudd. Downer disagrees. “We cannot expect to have a meaningful alliance with the U.S. if we are not prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with it in the war on terror,” he says, and the project to build democracy in Iraq is a crucial component of that war.

For Labor, Iraq is too far from home. “The defense of Australia is the top priority for an Australian government,” Beazley says. That involves “self reliance within the context of the alliance.” To strategy analyst Dupont, “self-reliance sounds like we would basically do everything ourselves and if the Americans assist us, well and good, but we won’t assume they will.” In practice, he says, independence is impossible. Since the late 1990s, when the Howard government began revamping the military for the 21st century, Australian and U.S. forces have become increasingly interdependent, sharing intelligence, training, weaponry, technology and communications systems. According to Griffith University’s Tow, who last year co-authored a study on the future of the alliance, Australia learned the limits of autonomy in East Timor, where the 1999 peace mission would not have succeeded without U.S. logistics and communications support. A stand-alone security policy, he adds, would be unable “to provide a competent defense even of continental Australia.” Neil James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association, estimates that acquiring that capability would double or triple the country’s $A17 billion a year defense bill.

For Labor, relations with Australia’s Southeast Asian neighborhood are as important as those with the U.N. and the U.S. A Labor government would “accelerate, broaden and deepen the engagement of our police, intelligence and security agencies” in the region, Rudd says. In sending troops to Iraq, he adds, the government “diverted resources away from the war against terrorism here in our own region.” But “terrorism is a global problem,” says Downer.

“Organizations like Jemaah Islamiah have very close links with terrorist organizations beyond our region. To think you can simply focus on the region and get away with ignoring all the other challenges the war on terror brings us is mistaken.” Ending Taliban rule in Afghanistan reduced the flow of al-Qaeda-trained terrorists into Southeast Asia, Downer points out. On the other hand, Labor’s Christmas troop pullout from Iraq “would give an enormous propaganda victory to the terrorists, not just in Iraq but elsewhere, including Southeast Asia.” Abu Baker Bashir, the alleged leader of J.I., said last month that “it would be better if Australian troops pulled out” of Iraq.

The U.S. alliance helps Australia in Asia because it enables the country to deal with its more populous neighbors from a position of security and strength.

But it can be unhelpful, says Tow, if the country is seen as too subservient to the U.S. Thanks to a clever headline in an Australian magazine, the impression is widespread in Asia that Australia’s Prime Minister sees himself as Bush’s “deputy sheriff.” That image has been damaging, says Tow. The reality since Howard took office has been a steady strengthening of ties with Asia in trade, diplomacy, law enforcement and counterterrorism. But “in Asia, style is often substance,” and the “deputy sheriff” image is one Labor is particularly anxious to dispel.

The U.S. too is intent on improving its ties with Asian nations and believes Australia can help. The U.S. has listened to Canberra, says historian Edwards, on issues like Indonesia’s financial crisis and East Timor. And it welcomed the government’s decision to send troops to restore order in the Solomon Islands. In August, Foreign Minister Downer visited North Korea at Washington’s request to urge the regime to continue talks on its rogue nuclear program. If the U.S. and China ever reached the brink of war over Taiwan, Australia – with its lucrative financial ties with China – would “be doing everything it could to negotiate a settlement,” Edwards says. If that failed, it would face the “nightmare scenario” of having to side with its closest ally against one of its biggest trading partners.

While Australian politicians often talk about “Asia,” the region is neither monolithic nor stable. It was uncertainty in the region – including the 1995 collapse of the Keating Labor government’s security agreement with Indonesia and the resulting debacle in East Timor – that helped convince Howard to reinvigorate the alliance in the late ’90s. “At the end of the day,” says Tow, “the U.S. relationship is so fundamental – what alternative does Australia have? Would China be the new great and powerful friend? It doesn’t relate to anybody on those terms. Would ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) be the collaborator? Australia would have to go through a cultural and strategic metamorphosis to be comfortable with ASEAN as its primary frame of reference. We’d have to start watching Malaysian TV programs and teaching Asian languages in the schools.”

While Latham says his “troops out” plan will go ahead if Labor wins the election, he did not mention it in his campaign-launch speech last week; instead, he focused on Labor’s willingness to work with the U.S. But even if Bush is reelected, “provided Labor doesn’t draw too hard a line,” says Tow, “there would probably be extensive talks on how to finesse this.” There might then be a slightly uncomfortable “getting to know you” period, but it’s unlikely the alliance would suffer permanent harm. “Even though Latham is a bit persona non grata in Washington,” says Dupont, a Labor government could draw on exceptionally large reserves of goodwill. “Australia’s reputation is very, very high in Washington,” he says. “And it’s likely to remain that way for a few years yet.”

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