A Decision Not Ours to Make: Australia’s Involvement in the Middle East

A sense of inevitability always sweeps across Australia when the United States announces it is going to war. Our nations have many shared values, including aspirations of liberty and democracy. With these in common, there is an expectation for us to act alongside the United States.

On the world stage, Australia has always tried to be on the correct side of history, though no battle has been fought without thorough debate back home. The unavoidable truth for Australia, a nation of only 23 million people, is that if the United States must go, we should follow suit.

With 440 Australian troops already committed to training local forces in Iraq, debate is now centered on what role, if any, we might have in a coalition against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Where previously our support for conflicts in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were viewed as necessary, it seems that public support for another Middle Eastern operation is waning.

For the Australian public, a coalition assault on Syria has no clear objectives. Are we there to play world police? Are we there to end terrorism? Are we there to support a side in a civil war in which neither option looks appealing? Most have come to the conclusion that we are there once again to be a colonial power enforcing our views on how human life should be lived.

“For the Australian public, a coalition assault on Syria has no clear objectives. Are we there to play world police? Are we there to end terrorism? Are we there to support a side in a civil war in which neither option looks appealing?”

While that cynical view may or may not turn out to be true, there is still the matter of the means it will take, and what the cost will be. With millions of people already displaced from their homeland in this conflict, how does dropping bombs move the region toward a solution?

While the majority of Australians readily accepted a further 12,000 refugees from Syria, most would prefer a peaceful solution to help these people. The isolationist members of society would prefer we stayed out of the Middle East altogether.

Perhaps the strongest reaction to the refugee crisis has come from an ultra conservative political movement called Reclaim Australia, which grew out of citizen anger at Australia’s openness to displaced citizens worldwide.

It would seem that all sides of the spectrum want less refugee migration, if perhaps not for the same reasoning, and so it is widely accepted that Australian and Western intervention in the Middle East may not be the answer.

In a poll published a week after the Paris attacks in November, only 32 percent of citizens thought Australia should increase our military involvement in Syria and Iraq, and only 17 percent believed increasing military action against ISIS would keep us completely safe from terrorism.

For our politicians too, the lesson has been learned that the puzzle of ISIS and civil war will not be solved by superheroes from the West. The timid response from parliament, currently committing only to air support, suggests that neither the government nor opposition wants to nail its colors to the mast on this issue. Unlike the United States, where the military is an industry to itself, Australian operations on foreign soil are usually seen as a last resort.

“Unlike the United States, where the military is an industry to itself, Australian operations on foreign soil are usually seen as a last resort.”

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. on January 18, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued that for any operation to be successful it needed to be a victory by the people of the region.

“The destruction of [ISIS] requires military action including boots on the ground but they must be the right boots on the right ground,” Turnbull said. “An enduring victory must be won and owned by the people of Iraq and Syria.”

It was clear that a big part of Mr. Turnbull’s visit to Washington was to discuss the role Australia would have in operations surrounding ISIS and for the United States to lean on us for support. This is where our narrative starts and finishes.

The signing of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (which has a more complicated history with the agreement) was meant to form a strategic partnership between the countries to work together on matters of war. With Australia’s proximity to the large populations of Asia, and recent aggression by Japan in World War II, this was a popular article of foreign policy.

However, most Australians now see the Treaty as an excuse by the United States excuse to drag us into battle. Since the document’s forging, our countries have fought in the Korean, Vietnam, and Middle Eastern conflicts under the banner of ANZUS.

It seems inevitable, then, that whatever battle the United States decides to engage in next, we will be there too—not because we want to be, not because we care, but because that is the price we pay for the knowledge that the world’s best military will be there to defend us if we are ever under threat.

Any decision made on our involvement in Syria and Iraq will be framed through this lens; we are not obliged to operate on the will of our country alone.

Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pose for a photo together at Pentagon on Jan. 18, 2016. (Kinchen/Department of Defense, Creative Commons).


Tom Storey is an Australian journalism student, currently studying on exchange at George Mason University, focusing on politics and foreign affairs. Follow him on Twitter.

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