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Australia has long struggled to balance military commitments in places like the Middle East with staying prepared for closer, regional contingencies. The lure of a coalition contribution in the Middle East has been hard to resist for over a century, particularly because our national interests have not always correlated events close to Australia.
Yet as the so-called Asian century marches on and developments in our region become more significant to our prosperity, it is time Australia took more a cautious approach to entanglement in distant adventures.
This December will mark the centenary of Australian troops' arrival in Egypt early in World War I, in the lead-up to Gallipoli in 1915 and later military operations in Egypt, Palestine, the Levant and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).
Again, in World War II, Australians fought in the Middle East as loyal "sons of empire" but also because Britain was our principal trading partner and protector against Japanese adventurism. Military commitments to secure the trade artery through the Suez Canal made sense at the time.
Australia's substantial contribution there, from 1940 to 1942, was rudely challenged by Japan's thrust south in December 1941. The destruction of British naval power in the Indo-Pacific, the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the incarceration of thousands as prisoners of war reinforced the need to focus on our neighbourhood.
Despite the significance of the Kokoda campaign in 1942, it was the United States' efforts in the Solomon Islands (at Guadalcanal), combined US and Australian naval efforts in the Coral Sea, and US naval forces in the battle of Midway that tipped the balance in the Pacific war. Australia's strategic security and prosperity since then has been built on our American ally's sacrifices in those campaigns.
Since the mid-1950s, Australian governments have been cautious about military contributions in the Middle East, while at the same time seeking to make selective, even at times token, contributions there to bolster the US alliance and United Nations peacekeeping efforts.
Australia provided a small, calibrated contribution to the Gulf War in 1990-91 to oust Saddam Hussein from invaded Kuwait. This reflected the Hawke government's resolve to support multilateralist US instincts. Our predominantly naval contribution avoided having "boots on the ground". This stemmed from a fear of the politically toxic effects of large potential casualties – a fear grounded in community polarisation over Australia's 500 combat deaths during the Vietnam War.
In 2001, Australia joined the US and others in routing the Taliban from Afghanistan in what was widely seen as a warranted intervention after al-Qaeda's September 11 attacks. Following the US lead, Australia saw little need to remain closely engaged after the Taliban withdrew undefeated into the hills along Pakistan's border – only for Australia and the coalition to be drawn back in when the Taliban returned in strength.
In the meantime, in 2003, Australia joined the "coalition of the willing" in quickly defeating Hussein's conventional forces in Iraq. The Howard government deftly avoided committing to "phase four" operations – the post-conflict reconstruction. This was seen as something best left to the Americans and Iraqis to work out. Yet the rapid degeneration of security saw Australia compelled to send a force back into Iraq in 2005. Once again, it was a carefully calibrated contribution, with responsibility largely confined to helping one Iraqi province and strict rules of engagement to minimise casualties and maximise returns on political capital invested in the alliance.
Former prime minister John Howard may be criticised for committing to the invasion to burnish the US alliance, but he can't be faulted for minimising the number of returning Australian "body bags".
Howard is also credited with significantly increasing our migrant intake, including from the Middle East. The make-up of Australian society today is noticeably different from 2003, let alone 1940 or 1914. In thinking through the ramifications of Australia's Middle East commitments, a significant extra factor today is the knock-on consequences at home. This also applies in our region, especially with predominantly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, where firebrand mutations of militant Islam continue to sprout, and where resident and visiting Australians face heightened alerts. Yet few people today with authority or influence really understand the cultural and religious predispositions of Australians with a Middle Eastern heritage.
In 2005, Australia was also compelled to return to Afghanistan, initially with a special forces task group and then with extra reconstruction and mentoring task groups as well as other supporting elements. Conscious of the criticism of the casualty-averse strategy adopted in Iraq, the Australian government adopted a more forthright approach to its contribution in Afghanistan. Inevitably, this led to far more casualties than previous commitments to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Community debate continues over whether their sacrifice was worth it. But in honour of the investment in blood and treasure so far, and the potential consequences for fragile and nuclear-armed Pakistan if the situation deteriorates, there are strongstrategic arguments for staying engaged. Even after our withdrawal from Oruzgan province, 400 Australians are still working alongside US and NATO partners, helping to foster a self-sustaining Afghan nation.
In Iraq, however, the rationale for extra involvement is weaker. Support for the US alliance itself remains compelling but, without a clear strategy or plan for how to govern the country once "victory" is declared, the situation involves significant risks and could degenerate further.
Shiite Iraq's benefactors in Shiite Iran must be relieved and bemused at the West's insistence at routing a Sunni extremist group for them. Australia has committed a handful of Super Hornet fighters and support aircraft to bolster Iraqi forces' ability to "roll back" the so-called Islamic State.
In the absence of a coherent overarching strategy, we should hasten slowly in providing extra support. Australia's special forces, our potential "boots on the ground", may best be kept in reserve, particularly as most of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army lacks resolve to reclaim Sunni-dominated areas in north and north-western Iraq, let alone hold and administer them fairly and judiciously.
Some contend that Australian special forces could help bolster Iraqi proficiency. But the problem there is about will, not military proficiency. Experience suggests that, despite the best intentions, resolve is not about to return to the Iraqi Army. After several years of mis-governing the Sunni heartlands of north-west Iraq, the predominantly Shiite Iraqi Army had very little local community support and melted away in the face of a relatively rudimentary but determined Sunni force.
Images of decapitated British and American civilians have aroused strong emotional responses, despite the loss of an estimated 200,000 Syrian lives not having the same effect. These beheadings, it appears, were aimed at goading the West to respond and to find itself once more entrapped in Iraq, where more suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices could sap the West of blood and treasure.
Despite repeated and ongoing Middle East deployments, Australians have never felt at home there. Apart from recent migrants, few Australians have any understanding of the culture, the languages, the world views and the politics at play there. Despite years of involvement, Australians have relied on the expertise and wisdom of others.
And what of the knock-on consequences back in Australia? Much is made of the concerns and even resentment in Australia's Islamic community over recent events. It is hard to fathom how much of this can be apportioned to Australia's actions in the Middle East. But unless our actions are explained and managed carefully, they won't dampen inflamed emotions. A compelling argument posits that the West's attacks against Islamic State consolidates the group's support – even in Australia.
Our commitment alongside US forces in the Middle East is largely about alliance imperatives. Yet circumstances have changed markedly since before the global financial crisis, an event that dramatically confirmed the re-emergence of China as a dominant economic (and increasingly strategic) force. Regional relationships and strategic developments in East and South East Asia now matter even more.
Today, the key differential that Australia offers its main ally is its knowledge of, and familiarity with, its immediate region. Yet that familiarity has faded since its heyday at the time of the East Timor intervention in 1999. Further Middle East engagement will reduce the prospect of a return to regional engagement and defence diplomacy (i.e. relationships, military exercises, personnel exchanges, scholarships and visits).
Australia's Defence Minister, David Johnston, has rightly said that enhanced defence diplomacy is a key enabler of regional security and stability. Yet most ADF members have experience only with the "sandpit". Few have more than a paper-thin understanding or experience of South-East Asia and the South Pacific, and their knowledge is thinning.
In the Asian century, Australian governments seem too easily distracted by problems elsewhere. The navy's new amphibious landing helicopter dock ships will provide an excellent platform for reinvigorating regional engagement and defence diplomacy through collaborating with regional partners. Imagine the goodwill and familiarity that could be generated by collaborative engineering or health projects in remote parts of Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, the South Pacific or beyond.
In the meantime, Australia's willingness to pivot back to the Middle East perhaps undermines any remaining US resolve to engage in its own "pivot" or rebalance to Asia. Like primary school soccer players, Australian policymakers have followed the ball back to Iraq, effectively walking away from other positions on the field. In balancing our national interests, the immediate utility of supporting US efforts in Iraq and Syria may end up having the opposite to the intended effect: encouraging deteriorating security and stability in East and South-East Asia while making little real difference in the Middle East. Someone in high office needs to think through the ramifications of these prospects. Prime Minister Tony Abbott started his term in office advocating "more Jakarta and less Geneva". We need a strategy that sees that approach materialise, even when Middle Eastern issues continue to distract.
Professor John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. His latest book is The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard. Twitter: @JohnBlaxland1