Caution needed over remote foreign policy adventures
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Caution needed over remote foreign policy adventures

Australia should focus on security and policy issues closer to home.

Tony Abbott once spoke of "More Jakarta, less Geneva". But recently we have seen a surprising pirouette, with an emphasis instead on "more NATO and less ASEAN". It appears that events far away have been allowed to dominate foreign policy and strategy at the expense of Australia's security and foreign policy concerns closer to home. The government's muscular foreign policy has surprised many, and supporting Obama is valid to a point, but the flexing of muscles far away may have unwanted consequences there and at home.

We need to be careful about being able to back up words with deeds, and to think through if the deeds are warranted. Ukraine, for instance, has never before featured in Australia's national security calculus. It is not clear that the search for MH17 remains justifies placing Australia front and centre in this confrontation. Our engagement in the Middle East is equally disconcerting.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced his intention to visit Ukraine as well as send 'non-lethal' military equipment.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced his intention to visit Ukraine as well as send 'non-lethal' military equipment.Credit:AFP

In searching for a historical parallel to recent pronouncements, the closest point of comparison is in 1956 when Robert Menzies intervened in the Suez Crisis. Critics argued he was foolishly intervening on Britain's behalf. But Menzies saw the Suez Canal as the economic jugular vein for trade with Australia's principal trading partner at the time, Britain. Keeping the canal open and in friendly hands made sense. Menzies' involvement proved to be embarrassingly unsuccessful, but at least he had a clear sense of Australia's vital national interests at the time.

Australia's interests are not what they were in 1956, nor even what they were in 2003, when Australia joined the invasion of Iraq. Today, Australia's Middle-East interests primarily concern alliance management, trade opportunities, reliance on oil flows and managing the trickle of so-called jihadists returning and "re-spawning".

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Today the events in the Middle East matter far more to the European powers and the Middle Eastern states directly affected. Indeed, they are the ones best placed with resources and insights to peer though the opaque and chilling world of the Islamic State to ascertain the best way to challenge and undermine its momentum and its popular appeal. Addressing that appeal requires a far deeper understanding of the place of war (Dar Al Harb) and peace (Dar Al Islam) in a Muslim worldview. Beyond some glib lines about Islam being a religion of peace, policy makers with an in-depth knowledge of the Koran and what it means to the various Sunni and Shia sects are the rarest of beings. Lacking that nuanced understanding, we interfere far away without understanding the domestic consequences.

Involvement in Iraq and Syria will undoubtedly have effects that are hard to fathom. Yes, the Islamic State is terrible and should be dealt with firmly. But the immediate neighbours have a direct responsibility for developments there and they are the ones best placed to understand and respond in a way that will have enduring positive consequences. President Obama understands that the neighbours have a direct stake in these events, but so far, the "coalition of the willing" still looks remarkably like the so-called "crusader" forces that have intervened in Middle Eastern affairs in the past. Even if the Islamic State is in fact destroyed by this latest round of military action, the imagery and the rhetoric from the West's intervention will help foster the next iteration of Islamist extremists, with their radical and brutal ideology, to emerge, savvier, cannier and better able to circumvent our containment measures than before.

Precision bombing has an appeal as a short-term solution to would be caliphate creators, and even has a place as a stop-gap measure in the absence of anything better on hand. But it doesn't address their fundamental motivating rationale incubated through social media watched from lounge rooms across the world. Unfortunately, destroying this manifestation will not prevent the rise of yet another, probably more toxic, form – one that will likely emerge more resistant to external interference, having morphed to better resist Western counter-attacks.

And in taking this approach what are the opportunity costs in terms of priority concerns closer to home? We need to have clear in our minds that the Middle East is not our neighbourhood. We have never understood it and focusing on it sucks almost all the "policy oxygen" out of greater engagement in Indo-Pacific security affairs closer to home. The last time this happened, when Australia recommitted to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006, we were caught completely off guard by the crisis in East Timor in May 2006. Our policy makers struggle to keep a close watch on regional concerns when the "hot" policy issues that our political leaders and ambitious bureaucrats prioritise and focus on is elsewhere, far removed from Australia's region.

Rather than seeking to stoke the fire by killing the latest wave of zombie-like jihadists, somehow we need to focus instead on addressing the point of incubation - exposing the extremist ideology for the ugly, brutal and cowardly force it really is. We need to avoid stoking the fire and instead seek to douse the flames. Kinetic military effects over the last 13 years have demonstrably failed to do so. We need to seriously rethink our strategy.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence studies Centre at ANU

@JohnBlaxland1

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