The last time Australia went to war, in 2003, the decision was as much about friendship as it was about peace.
The commitment of Australian troops to Iraq was a product of the strong political friendship between our conservative prime minister, John Howard, and the Republican president George W Bush – forged during the dark hours of September 11, 2001 – as much as the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
Everyday Australians felt little connection at the time with the need to fight America’s war against the brutal oppressor, but Howard leveraged our shared horror of the tumbling twin towers and the bombings in Bali into a grudging acceptance that overthrowing Hussein would aid in the fight against Al Qaeda.
Eleven years later, it’s hard to see how that campaign or the broader war on terror has made the world a safer place. Howard admitted as much in his autobiography, acknowledging that the “liberating forces” did not adequately think through the consequences of their actions in Iraq, or what might fill the vacuum once they left.
The perpetrators of terror have proven to be as enduring as George W Bush once admitted they would be when he called the war on terror “a task that does not end”.
Al Qaeda spawned the Islamic State in the years that followed Iraq’s “liberation”, and now another conservative Australian Prime Minister has agreed to participate in a new American campaign to deliver the world from this latest manifestation of terrorism.
Democrat president Barack Obama may have called our PM Tony Abbott “my friend” when recently briefing him on the intended campaign, but there is no searing experience shared between the two men to reinforce the ANZUS pact in the way there was between Bush and Howard. Nor has there been a compelling event like the Bali bombings to generate public acceptance of the need for Australia to participate.
This is going to make it more difficult for Abbott to warrant putting the lives of Australian troops on the line. But justify it he will. By participating in this campaign Abbott aims not only to nurture our important strategic relationship with the US, but also to strengthen the only card he has left to play on the domestic front – the protection of national security.
One advantage Abbott does have over Howard in rationalising our involvement in foreign military action is a greater awareness on the part of the general community of the role that terrorism is playing in international events. The downing of MH17 (although by insurgents and not terrorists) first drew the eyes of usually disengaged Australians to foreign shores, and the beheadings by IS of two American journalists and a British aid worker have kept them there.
However, such awareness is only the pre-cursor to public acceptance. Australians must also feel they have a personal stake in the outcome, as they did after the events in Bali.
Similarly, public support for the extreme measures taken to “stop” the boats is grounded in a vague but real concern that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are a threat either to our safety, our predominantly western culture, or to our job security and standard of living. Involvement of defence force personnel and the use of military terms such as Operation Sovereign Borders deliberately reinforce that concern while also presenting the Government as protection from the perceived scourge.
That’s why Abbott and his senior cabinet members have made so much of the “home-grown” terror that could be lurking in our own doorways if we are not prepared to act.
Nor is it a coincidence that the Commander In Chief of Operational Sovereign Borders, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison – the second most popular minister amongst Coalition supporters – was wheeled out on the weekend to make the connection for us, saying that:
We need to act in our interests, we can never be intimidated by terrorists and extremists, and I know that the Australian community strongly supports a very strong stand on this in standing up for our values and our way of life.
That’s not to suggest the threat isn’t real, or that it hasn’t increased in recent times. It is clear, however, that the Government is leveraging the prospect of Australians facing terrorist acts from their own countrymen to justify a range of security initiatives including the mandatory retention of metadata as well as the joint action with the US against IS in Iraq.
The results of this tactic are likely to be mixed. While it may be eminently logical to bolster security measures to deal with the rise of organised and lone wolf terrorists at home, it makes little sense to participate in a military campaign similar to the one that caused home-grown extremists to arise in the first place.
And while Abbott may not really be able to claim the US president as his friend, he should listen closely to the last Australian PM who could. Howard now concedes the folly of entering into an open-ended war in Iraq; Abbott should think carefully before doing the same.