The hound dog hunts again

When President Barack Obama declared the United States would escalate its assault against the Islamic State terror group earlier this month, including a non-combat role for 475 American ground troops and an expansion of air strikes into Syrian territory, he became the fourth US president in a row to announce America would undertake military action in Iraq.

All but the most enthusastic of hawks should have greeted the President’s speech with a depressing sense of déjà vu. Regardless of the advisability of Obama’s strategy, for the United States to once again be returning to a region 24 years after President George H.W. Bush ordered troops there to repel former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait suggests the Middle East presents a foreign policy predicament as intractable as America’s response has been ineffective.

Yet not all interventions are created equal and each president’s action in Iraq has been undertaken to solve a different problem. The first President Bush’s Operation Desert Storm successfully preserved Kuwaiti self-determination. Bill Clinton’s Operation Desert Fox was a limited assault designed to coerce Iraq into cooperating with United Nations disarmament resolutions. George W. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom was an open-ended and ultimately disastrous campaign based on faulty intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction and with regime change as its ultimate goal.

The Obama campaign is aimed at containing and repelling the Islamic State group. It is open-ended but, as yet, limited in scope. It also undermines the President’s pledge to end America’s involvement in the region and sorely tests the patience of an already war-weary American populace. Its success is very much yet to be detemined.

Australia is, once again, lending support to US efforts, and that depressing sense of déjà vu extends to the debate over the advisability of its involvement. For opponents of the air strikes, the 2014 conflict is exactly the same as each of the prior ones, and blame can be pinned on the same red-white-and-blue villain as before.

Leader of the Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne’s response was characteristic of the dovish contingent’s glib anti-Americanism. “Make no mistake, today Tony Abbott has committed Australia to blindly following the United States into another war in Iraq,” she said after the Prime Minister announce Australia’s support. “I think that it’s time Australia recognised the need to have its own foreign policy.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser took a similar tack, arguing in The Guardian that Australia had abrogated its sovereignty. “Based on what Tony Abbott has said on return from the US, we can probably assume that Australia will do whatever America asks,” he wrote. “We have followed America into three failed wars. We should not be continuing to follow America merely because they ask us to do so — or tell us to do so.”

This represents a curiously nationalistic strain of anti-war protest, an argument that presents Australia as an international naif, powerless before the might of the United States. If Australia is “blindly following” the United States into conflict, if it is only going to war because it has allowed a larger and more powerful nation to, as Fraser suggests, take command of its sovereignty, then it cannot be blamed for the strategic or moral consequences of its actions. The United States can be militarily incompetent, aggressive, and imperialist, but if Australia is just tagging along, its greatest crime can only be credulity. For anti-war commenters like Milne and Fraser, Australia is the good kid that fell in with the wrong crowd, but never — unlike the irredeemable America — the bully or the creep.

This is complete nonsense, whether understood as an account of history or ethics. It’s also an argument to which critics of Australia’s wars are very comfortable with returning. In understanding Australia’s present involvement in the Middle East, it is useful to return to a paper that analyses the nation’s previous approach to American conflicts: Australia, the US, and the Vietnam and Iraq wars: “Hound Dog not Lap Dog” (2012), by Macquarie University’s Lloyd Cox and the US Studies Centre’s Brendon O’Connor. “The warranted recognition of Australia’s dependence on the US, however, is often inflated into a more questionable claim that Australia is a pliant ally — a lapdog — that unthinkingly follows the US into foreign wars. At its crudest, this thesis assumes that Australia is a ‘little America’ or ‘51st state’ that simply follows America’s commands,” the authors write. They continue:

Such a portrayal has been articulated with renewed vigour since 11 September 2001, and especially since 2003 when the Howard government committed support to America’s invasion of Iraq. Alison Broinowski (2007) was representative of this tendency when she not only condemned Howard’s support of the invasion, but also equated support and dependence with supplication and sycophancy. She linked the present war with the past in a supposedly unbroken chain of Australian servility towards the United States and before it, the United Kingdom: “Having taken the drug of dependence at birth,” Broinowski (2007, 3) contended, “Australia seems allied and addicted to it.” What is noteworthy here is the conflation of dependence with a slavish subordination of Australia to US foreign policy. They are not the same thing. We argue that one can accept the facts of Australian dependence on the US — strategic/security dependence and, until the 1970s, a degree of economic dependence — without assuming a sycophantic Australian foreign policy typified by uncritical support of the military adventures of the US.

The position taken by Broinowski and others is a contemporary iteration of a well-worn theme in Australian political commentary and historiography, which reached its apogee in the radical reception of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War (Camilleri 1980; McQueen 1984; Phillips 1988). The argument that was so often invoked on the radical left and, as David McLean (2001; 2006) has astutely observed, sometimes on the conservative right, was that Australia became militarily involved in Vietnam at the behest of the US. In so doing, the government subordinated Australian interests to US interests, and unnecessarily bore heavy financial, diplomatic, and human costs.

According to Cox and O’Connor, in the case of the Vietnam War and 2003 invasion of Iraq, Australia involved itself in American conflicts not through unthinking obesiance to the United States, but because of the government of the day’s active determination of national interest:

In Vietnam, as in Iraq, Australia was not an unwilling junior partner coerced into war, but an enthusiastic participant that encouraged a military rather than a diplomatic solution. In both instances, Australia used war as a means of cultivating its relationship with the US, in the expectation that national benefits would outweigh costs. Australia’s military involvement at the side of the US was in both cases the manifestation of a broader strategic culture. Its essential feature was, and is, cultivating the support of, and intimacy with, a great and powerful friend — not as an end in itself, but with the aim of increasing Australian security and attempting to ensure that friend’s engagement in the Asian region. The extent to which this has been successful is debatable … But as the cases presented here show, it would be wrong to conclude from this that Australia is the lapdog of the United States. On the contrary, both Vietnam and Iraq show that Australia as hound dog — beseeching, urging, encouraging US military adventurism — is the more apposite metaphor.

This pattern is one that has repeated itself over the past months as the world has struggled to respond to the Islamic State group. Of the 2003 invasion, Cox and O’Connor write, “far from being coerced into the war by an overbearing US administration short of coalition partners, the Australian government manifested an uncommon enthusiasm for war.”

That enthusiasm, on the part of Prime Minister Abbott, might be even more pronounced this time around. While President Obama has seemed reticent to excessively involve the US in the growing conflagration, and in the run-up to his announcement of American strikes, emphasising the need for political reform and accountability among the Iraqi leadership, Abbott has evinced little reservation. The Prime Minister has instead alternated lurid descriptions of IS as a “death cult” — one he compared to Germany’s Nazi Party — with affirmations that Australia “will be an utterly dependable ally of the United States,” and that Australia would accommodate any US requests: “Let the Americans decide what they think is needed but it is very serious and we ought to be ready to be helpful.”

Caveats about wanting to “look at any request in the light of achievable objectives, a clear role for Australian forces, a full risk assessment, and an overall humanitarian objective,” have been overwhelmed by warnings that not acting would allow the creation of a “terrorist state” and would leave “millions of people exposed to death, forced conversion, and ethnic cleansing.” In one speech this past June, Abbott told America, “You’ll never walk alone.”

As it did in the 1960s and the 2000s, the present Australian government has urged the United States on in confronting the current conflict in the Middle East. That its involvement essentially consists of acceding to whatever the United States might ask for should not be mistaken as a sign of supplication. The Australian hound dog is, once again, barking out at the front of the pack.