By Jonathan Bradley
I was interested to read a new paper by my US Studies Centre colleague Brendon O'Connor and Macquarie University's Lloyd Cox about the history of Australian foreign policy approaches to US wars. Called "Australia, the US, and the Vietnam and Iraq Wars: Hound Dog, Not Lapdog," it pushes back against the common lefty gripe that Australia is an obsequious junior partner who maintains its alliance with the United States by unthinkingly following the larger nation into ill-advised conflicts. Rather, argue O'Connor and Cox, Australia's involvement in the wars in Vietnam and Iraq was the product of a foreign policy outlook that saw American military action as being to Australia's advantage. Australian leaders, they say, were often more hawkish than their American counterparts:
Clearly there are challenges to comparing two wars fought in diﬀerent historical periods, encompassing divergent political and military contexts and emerging out of very diﬀerent geo-strategic circumstances. Nevertheless, prima facie there are some striking similarities. In both cases Australia was:
- an early and enthusiastic advocate of armed intervention;
- a vocal sceptic of possible diplomatic and multilateral solutions to the crises;
- one of a relatively small number of nations to oﬀer military support to the US, in a context where other allies were urging caution;
- frequently seen as a pliant ally blindly following the US;
- committed to war, but in a way and to a degree that posed considerably less risk for Australia than for the Americans, in terms of the number of troops committed per capita and the type of military missions undertaken.
To expand on the canine metaphor, therefore, Australia barked loudly about the need for war but then made relatively modest commitments to the military cause. We argue that this makes Australia more of a hound dog than the obsequious lapdog often portrayed by commentators, and that this approach is strategic and enduring rather than contingent and opportunistic. We begin by reconsidering the decision to go to war in Vietnam, drawing upon both the secondary literature and our more recent research in US and Australian archives, before shifting our focus to Iraq.
This rings particularly true for me in terms of the war in Iraq. Nearly a decade on from the start of that conflict, this war seems as ill-advised and immoral as ever. It was unnecessary and unjustified, and the participation of the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as junior partners like Australia, was a great failure in policy and ethics. But from a purely mercenary point of view, Australia's support for the war had a lot of upside and very little downside. The UK and the US spent great amounts of money and international credibility on prosecuting the war and, particularly in the case of the US, saw many of their troops killed during the occupation. Australia's involvement, on the other hand, was as determined rhetorically as it was meagre in reality, and so the country did not suffer to anywhere near the same extent economically or militarily.
O'Connor and Cox make this clear:
In Iraq, Australia’s commitments were indeed relatively modest, with little more than two thousand military personnel deployed at any one time, and with Australia suﬀering only two fatalities, one self-inﬂicted and the other resulting from a vehicle accident. If Australian casualties had been equal to those of the British (179 dead) on a per capita basis, 65 Australian military personnel would have died, which would have undoubtedly led to signiﬁcant political pressure being placed on the Howard government. The fact that this was avoided can be partly explained by the political protection that Bush extended to the Howard government. A senior oﬃcial in Washington told us that Britain had requested both a larger troop commitment from Australia and more Australian involvement in the riskier kinds of military engagements undertaken by the British. We were told that the White House quashed this request. Although further evidence is required to verify this, the claim that the Howard government and the Bush administration struck a deal to avoid an increased or overly dangerous Australian commitment certainly seems plausible.
Indeed, when Australian Prime Minister John Howard attacked Barack Obama's proposal as a presidential candidate to end the Iraq war, the future US president made clear how modest Australia's contibution to the war was:
"I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced," Mr Obama told reporters in the mid-western US state of Iowa.
"I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq, and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1400, so if he is ... to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq.
"Otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric."
But what did Australia get in return for sending a relatively small force into Iraq — one that, though in harm's way due to the very uncertain nature of military conflict, was deployed in areas safer than what most other troops experienced?
It got a deep and abiding relationship between Prime Minister Howard and President George W. Bush, one underpinned by shared cultural and political values and personal loyalty. This lead to the Bush Administration's enthusiastic support for seeing a free trade agreement between the nations ratified by the US senate, to a unique class of US visa exclusively for Australian citizens, and to the close ear given by the most powerful man in the world to the leader of Australia. This is no argument that it was right for Australia to involve itself in the war, but an acknowledgement that Australia gained much from its engagement at very little cost to itself. One might think it were planned.
10 July 2012