20 December 2003

Howard's deft political decision on Iraq

As November passed with the greatest number of coalition troops lost in the war since the commencement of hostilities, Howard's commitment of Australian forces to the invasion of Iraq - but not the occupation - emerged as a decision of considerable political foresight. Howard minimized damage both to his domestic political standing and to the long-term security relationship. His handling of the Iraq crisis warrants further study as an adept play of alliance politics.

Every alliance involves a cost-benefit relationship. In security alliances, states forgo a certain level of sovereignty, entailing a political cost in return for the benefit of a security assurance. Committing armed forces to alliance operations is one example of cost. Successful alliance management necessitates minimizing the perceived cost to alliance partners. This can be partially achieved through ensuring that the national interests of all alliance partners are perceived to be served in coalition operations.

The administration of US President George W Bush failed to do this. The failure to organize a convincing raison de guerre prior to the invasion of Iraq resulted in allied support coming at a much greater political cost - a cost far too great for most leaders in Asia. The complexity of the occupation has further necessitated the administration putting increased pressure on allies to contribute to a cause they could not support in the first instance, once again increasing the cost of participation in the alliance.

The increased political cost of participation in an alliance relationship inevitably results in the usefulness of the alliance being questioned, particularly at a time when the perception of threat, and hence the need for a security assurance, is declining. This is the case now across the Asia-Pacific, where supporting the US has arguably never been more unpopular.

Howard was deft. His deftness also shows the up the ineptitude of the Bush doctrine. The political cost to allies, whether it's Blair's declining standing in the polls or Musharraf's recent brush with assassination is considerable and the Bush administration ignores that at its own risk. Losing Blair would not end the alliance. Losing Musharraf would be a catastrophe.

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