12 February 2004

US alliance comes at a price

Tow and Lyon say Howard's support for the US has put at risk Australian gambits for inclusion in emerging Asian institutions, but that Howard has found the risk acceptable.

In joining the US bandwagon so wholeheartedly, Australia has ignored the sorts of concerns about the Bush administration reflected in the recent US Army War College paper by research professor Jeffrey Record.

Record's paper, which has angered the Bush administration, argues that the invasion of Iraq was "an unnecessary preventive war of choice" that took resources from the more critical fight against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, which was behind the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Bali.

Like many US and other security experts, Record says the administration's goals are unrealistic and condemn the US "to a hopeless quest for absolute security" and are fiscally, politically and militarily unsustainable.

While the Howard government limited the size and duration of Australian military participation in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has joined Britain's Blair administration in echoing US justifications for the war despite its failure to find Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and despite continuing violence in Iraq.

Defence and security policy will be front-line election issues this year.

The clarity of government policy offers the Labor Party, which has more nuanced views, an opportunity to challenge the government if it has the political courage to conduct a debate that goes beyond ritual and irrelevant declarations of support for the US alliance.

Australia has nothing to apologise for in relation to the alliance. It is a loyal US ally. It gives - and receives - real benefits from the alliance, and accepts that Australia cannot expect automatic US support in a regional crisis.

The US is a global power with global interests and Australia is not necessarily relevant to its calculations. With the US military now overstretched at the zenith of its global hegemony, Australia might do well, to paraphrase former British prime minister Henry Palmerston, to accept that the US has no permanent friends but only permanent interests.

In defence policy terms, that implies that even nations in cozy alliances need to be ready to fight alone. Being a deputy does not guarantee that the sheriff will always be on hand.

No-one knows if George Bush will be re-elected in 2004 and the Howard government has essentially built an entirely new foreign policy based only on the personal chemistry between Bush and Howard. That personal chemistry seems to generate barbecues and ranch visits but not many trade concessions. There is no feasible way that the chemistry side of the relationship can ever be higher - and it has gained us almost nothing in the new FTA.

Beyond that, the Howard government has essentially abandoned a multilateral approach in favour of congalining the USA. The FTA will have repercussions in Asia, just as the Howard doctrine (wrongly called the deputy sheriff doctrine) did. Australia's purchase of the JSF will have repercussions.

There's a big opportunity here for Iron Mark to start chipping away at the rusty spots on the Man of Steel. The biggest of them is the sheer embarrassment level of a government that seems incapable of even asking if Australia's interests could ever diverge from those of the Bush administration.

As Hugh White told the National Press Club last October:

For better or worse, depending on your view of the case, this problem looks set to fade, as the Bush Doctrine meets reality in Iraq's Sunni triangle. My hypothesis is that we will see no more Iraqs � major military operations to achieve regime change and political reconstruction in states of concern. First, I do not think there are any more opportunities: neither Iran nor North Korea offer practical military options at acceptable levels of cost and risk. Second, there is a question of resources: America�s military strength is great but not unlimited, and as long as it has forces on anything like the current scale committed in Iraq, it would be hard to undertake any other major operations. Money is also an issue, with the US fiscal deficit approaching $500 Billion. And third, there is politics: this northern spring talk of Empire blossomed all over Washington, but this has not survived the first winds of autumn, nor the colder realities of the US presidential primaries.

So if the Bush Doctrine has had its day, what follows? Much depends on Iraq, of course, which will remain for better or worse the overriding preoccupation of American foreign 5 policy for a long time to come. The idealistic hopes of the neo-cons now seem unlikely to be fulfilled, but similarly neither do the gloomiest predictions of the pessimists. Iraq is no Vietnam. I�d plan on a middling outcome, neither very good nor very bad, and an America that is neither imperial nor isolationist. In fact, two years after 9/11, the US is getting back to normal.

That means, among other things, getting back to worrying about China. It also means getting back to the long-term post Cold War realignment of US strategic posture and military basing around the world, including in Asia. I think in the long run that has big implications for Australia. One of those implications is a larger reliance on allies to look after problems in their own regions.

Perhaps there no permanent deputies, just permanent interests.

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