It makes sense to stick with US :
Australia's interest in the US alliance makes our Iraq mission worthwhile

Rawdon Dalrymple: Lowy Institute, 23 October, 2006

 AFTER 3 1/2 years, it is clear that the Iraq intervention has fallen far short of its architects' stated intentions. Nonetheless, it is possible to see the whole enterprise now as misconceived without concluding that the Australian Government was wrong to join it.

That is because the most important consideration for Australia was solidarity with the US. That this consideration was not the most prominent reason given publicly for our involvement in Iraq is not surprising. To do so would just trigger charges by its opponents that the Government was uncritically following its ally and not assessing the issue independently.

But the fact is that any Australian government, at least over the past 30 years, would want to stand by the US in such an enterprise, unless it was blatantly wrong and offensive to a clear majority of Australians. And the Iraq decision was neither.

A recent Lowy Institute poll showed increased Australian public scepticism about the Iraq intervention. That will certainly have continued to increase in the weeks since the polling was done. But the Lowy poll also showed that support for the alliance with the US remains high. Over the years there have been fluctuations, but even when Australians criticise the US, most of us want the reassurance of the security alliance.

Australian governments can and do oppose US policy on many issues where our interests are seen to be involved, or where Australian public opinion is strongly critical. But, with few exceptions, leaders on both sides of politics have been acutely aware of the abiding desire of most Australians to be on side when the alliance is explicitly, or in effect, brought into play.

At this stage, it will become increasingly difficult for Prime Minister John Howard and his ministers to defend the decision of the US and its allies to invade Iraq in March 2003. There was consultation, but this was essentially a decision taken in Washington.

Efforts to obtain UN Security Council endorsement failed in the early months of 2003 and the Bush administration went ahead with limited support, which has dropped away as the security situation has deteriorated. Britain and Australia still maintain a military presence on the ground. Whatever their leaders may say, they are acting essentially out of loyalty to the alliance's undisputed senior partner. 

For Australia, the involvement has not been costly. We have only a very small force there and we have lost no one in combat. The Bush administration has been lavish in expressions of appreciation.

 

The Howard Government is said to have achieved the closest relationship Australia has had with the US, and the free trade agreement and enhanced intelligence access are mentioned as fruits of that. Not everyone sees the FTA as a triumph but Australia is clearly in high favour in Washington, DC.

 

For several reasons, the alliance with the US was and remains for Australia a more important factor in the Iraq issue than our interests in Iraq or in the Middle East.

For one thing, the value of Australian support in the alliance context has been increasing as the coalition of the willing has dwindled, as the US has been unable to achieve its political and security goals in Iraq, and as the Bush administration is being forced to address a need for substantial policy changes, including phased withdrawal.

Under these circumstances, for Australia to abandon the enterprise would not only forfeit the goodwill and enhanced status achieved as a result of the original decision. It would be a setback to the alliance and would be remembered.

We should continue to support the US on the ground while participating in its deliberations on the future of the Iraq enterprise. When that issue is resolved one way or another, and when foreign and security policy settings in Washington have changed, perhaps rather fundamentally, it will still be remembered that we stood by the alliance when push turned to shove.

And most Australians will still rightly feel that our interests lie in preserving it. The more strident criticism should be reconsidered from that perspective.

 FOOTNOTE: after the 2007defeat of the Howard government, the incoming ALP government led by Kevin Rudd fulfilled its election promise to alter strategy by withdrawal of ground troops from Iraq - but compensating with a more active role in Afghanistan (and increased casualties) ... arguably in part to demonstrate its continued in-principle commitment to the Australia-USA alliance. ..... G.Bolton

Rawdon Dalrymple is a former Australian ambassador to the US, Indonesia and Japan.