Public debate on national security: Too much politicking again

There is not enough regard for the national interest and too much political posturing on defence issues.

In an election year both major parties are understandably seeking to differentiate themselves on various issues.

Some of this differentiation is real and some is contrived or exaggerated.

In regard to public utterances on national security matters, however, it is time both sides of politics drew breath a bit and considered the long-term national interest rather than short-term party-political considerations.

The public attacks by politicians on AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty, and then on the CDF, General Peter Cosgrove, for offering their professional views have not been a high point in the practice of government or parliamentary opposition in this country.

Similarly, comments by the Opposition Leader about withdrawing Australia’s contingent in Iraq are probably not helpful on a number of grounds and illustrate the difficulties involved when politicking interferes with the longer-term national interest.

The hyperbole employed in political criticism of Mr Latham’s remarks also detracts from the importance of the real issues involved.

First, whether you are for or against the collective intervention in Iraq (or whether you support or hate the current government) we have international legal and moral responsibilities in that country.

Some of these may no longer apply when an Iraqi provisional government is formed in June 2004 but some of them still will.

Australia’s reputation as a good international citizen risks being compromised by hints of a potentially precipitate withdrawal from Iraq, particularly if a perception could arise that this is due to domestic political considerations.

Second, all armed conflicts are tests of will.

Any intimation that Australia’s will and commitment to Iraq is faltering, for whatever reason, is likely to unacceptably increase the risk that our forces in Iraq may be specifically targeted in order to force our withdrawal.

This is especially so as the contingent’s adversaries in Iraq do not have a nuanced, or indeed even necessarily rational, understanding of Australian domestic politics.

The publicity given to Mr Latham’s comments internationally (not all his fault), and his apparent reluctance to withdraw them (at least partly his fault), have probably increased not decreased this risk.

By all means have a domestic party-political debate about the commitment, but not in a manner that could endanger Australian forces deployed on our behalf.

Third, conflicts and their aftermaths almost invariably are more complex and lengthy than first thought.

The imposition of seemingly arbitrary deadlines is rarely a good idea and does not provide the required impression of national strategic maturity and resolve.

Fourth, our forces in Iraq are there because our country sent them.

Iraq is a dangerous place in parts and at times.

The morale, operational security and general welfare of the Australian contingent should be uppermost in everyone’s minds back home.

To raise a question as to their purpose in being there, however ambiguously or however much it is hedged with assumptions and qualifications, unnecessarily compromises the operational security, morale and wellbeing of the contingent.

Fifth, the families of those deployed do not need additional worry. Especially if it engenders unreasonable doubt as to the value of the individual and family sacrifices and risks involved.

Sixth, our diplomatic representation in Iraq will require armed protection for the foreseeable future.

If we withdraw our contingent it is unlikely that our allies will be overwhelmed with willingness to inherit the job of securing the Australian embassy. It is also unlikely we can depend on Iraqi protection.

To note an historical parallel we should look at the record in South Vietnam.

The McMahon government withdrew our combat forces and then our training team from Vietnam in 1971-72. The Whitlam government, which had been elected in December 1972 partly on a platform of pulling out of Vietnam (even though this had already occurre), decided to leave the Saigon embassy defence platoon in situ until mid 1974.

Finally, our alliances with the US and the UK are longstanding and robust ones.

History has shown these alliances have a high tolerance level for domestic Australian politicking and even, at times, political or personal grandstanding.

This capacity is not, however, infinite or one that should be unnecessarily stretched during partisan debates domestically.

The ultimate issue is that some aspects of national security require mature reflection and due deference to preserving and furthering the long-term national interest.

They should not be unnecessarily dragged down into the domestic political debate, election year or not.

Both sides of politics should refrain from adopting a party-political stance on every issue, especially where it concerns Australia's national security and our long-term national interests.