If we, as a nation, learn anything from the soul destroying Iraq debacle, it is not to repeat the same mistake again. Yet it’s on the cards that we will. For, even if Labor wins the election and then pulls Australian troops from Iraq, the fundamentals that drive our national foreign policy will remain intact. At present, nobody is promising to do it any other way. Not least, Kevin Rudd.

Let’s face it. The invasion of Iraq had the same metaphorical effect as ramming a boot into a jackjumpers’ nest. The result was just as predictable. The inhabitants were going to retaliate fiercely - especially while the boot still in there, agitating the nest. Label the retaliators as terrorists if you like, but the never-ending carnage of innocents on TV is visual testimony that we got it terribly wrong. Australians are now paying the price for a foreign policy debacle of incalculable proportions.

(That said, we should not impugn the motives of the many good Australian citizens who initially supported the war, whether through naivety, or out of misplaced national loyalty.)

For those of us who lived through the long Vietnam saga, the Iraq quagmire is déjà vu. In both cases we looked on in despair as our political leaders blundered into it - willingly but despite many warnings - and thus they became trapped, unable to stay the course, unable to pull out. Unable to deliver the intended result even!

Though opposed to the Iraq invasion from the outset, I, like many others, have no idea what would happen now if western troops pulled out. This awful embroglio highlights how imperative it is that we, as a nation, do not make the same mistake again.

It is instructive to look forward now, beyond the Iraq war, and lay bets as to where the next military incursion will take place. What ‘recalcitrant regime’ will we be invading in the year 2010, 2020, 2030? Will we have learned anything from the previous debacles? At present there is every sign that we will have learned nothing at all.

Why is this so? Why is war policy beyond public debate? Why is it that our decision makers in Canberra happily conduct extensive inquiries and produce policy reports by the thousands on issues of lesser public interest…. from the fluoridation of toothpaste, drought relief for farmers, benefits to unmarried mothers… yet foreign policy, as it relates to war, must remain immutable, sacrosanct, beyond public debate, beyond public scrutiny?

Every April 25th we are reminded by Gallipoli memories that a military blunder tends to reverberate for generations to come. It stands to reason, therefore, that a decision to go to war, especially a premeditated invasion such as Iraq, demands the utmost scrutiny - at least as much scrutiny as is given to all those other issues of national interest. I would argue, much more. 

Logic tells us that ‘the next war’ should be seriously debated now rather than later. To clamour for peace when ensconced in war is interpreted variously as moral weakness, disloyalty to our troops or lending support to ‘the enemy’. Pacifists rise up at times of war, at times of peace they go back to growing carrots. Yet, such is the nature of war, it is almost always too late to recover peace once the war machine has been fired up.

I hasten to add, this is not an argument against engagement in any military action, nor is it an ideological anti-American stance. It is simply a call for a re-thinking of the formal processes that lead us into war – so that our national interest, rather than a set of presumptions is the decider.

Most Australians are blithely unaware that Australia’s decision to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in Iraq was actually a de-facto decision to hitch ourselves to looming conflicts in countries around the globe.  We can be sure that US strategists are right now calculating Australia’s commitment into potential war zones in places such as Iran, Uzbekistan and Venezuela… who knows where else?

While US citizens, just like those of the ancient Roman empire, have little choice but to reconcile themselves to being in a state of permanent war - a phenomenon loosely known as the ‘Price of Empire’ - it is prudent for us to ask: Is this a fate that Australian citizens must also endure? Why does New Zealand have an independent foreign policy, when we do not? Why are we the only US ally that blindly follows the leader into every little cul-de-sac, no questions asked?

At present a decision to go to war is largely executed by simple decree of executive government followed by a cursory rubber-stamping by the parliament. That truncated process makes three false presumptions:

1) that the public is not privy to the security information needed to contribute to a sound judgement (yet we now know that the security basis upon which Prime Minister Howard went to war was fabricated),

2) that all prospective wars are of such urgency that space for wider deliberation must, in no circumstances, be allowed, and

3) that our national security hinges absolutely on Australian foreign policy being araldited to that of the US. 

As to the last, any questioning of this subordinate, servile role is immediately taunted as ‘anti-American’, and on this basis any sensible germinal debate arguing for an independent foreign policy for Australia is immediately quashed.

Whether Australians sympathize with or deplore America’s role in the world is immaterial. No matter what our personal stance is, we are all faced with the same begging question. Is it in Australia’s interest to commit our nation to perpetual war? For, like it or not, that is the price we must pay if we continue to latch our foreign policy, unthinkingly, onto that of the US.

Let’s have no misconceptions, having married our nation’s outlook for so long to US foreign policy, any elected Australian government, whether Liberal or Labor, would come under extraordinary external pressure if it attempted to detach our rhetoric and status as the US’s most enduring, unquestioning ally. Nevertheless, it has to be done - for the sake of nationhood and, indeed, for the sake of our future national security.

When the US feels the itch to plough its boot into the next ant nest, would a Prime Minister Rudd look before he leaps in too? Would the aspirant PM allow a proper public and parliamentary debate? Or will our leader ridicule the dissenters and plunge us into yet another monumental debacle before we have the chance to draw breath?

Before Australia commits itself, by decree of Executive Government, to the next war we need to urgently delineate our own national interest. The formal processes that take us into war need to couple the obvious need for Australia to be able to react rapidly to an immediate security threat with an equal need to avoid, at all cost, reckless military incursions – viz: Iraq.

As Gordon Brown assumes the British leadership and a Democrat president is on the cards in the US, the Australian nation will soon have a rare window of opportunity to help create a seismic shift in global war policy. 

If Kevin Rudd has the leadership, acumen and courage to create space, within this election campaign, for a robust national debate on future war policy, he stands to earn the support and respect of all thinking Australians … and perhaps a chance for our nation to restore some of its lost pride.

Chris Harries
July, 2007

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based writer and social advocate. He is a former adviser to Green MP, Senator Bob Brown. Email contact: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Chris Harries Kevin Rudd, as a future PM, has a duty to transform foreign policy. 

Label the retaliators as terrorists if you like, but the never-ending carnage of innocents on TV is visual testimony that we got it terribly wrong. Australians are now paying the price for a foreign policy debacle of incalculable proportions.