SPEECH: Security and Military Engagement in Uncertain Times, Australia Strategic Policy Institute, Wednesday 9 September 2015



Security and Military Engagement in Uncertain Times







“The Fog of War” describes the inevitable uncertainty of decision making in conflict.

19th century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz said:

“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”

Robert MacNamara, former US Secretary of Defence and architect of the Vietnam War went so far as to say:

“war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, is not adequate.”

Notwithstanding all these uncertainties, as leaders we are sadly called on again and again to make decisions on military engagement.

There is no more serious a decision, in Australia’s case at the prerogative of the Executive, than to deploy our armed forces and place them in harm’s way.

So, when should we use military force given all those inherent uncertainties?

Labor’s approach to decision making, is based on the assessment of facts and is guided by our values:

  • There is no more important duty of a government than to keep its people safe.
  • The peace, security and stability of our region, and the world, is in Australia’s national interest. It’s hard to be secure in an insecure world.
  • It is in Australia’s national interest to be good international citizens –because international co-operation, multilateralism, the rule of law and international institutions are the best way to ensure a secure and stable international order.
  • Human rights violations, inequality and poverty, are a threat to Australia’s long term interests wherever they occur because they create the conditions which all too often, lead to instability and conflict.

I am not suggesting that there is a simple formula that allows an easy conclusion on military action.

That would certainly be a dangerous oversimplification.

Labor also believes military engagement can’t be devised or judged in isolation from its strategic objectives – the end game that we are seeking.

Military engagement is tactical – it is a means to a strategic or political end.

And this places a necessarily weighty responsibility on decision makers - to have a plan for the day after, and for the decade after that.

…. To be able to articulate a strategic objective that would yield an outcome, so significant, that it justifies the serious and terrible decision to place Australian lives at risk.

I would suggest that never has it been more necessary to have a view about the end game, nor perhaps more difficult in the current circumstances facing the Middle East.

In one of the many conversations I have had on this issue, I was reminded that anyone with an understanding of the Middle East over the last 15 years should be familiar with the law of unintended consequences. That intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.

And the situation we face is immensely complex.

Australia has been asked to help Iraq defend itself which is a worthy endeavour, but we need to look beyond that.

The Middle East is currently undergoing its most significant reshaping since World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The extent of the fallout from conflict and extremism was recently described by David Petraeus as a geopolitical Chernobyl.

Australia needs to guard against being dragged into a fiendishly complex proxy war where a range of countries in the region will feel compelled to pursue their own interests.



I want to begin with Australia’s 2014 military engagement in Iraq, and the basis for Labor’s support – before considering the extension of Australia’s engagement that was announced today.

It was just over a year ago that most Australians became aware of a new force seeking to violently reshape the Middle East, and the world.

The organisation which calls itself Islamic State has its antecedents in Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq - organisations that we came to understand something about. But even a year ago we had very limited information about Daesh relative to the danger it presents today.

When Daesh took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June 2014, it was a watershed moment for the organisation – not just because the world’s attention turned to the wider threat it posed -  but because its military success delivered it a breakthrough in recruitment of foreign fighters.

On 25 June 2014, Iraq wrote to the UN Security Council, requesting urgent assistance from the International community to assist it to respond to the onslaught of Daesh.

Iraq reported that Daesh had been terrorizing its citizens - carrying out mass executions, persecuting minorities and women and destroying mosques, shrines and churches.

Significantly, Iraq reported that Daesh had organised military operations from across the Syrian border, had taken control of border crossings, and that thousands of foreign terrorists were moving at will across the Syrian border.

In early July at Mosul’s Great Mosque, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that he stood at the head of a Caliphate, a Muslim state already spanning Syria and Iraq and with ambitions to expand globally.

In September last year the Iraq government reported that Daesh had established a safe haven outside of Iraq that made borders impossible to defend, and made a further request for international assistance to strike Daesh in both Iraq and Syria.

Soon after, the Australian Government joined the international coalition against Daesh, relying on the doctrine of collective self-defence as legal authority.

The result is Operation OKRA - the Australian Defence Force's contribution to the international effort in Iraq. It involves around 800 ADF personnel, up to 8 strike fighters and supporting aircraft -  at a cost of around $650 million over two years.

As you all know Labor supports this Operation, and our reason is principally and overwhelmingly humanitarian.

We accepted that as a member of the international community, Australia has a responsibility to protect; to respond to a legitimate request from the Iraq government and join with other nations to protect vulnerable civilians from mass atrocity crimes.

We also formed the view that a legal authority existed through a legitimate request made by the Iraq government.

Not insignificant to our consideration was the Iraq Government’s assessment that its aspirations for a more inclusive and democratic Iraq, and modest gains it had made, would be thoroughly undermined by Daesh.

I am not going to pretend that Iraq was exhibiting consistent or significant progress on political and democratic reform - but for the first time in many years we could see inching gains in in the right direction including Nouri al-Maliki’s replacement by Haider al-Abadi. 



I can’t understate the importance to Labor of establishing a clear legal basis under international law for Australia’s military engagement.

I am compelled to mention the dangerous statement by the Prime Minister that the terrorists don’t respect the border, why should we.

I will tell you why.  It is in Australia’s long term national interest to respect and uphold international laws and norms, and it’s in the interest of all nations that we continue to set an example by doing so.

If we ask others to respect borders and comply with international laws intended to preserve peace – we must subject ourselves to those same laws.

While the UN Charter prohibits the use of force by any member state against any other state, there is an express exception for self-defence and collective self-defence.

A great deal has been written about the interpretation and application of Section 51 of the Charter, and there is a well-developed principle of collective self-defence.

A requesting state must issue a legitimate request – in this instance being Iraq’s request for international assistance via the UNSC; and the requesting state must have been the subject of an armed attack – and we’ve witnessed the unrestrained violence of Daesh in Iraq.

An intervening state must also act out of a general interest in preserving international peace and security – in this case defending against the regional and global threat posed by Daesh.

But a legal basis for action determines only whether the Executive can involve Australia in conflicts, not whether Australia should be engaged.  It is a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for involvement.

Section 51 creates no obligation to offer our military assistance, nor does it permit a conclusion on whether it is right or wise or good to become involved in the conflicts of other nations.



Today the Australian Government announced an extended contribution to the defence of Iraq.  Australian aircraft will have further flexibility to conduct airstrikes against Daesh in Syrian territory.

First a couple of facts:

Over the last year, seven nations – the US, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have already been conducted airstrikes in Syria.

Of the total 6,550 airstrikes – already 40 per cent of these have been in Syria.

As you can see the Coalition already has a significant presence in Syria.

This does not mean that today’s decision on Australian engagement is not significant for us.

It is very significant to intervene militarily into another country, particularly in the absence of a UN resolution.

The Labor party has agreed to support the government’s decision, and I want to outline some of our considerations in doing so.

Iraq has specifically requested international support to defend itself against cross-border attacks by Daesh that the Syrian government is either unable or unwilling to prevent.

By doing so Iraq has established legal authority under the principle of collective self-defence. 

Labor sought its own advice on the application of the principle, and we agree that it applies.

Labor’s support is also subject to several requirements:

  • First, we have asked for a commitment that Australian operations in Syria are limited to support of Iraq’s collective self-defence.

Labor will not support mission creep that risks dragging Australia into a military quagmire. We have sought assurances that any Australian use of force will be limited to the defence of Iraq, be proportionate to the threat to Iraq, and be subject to international law.

  • We have also asked for Government assurance, in advance of extended operations, that an effective combat search and rescue capability will be in place to meet the additional risks, if the worst happens and RAAF personnel are downed in hostile territory.

As Peter Jennings has pointed out today, this new territory presents significant additional dangers for our personnel. We owe it to our defence personnel to have specific arrangements in place to protect them.

  • Third, we have urged the Government to engage with the UN, and to formally notify the UN Security Council about Australia’s decision.

An important point I have made consistently on this issue – which Peter also made in interviews today - is that Australia is a consequential middle power, and our role militarily must be matched by renewed efforts toward a long-term, multilateral strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict.

We should recall that Australia has played a role in brokering peace out of seemingly intractable conflict before.

The Australian peace proposal for Cambodia produced a durable and lasting peace in that country.

  • Fourth we have called on the Prime Minister to address Parliament and outline Australia’s long term strategy in Iraq and allow for appropriate parliamentary discussion.

In 1991, the first Iraq War was the subject of a parliamentary debate in which all 150 members of the House of Representatives spoke.

In 2003, Australia’s commitment to Iraq was again considered in a substantial parliamentary debate, in which Tony Abbott said:

“All of us as human beings as well as members of this parliament—members of political parties, governments and oppositions—owe it to our constituents and to the wider Australian public to explain where we stand on this issue.”

I am not attempting in this forum to open a debate on the prerogative powers of the Executive. No matter whether you are a supporter of prerogative powers or supporter of parliamentary decision making, no one can disagree that members of parliament should have an opportunity to debate these important issues.

There has been no significant parliamentary debate initiated by the Government on the issue of either Iraq or Syria.



I want to make a few observations about bipartisanship.

Bipartisanship on issues of national security and international relations is usually in Australia’s best interests. It is right and appropriate that we seek to understand, and if possible support, the Government when matters of national interest are at stake.

We have maintained a clear bipartisan position on the current Operation OKRA – as I have said Labor is convinced that the defence of Iraq and protection of its people requires the assistance of the international community.

If the Government is genuinely looking for bipartisanship on important and complex matters it might in future consider putting more effort into working cooperatively with our Shadow Ministers.

It's extraordinary that the first time the proposal on extended operations was floated publicly the Government sent out a backbencher without any clear proposal, without any explanation to the Australian people of what the legal basis would be, what the mission would be, what success would look like, what our personnel would be expected to do and how this would fit in with what the rest of the international community is doing.

Labor has been asked to support a decision which we would be responsible for implementing should the government change in a years’ time.

It’s not appropriate that we first hear about it is by reading the front page of the newspaper.

It is also extraordinary that multiple requests by me and by my colleagues for briefings have been refused and that briefings have been cancelled without notice and not rescheduled.

Labor has a very effective Shadow Cabinet Committee structure, including a Shadow National Security Committee 

Shadow Ministers on the Committee quite reasonably expect to have detailed information available to them before agreeing to support to military action. And each Shadow Minister of course has questions relevant to their portfolio.



I said earlier that military engagement is a tactic – which will not comprehensively resolve the situation in the Middle East -  in particular the catastrophe that has engulfed Syria.

The Prime Minister said today... our objective [is] to work towards governments in the Middle East which do not commit genocide against their own people nor permit terrorism against ours.

The Foreign Minister has said that Australian’s mission in Syria would be complete “When the terrorist organisation is prevented from carrying out attacks on the civilian populations in Syria and Iraq”.

Our objectives for the Middle East need to be much more significant than defeating Daesh.

In Iraq, our involvement it is to allow Iraq to stand on its own two feet by supporting internal efforts toward peace and security.

The recent history of Iraq reminds us of the dangers of tactics without a comprehensive and realistic strategy.

We “won” the last war, and Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but there was no strategy to govern, no vision of what the day after and the decade after would look like.  The people of Iraq has suffered the consequences ever since.

The vacuum that was left created rallying points around the sectarian and ethnic fractures of the region – and was the breeding ground for AQ, AQI and Daesh.

The de Ba’athification of the public sector and demobilisation of the army were disasters and that fed sectarian division and recruits for AQ and Daesh which boasts senior Baathists among its leadership.

A solution for the Middle East demands diplomatic efforts and the revival of a political solution.  In particular, no one should believe that Syria can be bombed to peace.

The immense scale of displacement and suffering and the impacts of the Syrian conflict on neighbouring countries and Europe along with the increasing threat of Daesh and its territorial ambitions may now be so compelling that there is new hope for a political outcome.

Alan Behm has recently observed that we are coming very close to a situation so fractured that, no one is being served by the status quo. Renewed efforts may break the impasse.

There have been roadblocks to effective UN action before now but this may be the moment they can be worked past. The US-Iran nuclear deal has been negotiated. There are reports that Russia is demonstrating an interest in a resolution to this conflict because of the risks it poses to its regional interests.

There are also reports of Russia’s desire to work with an international coalition – which would require more than careful navigation with the interests of so many parties in outcomes for Syria – Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Kurds, the list is extensive.

The humanitarian crisis in the region also demands a more significant response.

We cannot let a generation of children grow up in refugee camps and temporary accommodation with no access to a proper education.

And we cannot allow neighbouring countries, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to shoulder the burden any more.

Alan Behm points out that poverty, economic exploitation, inequality, youth alienation and dispossession create the hot house for extremist recruitment and anti-western sentiment.

Iraqis and Syrians displaced in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are vulnerable to these influences.

In Syria we must use all available diplomatic and political means to secure support from the international community to developing a durable solution to the current crisis.

This engagement should focus, in the short term, on providing safe havens and humanitarian access in Syria, meeting the urgent humanitarian assistance needs of the region.

In the longer term support an inclusive political process which can resolve the conflict in Syria.

Labor welcomes the Government’s announcement of an additional 12 000 humanitarian refugee places to assist people affected by the crisis in Syria. 

Labor also welcomes the announcement of $44 million in additional humanitarian relief funding for the crisis in Syria, but we call on the Government to match Labor’s proposal of $100 million in additional funding given the enormous need.



I want to end with a reflection on the Labor tradition and what we hope to bring to decision making in these uncertain and complex times.

In 1965, when the Australian Government had made the decision to send Australian troops to Vietnam, Arthur Calwell said:

"When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can only be heard in the land with difficulty. 

His message was that decisions on matters like military involvement require courage and conviction, must reject populism and guard against recklessness.

And in that tradition the Australian Labor Party will continue to contribute to decisions on the side of reason, in the cause of humanity, and always in the interests of Australia's national security.