James Curran

James Brown’s essay poses a number of important questions for Australia’s strategic future and how the country thinks about going to war. He asks on what issues a government would not fight, whether the nation’s political leaders have learnt the lessons from the 2003 decision to join the US-led Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, and if there is sufficient debate about the foundations of closer Australia–US military integration. We are, he notes, at the point of a “more sophisticated and pragmatic” alliance with America – one that can handle a greater degree of disagreement and divergence – although Brown worries about its prospects in a Trump White House. The essay sketches the rise of China, calls for deeper thinking on defence and strategic policy and is pessimistic about whether the bureaucracy and the political executive have the right skills to navigate the fractious world ahead.

But there are a number of problems with the argument and its execution. The first and most critical is the claim that an “Iraq template” hovers above the country’s political elites, a spectre haunting the corridors of power. Brown is right to join what is virtually a chorus line of lament concerning the lack of planning for the post-invasion phase. But it is passing strange that he devotes precious little analytical energy to unravelling this “template.” We are told that it amounts, in essence, to a “government coy to discuss the strategic environment, its alliance activities and its objectives,” and one where the “national interest” case was insufficiently made. 

Since the claim here is that Canberra remains in thrall to it, this “template” requires closer scrutiny. While it is broadly accepted that the flawed arguments and faulty intelligence marshalled by the Howard government did not differ from those used by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, it does not necessarily follow that the Australian government was “coy” about either the strategic environment or its objectives, especially regarding the implications of the commitment for the US alliance. One can disagree with Howard’s analysis of the strategic environment: after all, the tried and tested policy of containing Saddam Hussein was, in essence, working. But on the relevance of the American alliance, Howard was clear. Indeed, the only distinctive argument he used to justify Australia’s participation in the Iraq War was the relationship with the United States. This tapped deep wellsprings in John Howard’s worldview, his understanding of war and its connection to Australia’s history, and his memory of the alliance as it functioned during World War II and the Cold War. Howard often referred to the relationship with the United States as a “two-way street,” believed it would get “more, not less” important as the years went by, and argued that Americans would not quickly forget Australia’s contribution in Iraq. 

Brown’s unwillingness to examine the motivations of the key figures in that decision is curious. The explanation for this lacuna? As he states in this essay and during a recent interview on ABC radio, he is a “personal friend” of the former prime minister and therefore feels unable to discuss the political context of the decision. This analytical free pass means that an opportunity is missed to account for the tectonic forces that help to explain why Howard took Australia to war in 2003. As historian David McLean has recently argued, only by looking at the “sense of cultural and ideological affinity” that Howard felt with the United States, by exploring his “quest for personal and political recognition and standing through close association with America,” can we start to understand the totality of that crucial decision. These cultural values and beliefs will continue to be part of the calculus in debates over Australia’s foreign and defence policy – and indeed in any decision to take the country to war – in the years ahead.

Brown wants instead to focus on the mistakes at the operational level in Iraq. That’s fair enough, but to divorce this aspect of the war from the strategic mindset that put Australia in Iraq in the first place represents a major weakness in the argument. Ironically, far more attention is devoted to Tony Abbott’s role as a national security leader, with Brown focusing on the sensational claims that the former prime minister suggested the dispatch of 1000 Australian troops to Ukraine in the wake of the shooting down of MH17, and that he wanted to send 3500 diggers into Iraq to combat ISIS. The most respected political journalists in the country have debunked both claims. On Ukraine, the Australian’s Paul Kelly argued that the option for troops was “never going to be viable” and that Abbott was “talked around and decided it was too dangerous and inappropriate.” And on Iraq, the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann was unable to find anyone in the defence department to give the claim a shred of credibility. Even if these ideas were floated or gamed out at some of the countless meetings held to discuss these crises, surely the key point is that the system of checks and balances in Canberra’s current national security framework actually performed its function. After all, only a small number of special-forces soldiers were sent to support police investigators in Ukraine, and 200 were sent to Iraq.

This conceptual confusion becomes even more acute when Brown applies the “Iraq template” to the rise of China, and in particular Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. The argument here is tenuous, to say the least. Brown does not venture a position, much less an opinion, on how the Australian government should respond to the increasing calls – privately from Washington, publicly from past and present Labor luminaries – for Australia to emulate the United States by conducting freedom-of-navigation operations through the disputed twelve-nautical-mile zone around the contested territories. How, too, does Brown deal with the point that the architect of his Iraq template, John Howard, is now advocating moderation, caution and prudence on the question of possible conflict with China? Brown does not wish the freedom-of-navigation issue to be seen as “emblematic” of the entire US–China relationship, but he surely cannot ignore that the issue is becoming the focal point for what China’s rise means for the region and American staying power. Neither Washington nor any of its regional allies has been able thus far to impose any kind of serious cost on Chinese activity.

Closer to home, Brown claims that there was a “degree of blowback” to the announcement in November 2011 of US marine rotations through Darwin. Yet the decision was notable for the broad political consensus it attracted. While there were colourful expressions of outrage from some seemingly aggrieved members of the business community, the only voices of political dissent came from the then leader of the Greens, and former Labor prime minister Paul Keating. Brown argues that the presence of US troops here was first raised in 2003 – but the option of offering the American military training facilities in Australia and even the pre-positioning of equipment was part of the platform the Coalition took to the 1996 federal election.

Perhaps the more notable aspect of the essay, however, is its overwhelming concentration on recent events. It brings to mind Tony Judt’s observation that “the twentieth century is hardly behind us but already its quarrels and its achievements, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory.” There remains a “perverse contemporary insistence,” Judt added, “on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening … to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion.”

It is therefore striking that in an essay devoted to the study of how a government makes the decision to go to war, Brown barely glances at how national leaders in the past have acted or spoken when confronted with similar dilemmas. While the first Gulf War is mentioned briefly, the examination of the Hawke government’s decision-making processes and, indeed, the case made by the prime minister to justify Australian participation is cursory. Vietnam rates no mention at all, and Australia’s involvement in World Wars I and II attracts a solitary sentence. Even then, it is only to make the point that the “thresholds for war” in those conflicts “were set beyond our shores,” as if Australia had no distinctive interests of its own in joining those conflicts. The colonies and later the Australian Commonwealth, Brown contends, “did not have the authority to decide on war,” since that was “vested … in the hands of the colonial redcoat governors and successive British governments.” 

Such a view is reminiscent of an old-left “radical nationalist” reading of Australia’s military past, namely that we fight “other people’s wars.” But it is a long time since anyone with genuine standing on Australian military history has made that argument. And it fails to take into account the best recent scholarship in the field, which shows Australia’s Pacific-centred interests were paramount in the actions and decisions of leaders in both major conflicts of the twentieth century.

To oversee a more rigorous preparation for the future and the kinds of conflicts it might engender, Brown has several recommendations. The first is the creation of a stand-alone, American-style national security council, staffed with the “best and brightest” – a phrase of which he is particularly fond. But in the United States that has often meant the marginalising of the state department and the Pentagon – sometimes with disastrous consequences – and there is no reason to think that the same will not happen here. Whatever Brown’s reservations concerning the prime minister’s department, Defence and DFAT, they are nevertheless the custodians of the official memory of all the problems the government of the day is called upon to address. And it is their job to warn the government dispassionately about the possible adverse consequences of politically preferred policies. One potential problem with a national security council is that it risks becoming an echo chamber for the incumbent prime minister.

In addition, Brown wants the freshly elected parliament to create a whole suite of committees – four in total – to keep watch on the conduct of Australia’s defence, strategic and foreign policy. A new parliamentary defence office would “improve the security debate,” although it is not clear how. And he advocates for the federal parliament to be given new powers to subject any military deployment to a “national interest” test – and that it should be given the extraordinary period of ninety days to do so. Such proposals, while earnest and well intentioned, do not take into account the way decisions are made about committing soldiers to war. Brown recognises that the requirement for “full parliamentary approval” would hamper any “effective response to a crisis,” but he still wants to give both houses almost three months to “review” whether any military commitment is in the national interest. Yet typically it is the executive leadership of the day that shapes the content and character of the national interest. What point, then, a debate in the parliament on this question when the decision to commit has already been taken? If a vote was taken that chose not to support the government’s definition of the national interest, how would that alter tactics or strategy? Many of the questions Brown wants discussed before troops are committed – on costs, public support, the position of the Opposition, new dangers arising from military action – are by their very nature fluid and uncertain. It is asking the impossible. For all its occasional theatrics and vaudeville, Question Time and Senate Estimates remain probably the best forums in which governments can be tested and held to account.

Furthermore, Brown presents no evidence to show how these new layers of oversight – others would call them red tape – would have averted the decision to invade Iraq. Nor, crucially, how they might deal with a scenario in which the United States is pressing Australia to do more in Asia to counter the rise of China – especially if a crisis broke out unexpectedly. Nor, in this dark new world of which Brown speaks – in which “warfare is rapidly evolving” and where “technology is fast running ahead of policy” – is it entirely clear that an avalanche of cumbersome new process is what the national security system needs. 

Brown would do well to recall that, thanks to David Halberstam, the phrase “best and brightest” has come to have something of a pejorative connotation in the annals of American national security. These “wise men and whiz kids,” as historian Neville Meaney once observed, did not prevent America from sinking into the quagmire of Vietnam: the documents which emerged from the Pentagon papers made a mockery of the Kennedy men’s professed claims to “cool realism and liberal humanism.” Brown worries that the current generation of strategic analysts in Canberra may not be equipped to think through the complex and complicated challenges ahead. But whence this new generation of Australia’s “best and brightest” might emerge is not altogether clear. Certainly not from the universities, as Brown believes they “still view war as a morally tainted activity,” a sweeping generalisation that ignores the many courses on campuses that drill deeply into Australia’s defence and strategic past. 

It is not simply the bureaucracy that is being challenged here: Brown believes that Australian prime ministers over the past few decades have not been well grounded in military matters or well prepared for the art of foreign policy decision-making. Again, however, this is highly debatable. Even if it were conceded that neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott brought to office a depth of experience in strategic policy or foreign affairs, the evidence suggests both learnt quickly on the job. More to the point, both leaders notched up significant wins on the diplomatic stage: Gillard in cementing Australia’s place in the US “pivot” and launching the Asian Century White Paper; Abbott in securing a number of free-trade agreements in the region.

Going back further, there is even less to support Brown’s claim that the national leaders have been inadequately prepared for this aspect of the job. Gough Whitlam came to office perhaps the most well-informed on international relations of all Australian prime ministers; Malcolm Fraser had been Minister for the Army and indeed defence minister before moving into the Lodge; Bob Hawke had extensive experience abroad as a trade union leader (particularly with the International Labour Organization) and gave thoughtful and reflective speeches on foreign policy in the 1970s, including in his Boyer Lectures of 1979; Paul Keating was the engineer of Australia’s embrace of globalisation; John Howard spoke regularly on foreign affairs as Opposition leader in the 1980s and arguably came of age as a national-security leader during the 1999 East Timor crisis; and Kevin Rudd was a former diplomat and China specialist. It can hardly be said, therefore, that these leaders did not bring a depth of experience of the wider world and Australia’s role in it to the top job. 

Closer attention to the past, of course, will not provide all the solutions, and historians themselves must beware the trap of claiming pompous omniscience in a kaleidoscopic present. But if Brown is looking for a skill set that might help the discussion of these critical issues in the years ahead, he could do far worse than start with a greater sense of history. 


James Curran is Professor of History at the University of Sydney and a research associate at the US Studies Centre. His most recent book is Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 62, Firing Line. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 63, Enemy Within.


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