By Joe Kelly and Jared Owens
Australia faces increasing pressure to upgrade its military commitment in Iraq after US President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address yesterday to strengthen the international effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist threat posed by Islamic State.
As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop consulted with US national security chiefs in Washington on countering the threat of terrorism and foreign fighters, Mr Obama urged the Republican-controlled congress to back a resolution to authorise the use of force against Islamic State as a symbol of national unity.
He warned that the conflict would take time and reserved the option for unilateral action to “hunt down terrorists”, including the Islamic State rebels who have seized control of large areas of Syria and northern Iraq and announced an Islamic caliphate.
“It will require focus. But we will succeed,” Mr Obama said. “I call on this congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorise the use of force against ISIL.”
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”
Mr Obama’s comments come two weeks after Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on Tony Abbott to make a greater military commitment by increasing armaments and speeding up the training of local forces to help meet the terrorist threat, which has seized the second-largest city of Mosul.
There are currently 200 Australian special forces stationed in Baghdad to advise and assist the local Iraqi authorities, but the Prime Minister discussed with his Iraqi counterpart, during his visit to Iraq earlier this month, the prospect of giving them a stronger role.
As Canadian troops exchanged gunfire with Islamic State fighters in the first confirmed ground battle involving Western forces in the war-torn nation, Julie Bishop said terrorist attacks in France had emboldened extremist groups including al-Qa’ida, Jabhat al-Nusra and Boko Haram.
“In all instances, we discussed the issue of terrorist organisations attracting foreign fighters,’’ Ms Bishop said. “We spoke about the global nature of terrorism, the fact that terrorist organisations are more diverse, more dangerous. The situation is more complex.
“We were united in our resolve to treat terrorism as a national security priority both in Australia and in the United States and we underscored how important it is for us to continue to work together.”
Ms Bishop met with US domestic and foreign security chiefs — National Security Agency director Michael Rogers and CIA director John Brennan — as well as director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and delivered a speech overnight on the Australia–US alliance. Her schedule for today includes meetings with US Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
The new authorisation for the use of force would be largely symbolic. Mr Obama has previously claimed the five-month military campaign against Islamic State was already permitted by the authorisation of force obtained by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in September 2001.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek reaffirmed Labor’s bipartisan support for the effort in Iraq, but said any change to the current military commitment would need to be explained by Mr Abbott.
“Labor supports Australia’s current commitment to fighting Da’ish terrorists in Iraq,” Ms Plibersek told The Australian.
“If there is a change to the size or make-up of Australia’s military contribution to Iraq, the government has promised to fully brief the opposition.”
“Any proposed changes to the existing mission should be fully explained to the Australian people by the Prime Minister.”
Ms Bishop, who attended Mr Obama’s State of the Union address as a guest of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said there was deep appreciation for the role Australia was playing in the ongoing fight against “the scourge of terrorism”.
In his address, Mr Obama called for trade liberalisation, amid both Democratic and Republican opposition to the 12-party Trans-Pacific Partnership trade zone, which would encompass Australia and Japan.
“I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype … but 95 per cent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities,” the President said.
Mr Obama said the US should demonstrate its respect for human dignity by condemning rising anti-Semitism and “offensive” stereotyping of Muslims while supporting political prisoners, persecuted women, religious minorities and people who are homosexual, bisexual or transgender.
Mr Obama said his administration had championed Ukrainian democracy against Russian aggression, ridiculing critics who called Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea “a masterful display of strategy and strength”.
“Today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters,” he said.
Mr Obama claimed that peaceful diplomacy was succeeding in halting Iran’s nuclear program, and warned Republicans against pushing for sanctions that would destroy the negotiations.
Amid attacks on government and corporations such as Sony and Microsoft, Mr Obama urged congress to pass cybersecurity laws so “no foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids”.
Tom Switzer, associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, was surprised Mr Obama only touched upon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying it was central policy to the US strategy “pivot” to Asia.
This article was originally published in The Australian