ABC TV Lateline

The international community remains best by foreign policy crisis in the Middle East and Europe with a range of strategies on the table for both the US and Australia. Research associate Tom Switzer joins an expert panel to discuss the issues.



EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: To discuss the crises in Ukraine and Iraq and the international responses to them, I'm joined from Brisbane by Tom Switzer, research associate with the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and from Melbourne by Greg Sheridan, foreign editor at The Australian newspaper. Gentlemen, welcome. GREG SHERIDAN, FOREIGN EDITOR, THE AUSTRALIAN: Hi there, Emma. TOM SWITZER, US STUDIES CENTRE, UNI. OF SYDNEY: Good evening. EMMA ALBERICI: Now of course we know the Prime Minister is in India and we'll discuss that shortly, but I thought first we'd focus on the crisis in Iraq. Barack Obama has admitted that he has no particular strategy for dealing with the Islamic State fighters in Syria. If you had his ear, Greg Sheridan, what advice would you be giving him? GREG SHERIDAN: Well, Emma, I'm not as critical of Barack Obama as a lot of my conservative friends. I think the watchword of American policy has been caution, proportionality and evolution. Barack Obama didn't cause the problem in the Middle East, but he has to respond to it because Islamic State now controls perhaps six million people, it's the most extreme terrorist movement we've ever seen, it threatens genocide, it threatens us. There are several thousand Western passport holders fighting there as terrorists. They're going to come back and attack us. I think his response has been pretty good and I think what military intervention there'll be will be predominantly air power with some special forces and in support of legitimate governments, and with the ground force of our friends in the region, I think air strikes can be quite decisive. EMMA ALBERICI: Tom Switzer, the US has talked about destroying the Islamic State fighters, the UK is saying they want to wipe them out. How best to do that? TOM SWITZER: Well I'm more sceptical. I think that it's one thing to say you want to eradicate a group like ISIS, or IS, which, let's face it, personifies evil, but the process of eradicating an evil group like ISIS, if one is concerned to be effective and not merely to feel virtuous and righteous, it's a very complicated process and one that is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences. There is a very real danger that an extensive bombing campaign throughout Iraq, other parts of Iraq and into Syria, could reaffirm that potent Sunni narrative since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, that is - this is the Sunni view - that Washington is either tolerant or is facilitating a violent Shia offensive against the minority Sunni. And now this is important because on September 10 we're told by our leaders in Washington and Britain and in Canberra that we need an inclusive government that will unite the country. But let's face it: given everything we've known about Iraq since 2003, the prospects of reaching an inclusive government that genuinely reconciles all the disparate sectarian and religious groups, particularly the minority Sunnis, it's highly unlikely. EMMA ALBERICI: On the issue of Australia becoming involved in any military campaign, Greg Sheridan, is it right for Australia to work alongside the US in these air strikes and perhaps beyond that to something more involved? GREG SHERIDAN: Yes. The Australian Government has certainly told the Americans it will do that. It will commit Super Hornets and elements in the logistics chain and special forces if necessary and I think we are right to do that, for several reasons. Everything Tom says about the Middle East is true - it's a terrible mess of complexity and difficulty. There is a risk with anything you do, there's a risk in doing nothing. Tony Abbott, I think, has a very sound strategic map in his head and he understands that what is shaking the foundations of global order at the moment is the perception that the United States can no longer provide the global commons of security, so he wants to encourage American leadership in the Middle East and in our region. And the best way you can do that is by showing the Americans that they don't walk alone. So what we're going to do in the Middle East is right in itself. We're going to try to prevent genocide against the Yazidis and others. And it's also right in the broader geostrategic picture of encouraging American leadership, which is vital for our security in Asia. EMMA ALBERICI: Tom Switzer, you were against the invasion in 2003, what about Australia's involvement this time? TOM SWITZER: Well I understand the urge to respond swiftly to these vicious images we're seeing of these evil thugs beheading innocent journalists, but I don't think those kind of images should be driving our strategy. Look, the United States spent the best part of 15 years trying to reorganise the politics of what is essentially an arbitrarily-created state, ethnically and tribally-divided society, and by all accounts, it left this place in a bloody shambles. Look at the record: Iraq is by all accounts a failed state. Libya is a failed state. The United States spent $25 billion trying to build up an Iraqi army that went to water as soon as it was confronted by ISIS north of Baghdad. I mean, the idea that we can sends in a bunch of planes with some special SAS commanders to help reorganise the politics of the place and to bring some sort of order I think is fanciful. EMMA ALBERICI: So what is the answer? TOM SWITZER: Well I think ultimately this is an issue for the regional actors. I think the Kurds, the Turks, Baghdad, the Shia government south of Iraq, maybe even, believe it or not, Syria's Assad - they all have to get their acts together and try to do everything they can to pose some sort of order along that Syrian-Iraqi border and it may require some US support strikes. But I think ultimately, this is a war for the local actors, not America, not Australia, unless we foolishly decide to make it one. GREG SHERIDAN: But Emma, I wonder if I could respond to Tom's critique there. Tom just gave the game away where he said there may be some role for some American support strikes. That's all we're talking about. This is not a highly ambitious geopolitical restructuring of the Middle East. This is support of minimal order by legitimate governments. TOM SWITZER: We do not know that yet. We do not know that. EMMA ALBERICI: Can I just ask a question to that end? Can I just ask a question to that end? Because Tom made a reference there to the Assad regime and what local players are going to be able to affect some change in the region. We've already decided that we will help arm the Peshmerga, the Kurds in the north of Iraq. What other alliances, Greg Sheridan, can you envisage during this crises? I mean, are we going to start building some kind of relationship with the Assad regime in Syria? GREG SHERIDAN: Look, it's not inconceivable. I'd say this: in World War II we were allied with Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil totalitarian, genocidal dictators in history because he was a little bit less bad than Adolf Hitler. And sometimes you have to make some terrible choices. But the point I do want to make to you, Emma, is this is an infinitely less ambitious intervention than in 2003. This is looking to empower the local actors who will do least damage to our interests and to innocent civilians. And the Americans did not leave Iraq in a desperate mess. When they left Iraq in 20 10-2011, it was basically peaceful and there was a functioning modus vivendi between the communities. The Sunni tribes had killed off al-Qaeda in Iraq. Now, Nouri Al-Maliki then ran a viciously sectarian government. You cannot be responsible for what your allies do forever, otherwise, were we wrong to campaign to have the racist regime of Ian Smith thrown out of Rhodesia because of what Robert Mugabe has become in Zimbabwe? TOM SWITZER: Well first of all we don't know exactly what the strategy of the United States Government is. I mean, Greg might be more plugged in than I am, but President Obama, contrary to reports in The New York Times, has made it clear that there is no strategy that's been established. And it is quite conceivable that the military campaign might be escalated to other parts of not just that border between Syria and Iraq, but to other parts of Syria itself. As for Assad, a year ago exactly, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron were calling on the Congress and the Commons to give them military authority to launch air strikes against one Bashar al-Assad. Now, thank goodness, the Congress and the Commons rejected their pleas because the demise of Assad would have merely created a power vacuum for the very evil we're talking about here this evening. EMMA ALBERICI: Now let's turn our attentions to Ukraine, if we could, and Tony Abbott has announced that Australia will provide non-lethal military assistance to Kiev. Is that wise, Greg Sheridan? GREG SHERIDAN: Yes, it's perfectly sensible. Ukraine is a sovereign nation. I don't buy at all the idea that Putin's aggression is our fault, that we provoked Putin by being nice to Eastern Europe. You can make excuses for any dictator. America did a lot of things to soothe Russian sensitivities. It withdrew missile defence systems from Prague and Poland, for example, and the armies of Western Europe couldn't invade a soccer pitch most of the time without an invitation. The idea they're a threat to Russia is ridiculous. Ukraine is a sovereign nation whose sovereignty was guaranteed by solemn treaty signed by Russia. Russia is now overturning the basic international order of Europe, which is that you don't invade your neighbours. Now some of the non-lethal assistance we're going to offer to Ukraine is that they can come and enrol in our military staff colleges. I've got to tell you, Emma, I lecture at those staff colleges and I'd be very happy to talk to any Ukrainian officer. EMMA ALBERICI: Tom Switzer, should Australia be getting involved in Ukraine-Russian conflicts? TOM SWITZER: No, I think punching above our weight and I understand the emotional attachment to the Malaysian aircraft downing on July 17, but I think punching above our weight is a hazardous form of activity, best to be avoided. I think that when you're looking at particularly this part of the world, it's important to put these events in a broader historical context and just sometimes to look at how our opponents might be viewing this. I mean, Greg represents the conventional wisdom in Brussels and Washington that this crisis in Ukraine is overwhelmingly Putin's fault. GREG SHERIDAN: This is the only time I've ever been accused of representing Brussels. TOM SWITZER: (Laughs) That's right! Greg, it feels like the old days in The Australian editorial board. But, look, the taproot of the crisis, as John Mearsheimer points out in a very important article in Foreign Affairs, is the West's attempt to peel Ukraine away from what Russia has long seen as its sphere of influence. NATO expansion, which was a real repudiation of an implicit agreement between President Bush and Gorbachev that NATO would not extend eastwards the expansion of the European Union, the Western role in bringing down a democratically-elected, pro-Russian, albeit thuggish Government on February 22 - all of this combined to give a sense that the West was upsetting the sensibilities of Russia. And Putin, reflecting the thoughts and attitudes of the broad cross-section of the Russian people, merely is playing hardball and he will continue to wreck Ukraine until his conditions, which quite frankly are limited and strict, are met: make Ukraine a neutral buffer state akin to Austria during the Cold War, and Kiev, quite frankly - this is Putin's argument - should recognise the minority rights of ethnic Russians. It looks like, given what Poroshenko's been talking about in the course of the last few days, a ceasefire's on the cards, but the ball is very much in the cards of NATO in South Wales as we speak. EMMA ALBERICI: Now I don't want to run out of time and before we go we really do need to talk about India, where Mr Abbott has been visiting. Is it right, Greg Sheridan, for Australia to be selling uranium to a country that won't sign the non-proliferation treaty? GREG SHERIDAN: Oh, absolutely. This - India's ability to buy uranium in this way was ratified by the International Atomic Energy Association and by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and by every relevant multilateral body. India has never proliferated nuclear weapons to anybody else, unlike China or Pakistan or North Korea. But, look, India is all upside for Australia. Abbott is right to go there. This - to sell uranium was a decision made by Julia Gillard, reversing Kevin Rudd. Gillard was right to make that decision. But Abbott is the first prime minister to make a serious early investment in India. He's the first foreign head of government to get an official head of government visit into Modi, the new prime minister. India is all upside for Australia. It's the democratic superpower of the emerging world, it's got the best food in the world, the best movies, the best cricket players. I mean, any Australian who doesn't like India is just crazy. TOM SWITZER: (Laughs) EMMA ALBERICI: Tom Switzer, is there any danger in selling uranium to a country outside the NPT? TOM SWITZER: Not really. I know that some people have doubts about the inspection regime and the safeguards, but I think Greg is right: I mean, this is one area where we will definitely agree tonight. I think it's a long overdue accommodation on Australia's part of recognising India's circumstances and standing in the world. And as Greg's pointed out elsewhere, we haven't had - we haven't hosted an Indian leader in this country for nearly 30 years and that is a real indictment on Australian diplomacy. India is a rising power, it's a large export market for Australia, it's a real superpower when it comes to information technology, and frankly, one day there may come a time where India could play a useful role in checking the rise of China. So I agree with Greg and I think that the Prime Minister has handled this part of his foreign policy agenda with aplomb. EMMA ALBERICI: Greg Sheridan, beyond cricket and Bollywood, what is the strategic significance of the relationship between Australia and India? GREG SHERIDAN: Well Indian strategic leaders are tremendous hardheads, they are tremendous hardheads. If you want a hard-headed, tough-minded view of China, you just go to the strategic think tanks around Delhi. Now no-one will ever play the Indian card against China. No-one can play the Indian card. It's too big; it plays itself. But if India is a success, it kind of automatically balances China. First of all, it shows the prestige of democracy, that you can have development in a big, poor country and be a democracy. Secondly, it's the dominant player in the Indian Ocean, which we share with India and which we share with Indonesia. Thirdly, it's becoming increasingly active diplomatically, economically and even militarily in East Asia - recent exercises with Vietnam and so on. And fourthly, it shares so many of our values as a multicultural, multi-racial democratic nation. We ought to have a very close strategic relationship with India. We won't be a formal ally because India, as like many great powers, doesn't really do alliances unless it's the totally dominant power. But it's all upside for us in the deepest possible strategic relationship with India. EMMA ALBERICI: And just a final word, Tom Switzer, on India. Is the economic relationship - I mean, it dwarfs China's, doesn't it? Do you really see a time where India could rival China in any significant way? TOM SWITZER: It's hard to see that happening, certainly for the foreseeable future. But uranium sales'll be a big market. This a good thing in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so it's not inconceivable. But I think this week has shown that the Prime Minister is at his best on foreign policy when he focuses primarily on regional issues. And we've seen this when he repaired relations with Jakarta, we've seen this with the intensification of diplomatic relations with Delhi. He said before the election a year ago that he would be an Asia-first prime minister. I'd like to see him being more an Asia-first prime minister than punching above our weight in the Middle East and Ukraine that don't directly affect Australia's national interests. EMMA ALBERICI: Unfortunately, we're out of time. I thank you both very much for speaking to us tonight. TOM SWITZER: Thanks so much, Emma. GREG SHERIDAN: Thanks very much, Emma.