The Australian

By Brendon O'Connor and Lloyd Cox

Bob Carr's recent defence of the decision to station US troops in Darwin has been widely interpreted as another instance of Australian sycophancy to its great and powerful friend.

It is the latest instance, so the argument runs, of Australia's slavish subordination to US security policy. Australia is the US's lapdog, and has routinely been drawn into military adventures from Vietnam to Iraq at the behest of the US.

This view might be appealing to those who are often critical of US foreign policy, but it is a view that recent scholarship suggests is simplistic and misleading. It is an interpretation that can have the unintended effect of mitigating the culpability of Australian political leaders for freely taken decisions that turned out to be deeply flawed.

The theme of Australia as the US's lapdog found early expression among radicals, and sometimes conservatives, during the Vietnam War. The picture often painted is one where the Americans dragooned Australia into a war that it could have been avoided. Here, ready-to-please conservative Australian leaders are portrayed as being cajoled and pressured into participating in a US military adventure. They thereby subordinated Australian interests to American ones, and unnecessarily burdened the country with heavy financial, diplomatic and human costs.

A generation of revisionist scholarship in the 1980s and 90s began to question this interpretation. Our research in both US and Australian archives confirms they were right to do so.

The governments of both Menzies and Holt needed no encouragement to become involved in the Vietnam conflict and then deepen that involvement. When president Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said Australia was "trigger happy" he was referring to the Menzies government's enthusiasm for military escalation in South Vietnam.

Between 1962 and 1965, amid an intense bureaucratic struggle in the US government over Vietnam policy, Australia's broad strategic position was relatively settled. Anxious about communist advances to our north, Australia aimed to keep the Americans militarily engaged in the region and to avoid a diplomatic solution at all costs. If the price to be paid for realising this goal was Australian military involvement in Vietnam, so be it.

In early 1965, for example, minister for external affairs Paul Hasluck "feared above all the likelihood of slipping into negotiation by default". In a cabinet meeting on December 17, 1964, prime minister Robert Menzies said his government "would be prepared to put in a battalion and (was) looking for a way in and not a way out".

The charge d'affaires of Australia's Washington embassy, Alan Renouf, best summarised Australia's objective, which was "to achieve such an habitual closeness of relations with the United States and sense of alliance that in our time of need the United States would have little option but to respond as we would want". The Australian government, of course, got what it wanted, including involvement in a war that by late 1967 was beginning to sour in the court of Australian public opinion.

This involvement was not because of pressure from an overbearing US ally, but resulted from decisions freely taken by politicians pursuing what they took to be, rightly or wrongly, the national interest. Responsibility for what followed, therefore, rested on their shoulders.

The lead-up to Australia's military participation in the second Iraq war is not a straightforward historical analog of Australia's Vietnam experience. In at least one respect, however, there is a striking similarity: in both conflicts Australia was an early and enthusiastic advocate of a military rather than a diplomatic solution, in a context where other allies were urging caution.

As in Vietnam, the decision to militarily support the Americans in Iraq was widely received as another instance of Australian servility in the face of US pressure. But as with Vietnam, this is far too crude. 

The pre-deployment of the Australian military to the Persian Gulf in the absence of any formal request from the Americans, along with many hawkish public pronouncements and our early and obdurate support for the US in the UN, suggest that Australia was predisposed to supporting the military option in Iraq from the outset. Interviews that we conducted with senior officials in Washington confirmed this.

So why take this position, with all of its risks? Well, certainly not because of any threat that Iraq presented to Australia, which has surely been comprehensively discredited. The answer also goes way beyond any facile sound bite about the close relationship between John Howard and George Bush.

In essence, Australia militarily supported the US in Iraq for the same reason that it supported the US in Vietnam. Because doing so would, it was believed, confer on Australia benefits that outweighed the costs. These benefits included, most importantly, a strengthening of the Australia-US alliance and Australia's longer-term security.

Regardless of whether or not the benefits to Australia did, in fact, outweigh the costs, it was this consideration that motivated Australian political leaders to autonomously take the decisions that they took, and are likely to take again in the future.