Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 06:54 | SYDNEY
Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 06:54 | SYDNEY

Howard and the US alliance: Not so clear cut


Hugh White

2 February 2009 08:44

There are a few points on which I find myself in mild and respectful disagreement with my learned colleague, Graeme Dobell following his post on the US alliance. These are based in part on my observations working within government on alliance issues over the Coalition’s first four years in office.

When Howard and his colleagues came to office in 1996 I detected no ambition to transform the relationship, or indeed do anything much with it except keep it ticking over. Certainly the Sydney Statement, which Graeme (like many others) offers as demonstration of the new Government’s determination to re-make the alliance, was not seen in that light by those who proposed and drafted it.

It was in fact an initiative from the public service (well, me, actually) and did no more than reaffirm the post Cold War approaches to the alliance already developed under the previous Labor Government. The new government’s lack of ambition had I think two sources.

First, it reflected a general lack of interest in foreign and strategic policy in the first term and a half of the Howard government. It is hard now to recall, in view of what followed after Tampa and 9/11, but only after East Timor did Howard project himself as a national security leader, and start to pay much attention to these issues.

Second, it reflected a deep lack of personal sympathy between Howard and Clinton. Only after Bush got elected did Howard become really focused on the alliance.

The quality of America’s support to Australia during the East Timor crisis is a vexed question. The crux of it is whether the US let us down by not providing ‘boots on the ground’ in East Timor itself. Here is my recollection of the issue.

First, the US did send uniformed military personnel to East Timor under INTERFET, though they were not ‘front-line troops’: they were working an intelligence communications link.

Second, this was fine by us in Australia, because we did not want or need US ‘front line troops’: we had plenty of infantry from elsewhere, and a lot of US forces would have complicated things for us operationally. And for this reason, at the official and military level, we specifically did not ask for them. We did ask for many other things — including a very important commitment to support us militarily if we had been drawn into a conflict with Indonesia — and the US was fully and immediately forthcoming.

Third, this approach to the US was fully understood and approved of by ministers, including the PM, who was of course fully involved in daily NSC discussions of the issue. In my recollection, at no stage in the assembly of INTERFET did Howard or any other Ministers express in these discussions any dissatisfaction with what the US was doing for us.

But fourth, a few weeks after the initial deployment, Howard told parliament that he had asked for US combat troops and was disappointed that they had not been provided. How can we make sense of this? Certainly no request for combat troops was conveyed at the official/military level. In one of his extended interviews for ABC’s ‘The Howard Years’, Howard said he had put such a request directly to Clinton. But if so, why did he not tell his officials to convey the same message?

I can offer no satisfactory explanation for this enigmatic episode, but my hunch is that the Clinton-Howard relationship may have something to do with it. In the end it does not matter much. What does matter is that when we needed support from the US in 1999, the US provided exactly what we asked for. I thought at the time, and still think today, that it was a model of how the alliance should work.

I was out of Government by 2001, so my thoughts on the way the US alliance worked after 9/11 are simply those of an observer. I do not specifically disagree with the points Graeme makes on all this, but I’d shift the emphasis slightly in a few places. 

First, I’m not at all sure that Howard’s being in DC on 9/11 made much difference to the way he acted subsequently. More broadly, I’m sceptical about Graeme’s and Robert Garran’s view that Howard reacted to 9/11 on a level of emotion and instinct rather than political and policy calculation. I think Howard almost always took carefully-considered and quite sophisticated decisions designed to maximise benefits while minimising risks and costs. Recall that Howard worked very hard to minimise the scale of Australia’s military contribution, and the risks of casualties. That is not to say he got things right, but if he made mistakes they were calculated ones.

Second, I think any evaluation of Howard’s decision to support the US in Iraq must look beyond 9/11. The Iraq decision fits a pattern stretching back to the early 1980s, in which Australia has repeatedly used small deployments to support US operations in the Gulf as a demonstration of our alliance credentials. Iraq and Afghanistan are I think best understood as simply the latest in a long line of such deployments, which in general have proved to be very cost-effective forms of alliance-management; for very little effort we have garnered a reputation as a very reliable ally. That is what Howard wanted to do again. But of course Iraq proved to be different.

Third, there is the fascinating question of what could Australia have done other than say ‘yes’. I find it hard to imagine any Australian government, Labor or Liberal, giving the US a flat ‘no’ when it asked for support under those circumstances. But a lot of good policy can be found in the space between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I think that if an Australian government had started to ask questions about Iraq — the sort of questions that many people were asking at the time, and which everyone now agrees should have been the centre of attention — then we might have helped slow the slide to the invasion.

The Administration was not unanimous on the initiative, and especially if we had sown doubts in Whitehall, then probing questions from two valued allies just might have tipped the balance in Washington. But the opportunity to ask questions was lost very early. I said before that Howard almost always took carefully-considered decisions. The one exception was his rush, in early 2002, to pledge in-principle support for Bush’s plans for Iraq, before he’d understood just how different Iraq would be from anything the US had done in the Gulf previously. This was a major failure of judgement, though to be fair it was one shared by many other people.

Finally, Graeme, I must correct you on the actual substance of the ANZUS Treaty. You say, as many others do, that ANZUS only entails an obligation to consult. Not true. Article three commits the parties to consult, but the guts of the treaty is here in article four:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.

That is not as strong as NATO’s article five, but it has still always read to me as a commitment to action.