Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 10:23 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 10:23 | SYDNEY

War and decision


Sam Roggeveen


9 July 2008 16:19

Andrew Shearer's suspicion is correct. My reference to Iraq as a 'war of choice' was a lazy throwaway line that I'll try to never use again. A corollary to the 'wars of choice' idea is that war should only ever be a last resort, but as with 'wars of choice', that's an abstract phrase that collapses on close examination. There is always something one can do to avoid resort to war, so it is impossible to know when the last resort has actually arrived. Similarly, as Andrew points out, war is always a choice. Even the Kokoda example Andrew cites as a campaign of necessity was, stictly speaking, a choice. We could always have surrendered.

If that sounds a disappointingly rapid climb-down, I will add that I stand by the sentiment expressed in the post (that improving the ADF capacity for expeditionary operations will only encourage governments to undertake more of them), and that I disagree with Andrew's broader point that

...we need to ensure that the decisions we take now equip future Australian governments with a flexible and affordable range of capabilities to confront contingencies we can’t even begin to foresee.

Sounds uncontroversial, but there's more tension in that passage than Andrew allows.  The fact is, our military capabilities can either be highly flexible, or they can be very affordable, but they cannot be both. When we improve on one, we impinge on the other, so our defence policy will always be a compromise between the two. Hugh White gets at this tension when he says that 'the job of current policy is to shape forces which give future governments the widest possible range of military options in the widest range of circumstances for every dollar we spend' (emphasis added).

But in my view neither argument really stacks up against actual practice. When you examine our actual defence policy, you find that we routinely and voluntarily reduce our flexibility to deal with future crises, and for good reason. To take just one example, Australia could, at modest cost, develop an offensive biological warfare capability. We could also sponsor terrorism as part of our defence policy, much as Iran does. Clearly it is not in our broader foreign policy or national security interests to do this, but it illustrates the point: we make any number of conscious choices to constrain our own military flexibility.

Once you concede these two points ([1] we can only afford so much military flexibility, and [2] military flexibility is not an absolute virtue but is subject to our broader foreign policy aims) it is really no stretch at all to argue that our defence policy can be designed specifically to preclude certain military options.

I realise this only addresses half the argument. It is one thing to say that governments should, in principle, constrain their own military flexibility. It is another thing to argue that it is wise to do so. Andrew and Hugh seem to agree that it is not, and that the government should have maximum flexibility. I have already argued that they don't literally mean this, since I know they don't want Australia to become a terrorist sponsor or the like. So I assume they mean that Australia should maintain its expeditionary capabilities.

I come at this from a conservative, small government perspective. It is one of life's great ironies that some of the most prominent American sponsors of the Iraq invasion worked in the Reagan Administration, which came to power partly on the proposition that government was not the solution to Americans' problems, it was the problem. When these same men, in positions of great authority in the Bush II Administration, confronted the problem of Iraq, they decided that what was needed to fix that problem was a huge dose of American government.

In a smaller way, our political leaders suffered from similar hubris, and I think it is time to return to a period of military modesty. I say this partly for the same reason Hugh worries about the region — we are facing uncertain times, and should focus our military resources on the most serious threats. If that means cutting into our ability to conduct more discretionary operations that don't have a major bearing on our national interests, we should do so.