March 6, 2003

March 6, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Asia's Tony Blair

For a nation of just 20 million people, Australia is punching way above its weight on the international stage. With 2,000 Australian troops, together with navy frigates and fighter jets being deployed to the Persian Gulf, Australia is the only country that has so far offered substantial military units to fight alongside Great Britain and the United States in the liberation of Iraq.

It will be Australia's biggest military contribution since the Vietnam War, and follows from its substantial participation in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which involved 1,550 Australian soldiers including a contingent from the Special Air Service. Australian involvement in an Iraq war will continue a rich tradition of military cooperation between Canberra and Washington. Indeed the two nations have fought together in every major conflict involving the U.S. since the start of the 20th century.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard's tough position on dealing with Saddam Hussein is reaping dividends in Washington, where there is growing recognition of Canberra's contribution to the coalition of the willing on Iraq, and its significant role in the war on terror.

Comparisons are being drawn between Mr. Howard and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Like Mr. Blair, Mr. Howard is regarded by senior figures in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush as a staunch, unswerving ally, and his recent summit meeting with Mr. Bush at Camp David was recognition of the growing importance attached to the U.S.-Australian relationship. It is striking that just four world leaders have been invited to talks with Mr. Bush on Iraq: Mr. Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Mr. Howard.

The Australian Prime Minister employs the same fiery rhetoric as his British counterpart. In his op-ed article published last week in all three global editions of The Wall Street Journal ("You Can't 'Contain' Saddam,"1 Feb. 26) one could detect the echo of Mr. Blair's voice charged with a dash of Churchillian thunder. Mr. Howard warned that the consequences for mankind if Saddam Hussein unleashed his weapons of mass destruction would be "horrific," and that "the cost of doing nothing is infinitely greater than the cost of acting."

Both leaders have defied strong antiwar sentiment domestically to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Bush, and both have survived key parliamentary votes that have questioned their leadership. The Australian Senate recently passed a vote of no confidence in Mr. Howard and his Liberal/National coalition government, although a similar motion was defeated in the lower House of Representatives.

Like Mr. Blair, Mr. Howard is taking heavy flak from regional powers over his pro-U.S. stance. While Mr. Blair is fending off criticism from Paris and Berlin, the Australian prime minister is parrying fire from Beijing over his decision to examine possible Australian participation in the U.S. missile defense system. Britain and Australia have taken the lead internationally in welcoming the Bush administration's plans for missile defense. Mr. Howard is considering allowing American missiles to be based on Australian soil, while the U.K. has already agreed the U.S. can use a royal air force base as part of its global missile-shield system.

The contrast between Australia's position on Iraq and that of Canada, a similar size power internationally, could not be more striking. As one of the world's eight leading economic nations, Canada has played a role in the international debate over Iraq that is both underwhelming and insignificant, reflecting an attitude of nonchalance toward the U.S. drive to build an international coalition.

As a consequence, Canadian influence on White House policy is virtually nonexistent. Indeed many Washington policy makers view Ottawa as a minor irritation, carping from the sidelines. Mr. Howard is undoubtedly a far more influential figure in Washington than Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Australian forces are likely to not only play a role in any military action against Iraq, but also in a postwar security operation. It is probable that Britain, with its experience in leading peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Sierra Leone, will play the lead role in any security operation following the liberation of Iraq. Australian forces, with experience in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, would then be integrated into the U.S.-British command structure.

Strategists in Washington envisage that a force of 60,000 troops, including 20,000 British and other non-U.S. Allied forces, will be needed in postwar Iraq. Such a force would be responsible for hunting down weapons of mass destruction, protecting Iraq's energy infrastructure, securing its large cities and defending Iraq's borders.

Australian involvement in such a high-profile operation will considerably enhance Canberra's standing on the international stage, and mark it out as a serious player in postwar Iraqi reconstruction. Governments opposed to military action against Iraq, which currently include France, Germany, Russia and China, could well find themselves frozen out of any role in rebuilding the Iraqi nation post-Saddam.

Australian participation in a postwar security force would also be an important symbol of increasing U.S.-Australian cooperation. There is little doubt that Canberra's unconditional backing for Washington over Iraq will greatly strengthen military as well as economic ties between the two countries in coming years.

The U.S. is likely to provide Canberra with full assistance in its plans to create a new antiterrorism unit, including Special Forces training, equipment provisions and logistics support. The counterterrorist force is expected to comprise over 300 commandos and will supplement the existing SAS units. They would be expected to fight terrorism both in Australia and elsewhere. The U.S. and Australia already have a robust intelligence-sharing agreement and, in the wake of the Bali terrorist attack, Mr. Howard has articulated a preemptive strategy for dealing with terrorists that received strong support from the White House.

The Bush administration will also press ahead with plans to strengthen economic ties with Australia through a free-trade agreement, negotiations for which are expected to begin on March 17. The U.S. currently provides Australia with 20% of its imports, and a free-trade deal would boost the Australian economy by more than $2.2 billion a year. The U.S. is already Australia's biggest foreign investor, with American firms holding assets of $97 billion in the country. Conversely, New Zealand, which has been a frequent and smug critic of American national-security policies, will have to wait much longer for a free-trade agreement.

Mr. Howard's determined support for Mr. Bush over Iraq, missile defense and the war against terrorism has propelled Australia into the big league of international players. His actions and statements in recent months have mirrored those of Mr. Blair, and just as Mr. Blair has emerged as the most powerful voice in Europe on the international stage, Mr. Howard has positioned himself as America's most trusted partner in Asia.

Since Sept. 11, Britain has greatly strengthened its position as a global political and military power, while Australia has emerged as a regional force to be reckoned with. Canberra is in a position to move from strength to strength in the 21st century, but will need to maintain and build upon the vision and strategic clarity that Mr. Howard has brought to his country.

Dr. Nile Gardiner is visiting fellow in Anglo-American security policy, and Mr. Dillon is senior policy analyst in Asian studies, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

Dana Robert Dillon Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center

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