The politics of terror are going to prove extraordinarily difficult to for the leaders of all political parties around the world, but no more so than in Australia where defence and security have been fourth order issues for so many years.
For months now, Australia has been involved in a curious debate about whether to accompany George Bush into battle in the Middle East in order to topple Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq either alone or with the sanction of the United Nations.
To a large extent this has been the phoniest of phoney wars because Australia’s involvement is likely to be not only peripheral to the main event, but negligible in terms of numbers of troops.
Prime Minister John Howard has maintained the line that there has been no official request from the US Administration. However, Bush has reportedly privately sounded out Howard if Australia could consider supplying a “cavalry” force, by which he apparently meant an armoured tank regiment.
With so much of the world opposed to unilateral action against Iraq it is important – even if only symbolically – for Bush if other allies such as Australia join him in a fight against Saddam Hussein.
However, the fact is Australia has no armoured tank regiment to speak of – simply a clapped-out Vietnam-era tank regiment based in Darwin which would be ripped open like sardine cans if actually forced to engage in battle with Russian-made Iraqi desert tanks.
Like other parts of the Australian Army, the Darwin troops are apparently quite well-trained – they are just deficient in weapons, equipment, ammunition – and tanks.
The most likely extent of an Australian contribution might consist of further deployment of the SAS troops, which have earned high praise from the US in Afghanistan.
The SAS troops are a highly-specialised group, but number as few as 150 men plus support at any one time. Australia would also offer Navy patrol boats and RAAF refuelling aircraft in the Gulf as it has done already.
Yet despite this phoney debate it is becoming clearer by the day that, that despite years of spending on controversial billion dollar big ticket items such as submarines and jets, Australia’s Defence Force is seriously undermanned and under-equipped.
East Timor and, to a certain extent, the Bali bombings, have brought Australia’s vulnerability on the ground clearly into focus, and reality is slowly dawning on most serious political players how under-resourced Australia’s Defence Force has become.
Decades of warnings about falling defence spending were ignored or, rather, shouted down by the peace lobby and the veterans of the Vietnam War moratorium marches. At the same time, the Department of Defence itself became moribund, neglected and prone to mismanagement.
Even today it remains the most inefficient, unscrutinised and financially chaotic federal department.
Apart from defence there is clearly going to have to be more money found for security agencies, despite their patchy past record.
There are up to a dozen separate agencies which are generally uncoordinated, and in some instances have conflicting roles. For its part, Labor is at least acknowledging the need for stronger defence and security measures, but appears to be edging towards a position of saying no to any Australian involvement in Iraq – even if it turns out to be a token commitment.
Crean is feeling under tremendous pressure to do something to differentiate himself from the Coalition, having been sidelined by Howard’s role as leader during the terror crisis.
However, any decision to oppose the Government on Iraq could open up the serious divisions already bubbling away under the surface inside the ALP. One sign of these divisions is the fact that the ALP’s long-awaited asylum seeker policy has been delayed a couple of times already.
On the one hand a “No Iraq” policy would suit the left of the party, to whom Crean owes his strongest support. On the other hand it would alienate those who are already very much in the pro-US camp, including ambitious Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd, and perhaps more significantly, Kim Beazley, who has been unequivocal about the need to stamp out Saddam Hussein once and for all.
For Crean there is the added attraction that public opinion – for once – may also be on his side, however short-lived that may be.
Polls suggest strong ambivalence about a war in Iraq, and these attitudes may even have hardened after the Bali bombings. But Crean’s desperation for some product re-badging is only a short-term solution to Labor’s vulnerability on defence and security matters.
Regrettably, given the way the world is rapidly heading, hard political decisions will have to be made for the common good however unpopular those decisions may be at the time. The short-term political gain should not enter the equation.