In retrospect, the 1991 Gulf War was the last American success in the Middle East. With turmoil in Libya and Yemen, difficulties in Turkey and Egypt, and continuing problems in Iraq and Syria, the whole region is more at risk than ever. Indeed, America, for all its fumbling attempts to withdraw from Iraq, has committed to a new air war in Iraq and Syria. President Obama must know that any kind of victory over the Islamic State cannot be achieved without effective ground forces. To commit to an air war without ground forces being in place, or in sight, is an act of strategic folly. It again underlines the melancholy fact that we are far too close to the United States.
We know what is said about Iraq. We are told that the new government will overcome the divisions between Sunni and Shia and that training from the United States and Australia will strengthen the Iraqi army and help it stand up to the Islamic State. But there is no sign yet that the new Iraqi government is able to build a cohesive Iraq. If it cannot, all the airpower in the world will not be successful in the war against the Islamic State. In Syria, where the slaughter continues unabated, where the country is being denuded and where hundreds of thousands of refugees are seeking shelter in neighboring countries, the situation is even more alarming.
The United States has been too ready to rush in and assume the people fighting a brutal dictator are necessarily going to have higher ideals as well as a better sense of values than the person they are fighting against. In relation to the rebels in Syria who have morphed into the Islamic State, that assumption was certainly wrong. The assumption that the so-called good rebels can be an effective force is also most likely to be proved false. How much moderation is there really among the “moderate” opposition?
So America, Australia, Britain and others have embarked on this new war. We have been told it will take many years, but without troops on the ground, which I agree should not be ours or American, the chances of a peaceful outcome or a defeat of the Islamic State are slight. We have pliantly followed America into a war where the United States has acted without marshaling the necessary forces, the necessary coalition and the necessary assets to achieve a military and strategic victory. The reality is, at this stage, that there is no achievable and defined “end point”—no real characterization of what success will look like. Radical groups have emerged, designed to end Western influence throughout the region. Does this mean that such groups represent an existential threat to people further afield? So often, as we have learned more, and tragically often in retrospect, we have found that our basic assumptions were wrong. What we do know is that the Middle East is now more dangerously poised than at any time in the postwar years for further conflagration.
In Afghanistan, while most NATO forces are withdrawing, about ten thousand American troops are going to remain. We are likely to see increased attacks by the Taliban, who do not appear to have been particularly weakened by the long years of warfare. The way in which war has been conducted through South Asia—especially the use of drones, which have killed significant numbers of civilians—provides the extremists with a welcome and potent recruiting tool. Nor is this all. Events in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine also represent a grotesque failure of U.S. diplomacy and a reduction in American influence worldwide. This has so often occurred because the United States (and, indeed, the West generally) interprets events through its own eyes without taking historical circumstances into account.
THERE HAVE also been significant strategic changes much closer to Australia, in the Pacific and throughout East and Southeast Asia. Here, too, we have increasing tension. Western commentators tend to say that the rise of China and its growing military power are at the center of that tension. Unfortunately, Chinese and Asian perceptions of what is happening often differ from American or Australian interpretations of events.
The United States has sought to counter China’s military buildup and what it regards as growing Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. It is worth putting these matters into a broader context. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Chinese military expenditure in 2013 was 11 percent of the world’s total. America’s was 37 percent. There are vast differences in the circumstances of the two countries. America has no military problems on its borders, but claims to have worldwide responsibility and a need to exercise force anywhere in the globe. China has traditionally been, and continues to be, more concerned with its own region. It does have a number of unstable situations on its borders, problems between India and Pakistan, and difficulties with Iran and Iraq, to say nothing of an unpredictable North Korea. These factors alone give China a reason for a significant military force, a reason that the United States does not have.
But, as with Ukraine, relationships with China are also a function of history. The “unequal treaties” forced upon China are distant in our memory, but are deeply relevant to the way China deals with issues at the present time. Because of Chinese withdrawal then and in the years after World War II, during which much of China was ravaged and brutalized by Japanese imperial forces, China has not participated as much to help solve major international problems as a country of its size and stature might be expected to do. What’s more, from China’s perspective, a number of events would be regarded as provocative. First, the United States’ handing of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands back to Japan in 1971 occurred at a time when Sino-American relations hardly existed. There was little thought of the fact that Japan had taken those islands from China in 1895, and it has turned out to have been a provocative decision. It was an event that was ignored at the time, though, as China had no means then of asserting itself.
More recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s attempt to get Cam Ranh Bay reopened as a U.S. naval base would surely have been seen by the Chinese as provocative. This was something the Vietnamese had the good sense to reject, on the grounds that Cam Ranh Bay was open to the navies of many nations who might wish to use it. It should not become a base for the United States—or any other country, for that matter. China has welcomed U.S. diplomatic engagement, but at the same time wonders what policy America is actually pursuing—one of consultation and discussion and perhaps collaboration, or one of rearmament, encirclement and containment. Which America is going to win out? The one that wishes to talk, or the one that relies on military solutions?
Many have written about the possibility of war between China and the United States. If left to the two great powers, war could probably be avoided, but with Japan in the equation, it is a different matter. Japan has become more assertive. Far more nationalistic, if you like, with a growing militarism. It already possesses very powerful military forces, with a capacity to develop, in short order, effective and long-range nuclear weapons. Japan claims there is no dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But this is unpersuasive. For one thing, the United States recently affirmed that its defense guarantee for Japan extends to those islands, thus effectively siding with Japan in that particular dispute. That act was a major strategic mistake by the United States, one that will encourage Japan to be increasingly assertive.
If shooting starts between China and Japan, then it is not possible to say with any certainty that calmer heads will prevail and that serious dangers will be averted. Such a dispute could easily lead to a long, drawn-out war, which the United States may well not win. If over many years the United States could not win in Vietnam, despite the resources poured into that particular war, how could it possibly win in a contest with China? If, moreover, Australia were to become involved in such a contest, we would become a defeated ally of a defeated superpower. Such an outcome would place Australia at great risk, leaving it without a friend in our entire region. And unlike America, we cannot retreat to the Western Hemisphere in this event.
AUSTRALIA HAS been far too quiescent and passive. After 1990, Australia could have exhibited a greater degree of strategic independence, but did not. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Australia still had the capacity to make its own decisions about peace and war. We did not have to follow America. We were not committed purely because America was committed. In other words, up to that point, we had maintained the integrity of Australia as a sovereign nation, despite our close relationship with the United States. Up to that time, facilities on the Australian mainland did not, and could not, commit Australia to follow America into a war. These developments have occurred in the years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.