Just a year ago the world was appalled by reports that the Assad Government had used chemical weapons against its opponents in Syria’s civil war. Washington and London were calling for military action, and Kevin Rudd was loudly cheering them on. But Tony Abbott took a different line. In the midst of the federal election campaign, Abbott called for restraint.
This was the moment he famously described the Syrian civil war as ''baddies versus baddies'', casting doubt on the wisdom of any armed intervention, and playing down the military contribution that Australia should make even if our allies decided to strike.
In the event, of course, they didn’t. Barack Obama and David Cameron both backed off in the face of deep resistance from their electorates to further military commitments in the Middle East. They sheepishly accepted a Russian-brokered deal with Damascus instead.
This made Abbott look quite smart. It reinforced an impression that he was inclined to be careful about committing Australia‘s armed forces far from home where this country's interests were unclear, and the military objectives were ill-defined.
And it gave substance to his campaign promise to pursue a more modest, focused and practical foreign policy. There was going to be less global grandstanding in the Security Council and more careful cultivation of really important relationships closer to home. This was ''Jakarta not Geneva'' in action.
How different things look today. Abbott spent last week overseas on a trip with no discernible purpose or outcome, except to identify himself more closely with the events in Ukraine and Iraq. Julie Bishop wins plaudits for her success in getting a resolution through the Security Council on MH17, while Australia is taking a lead in urging stronger sanctions against Moscow over its policy in Ukraine.
Abbott is happy to consider sending the SAS to Northern Iraq to fight IS and, in a reversal of roles from last year, seems eager to do so while Barack Obama holds back. Then over the weekend it was reported that Abbott had seriously considered deploying 1000 Australian soldiers to occupy the MH17 crash site in Eastern Ukraine. Fortunately wiser, cooler heads prevailed.
Meanwhile issues closer to home have inevitably got less attention. Our troubled relationship with Jakarta remains in limbo, Australia was represented at this year’s South Pacific Forum by Warren Truss, and Abbott missed the chance to discuss Asia-Pacific security with the US Secretaries of State and Defence in Sydney.
So something has changed. One might say that the Abbott government has discovered that in a globalised world, Australia’s interests are engaged in many parts of the planet that are much closer to Geneva than Jakarta. And of course that is true, up to a point.
As we know, Australia is not immune to what happens in Ukraine because Australians fly over Ukraine. And Australia is not immune to the disaster that is engulfing Iraq and Syria, because Australians have gone there to fight. And Abbott might say that our values are engaged in these crises as well. So Australia must be willing to take and stand and play its part in these great global events.
But of course that is what Kevin Rudd used to say, too, and no doubt he meant it. But Rudd’s approach lacked both a sense of proportion and a sense of practicality. Rudd always saw today’s crisis as the defining issue of the age, and was always so sure that ''something must be done'' that he didn’t pause to ask what realistically could be done that had any serious chance of working.
The destruction of MH17 was a terrible tragedy, but it has no wider implications for Australian foreign policy. The Government is right to help where it can to assuage the grief of those left bereaved. But it should not confuse this with foreign policy, and it should not make the mistake of concluding that the wider Ukrainian crisis has become a top priority for Australia.
Likewise the collapse of Iraq and Syria and the emergence of IS as a serious political and strategic force in the Middle East, is a serious development in a region in which Australia has clear interests. But we should not exaggerate what it means for us and in particular, we should not exaggerate the direct threat it poses to Australia’s security.
Good security policy requires a capacity to form sober assessments of threats that avoid both complacency and alarmism. Our assessments of IS have started to veer sharply towards alarmism: yes, it is a serious concern, but it is not a threat to our way of life. And we should not assume that a proportionate and practicable response to the threat as it really stands, would include deploying Australian forces for combat operations there. We have been this way before and it ended badly.
The bold global statesman who is our prime minister today is rather different from the cautious and conservative regionalist of a year ago. Perhaps we should not be too surprised that Abbott and his team have lost their foreign and security policy bearings over the past few months.
It has been a strange and disquieting time crowded with crises and disasters. But there is a risk that they will learn the wrong lessons, especially when they find, as they have, that the normally sceptical commentators and analysts are so willing to praise their efforts on the global stage. Just as they used to praise Kevin Rudd.
Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.
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