Labor is failing voters on Iraq

Australians are missing out on a full and frank debate about going to war in Iraq, and our democracy is worse off for it.

While anger and disgust at the actions of Islamic State in Iraq is near universal in the West, the political response in the US is quite different to that seen in Australia. 

US commentators, burned by the aftermath of toppling Saddam Hussein, have made the intellectual leap that allows one to be pro-war at the same time as vehemently against the weakening of democratic institutions at home. In that respect, Australia's political and media classes have some catching up to do. 

On Tuesday, the Washington Post (once decried as a left-wing paper, but in recent years increasingly attacked for links to conservative groups) ran an editorial under the headline: "The US is right to set out to destroy the Islamic State".

The paper laid out its official view of the crisis, saying: "This murderous terrorist army ... can be neither contained nor 'managed', as the President implied in some of his more hesitant previous comments.

"We are glad that the President has come around to a more sober view. But if he is truly committed to the group’s defeat, certain things must follow ... First, the objective -- victory ... if Mr Obama believes that the destruction of the Islamic State is essential to US security, he must commit to that goal and fashion whatever strategy is necessary to achieve it.

"Second, he must explain its necessity to the American people and win the support of their representatives in congress." 

That second point is crucial because in the US as in Australia, there are some grey areas around what democratic mandate is needed to go to war. 

In Australia, section 51(vi) of the Constitution allows for any government of the day to pass legislation to require parliamentary approval for committing to involvement in war. No government has done so since federation, nor is any government likely to do so. Operating on the basis of precedent, therefore, the government does not need to seek parliamentary approval. 

However, in recent weeks, the Greens and some crossbenchers (notably Andrew Wilkie) have called for a new precedent to be set, by having a full debate on why Australia would or would not commit to war and on what terms. 

Precedent is important -- and not only in Australia. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was acting on precedent when he sought parliamentary approval for air strikes in Syria in 2013. There is no legislative requirement to do so, making the parliament's rejection of his plan doubly frustrating for the PM, though not for the voters who pay his wages. 

In the US, there are fewer grey areas of law, though again precedent is important. Under the 1973 war powers resolution, the US president of the day has the power to launch military action, without congressional approval, for up to 90 days. 

However, the president must show that there is some threat to US security in order to do so. 

In January 2013, when President Obama sought to launch air strikes against Syria, he claimed he already had authority to act on the basis that havens for terrorist organisations in Syria meant US security was threatened by future terrorist plots. 

Even so, Obama went to congress to gain its approval and was widely praised for doing so. This was in direct contrast to air strikes he approved against Libya in 2011, for which he was heavily criticised. 

So Obama may be beginning a new tradition, which is both more democratic and that protects the president against future recriminations. It must be said, however, that were he to be perceived in the future as failing the US on national security grounds, it's possible that recriminations might follow for being 'too democratic'. 

On the balance of probabilities, though, Obama made the right choice. As Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith wrote at the time of the congressional vote on Syria: "[Obama] will be incomparably strengthened, legally and especially politically, if he is able to win congressional support. And in any event [with] his request for support from congress, he will force every member to be accountable, one way or the other, for what he does."

As it happened, congress said 'no' in 2013. History will judge whether Obama made the right call. However, a look back through time shows that his actions more closely resemble those of Republican presidents rather than his own side of politics. 

In the 1990s, president Bill Clinton bypassed congress to launch strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan and participate in Kosovo. president Ronald Reagan did not seek approval for air strikes in Libya or troop deployments in Grenada. 

Interestingly, though, both president George HW Bush and his son president George W Bush sought and gained congressional approval for the two wars against Saddam Hussein in 1990 and 2003. 

In Australia, the debate around the Prime Minister and cabinet's powers and mandate to launch military action in Iraq has been muted. The Greens' call for a debate in parliament was widely misreported as being anti-war rather than pro-democracy. In fact, in the past decade, the Greens supported both the Afghanistan conflict and the intervention in East Timor. 

Furthermore, calling for a debate in parliament cuts both ways. 

For instance, it was the Greens who called for the debate on seaborne arrivals in 2012, when hundreds of refugees were drowning on the high seas. 

I sat through six hours of that debate in the House of Representatives, weighed up the arguments, and next day wrote of the Greens' stance: "... the extreme danger of [refugees'] method of reaching Australia should, alone, be reason enough to give priority to legal resettlements. The Greens' hardline policy against offshore processing fails to do that. It risks lives. That's why the Greens should compromise in the Senate today ... If the Greens cannot support a 12-month two-pronged experiment with a new era of offshore processing, they will have drownings on their consciences."

At the time of writing, there are unconfirmed reports that Obama will backflip on seeking congressional approval for attacks on Islamic State, likely to be conducted on both sides of the Syrian border. 

Even if that comes to pass, however, Australia needs to ask itself exactly why there is no need for our parliament to have a full and frank debate about joining such an attack. 

In the latest Essential Media opinion polling, voters are against supplying arms to Kurdish fighters (39 per cent disapprove, 38 per cent approve, 24 per cent don't know). They are against participating in air strikes (42 per cent disapprove, 38 per cent approve, 19 per cent don't know). 

The same poll finds that voters are against following the US into action if it acts unilaterally by a whopping 54 to 27 per cent (19 per cent don't know).

But interestingly, if the US does so with a UN mandate, 45 per cent of Australians approve of our forces joining in, with only 36 per cent disapproving and 19 per cent saying they don't know. 

But how will those voters be represented on the national political stage? By jingoistic headline writers? By a government with a predilection to secrecy? Or perhaps by the opposition?

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told Adelaide's radio FIVEaa earlier this week that "Labor has made it really clear that there is a line in the sand, which is that sending formed up combat units is not going to add to the resolution of peace in that area. But less than that, humanitarian relief to the Kurds, we’re open for that discussion and we do so through the principle of the right to protect people and to make sure that there is an Iraqi national response."

We're "open for that discussion"? Shorten should be doing more to bring about debate in parliament if the Abbott government will not. 

It should not be left to the Greens and Andrew Wilkie, who do not represent mainstream Australia's wishes, to point out that being pro- or anti-war in Iraq is quite a separate matter from being pro-democracy in Australia. 

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