Why Australia must support the war against terrorism

Darryl S. L. Jarvis, The University of Sydney

Much changed on September 11 with the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. The implications extend far beyond a plummeting Dow Jones, international angst, and possible global recession. More important have been the dramatic changes wrought in the fissure lines that define international strategic alliances and friend from foe. Historically, these have extended from one national power bloc to another, with terrorist organisations a mere irritant to inter-state based politics. Clearly, this is no longer the case. Terrorist security issues are now front and centre, heralding a new era in security politics.

In part, this explains the condemnation of these activities by virtually all nation-states; a gut-felt reaction that stems from the challenge terrorism poses to global order, commercial activities, diplomacy, and the possibility for democratic state-based outcomes.

Not surprisingly, the response to terrorism is being engineered through the construction of an international coalition of states, whose objectives will be pursued through the systematic interdiction of terrorists, their sponsors, and the funds used to support them. Not unlike the cold war against communism, this war too will be fought on many fronts, but mainly through encirclement and the sheer might that the international community of states will muster. This will be formidable.

Strategies of appeasement abrogate Australia’s commitments as a member of the community of states.

There is a danger to the success of this project, however, one experienced countless times before, and manifested in three forms. The first concerns appeals to strategies that champion appeasement, pacifism, and for some even isolationism. That this ‘is not Australia’s problem’, does not require ‘Australia to be involved to solve it’, or that active involvement will ‘endanger Australian citizens and interests’, are well-rehearsed arguments that call for non-engagement (see, for example, recent letters to the editor in The Australian, The Age, and speeches made to the recent demonstration held in Sydney against the ‘US War Against Terrorism’).

Unfortunately, these strategies abrogate Australia’s broader commitments as a member of the community of states, mortally wound multilaterialism—the very life blood that advances Australia’s interests as a middle power—and assume an isolationist age that has long since passed. Munich in 1938 should have long put to rest appeasement approaches in the face of persistent international terrorism, and pacifism should rightly be seen as the lifeblood that will feed and strengthen further terrorist actions.

The second danger emanates from concerns about being part of a ‘war’ process whose level of engagement will, we are told, result in unacceptable collateral damage and the death of innocent civilians. The concern here is with massive retaliation, the result of which will not succeed in bringing to justice the terrorists but only dislocate further innocent victims.

The argument is laudatory, but ill conceived, for it assumes a conventional and indiscriminate response based upon massive retaliation through air strikes and or land based invasion. However, what we can observe to date is an extremely circumspect response from the US, dominated by a ‘law and order’ approach and undoubtedly underwritten with highly focused special forces operations built around an international coalition for interdiction. Indeed, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, have explicitly talked down the prospects of an indiscriminate response, careful to insist that the US does not which to splinter moderate Islamic states from the international coalition or to wreak harm on innocent non-combatants. As a sign of this, the US has already distributed food aid to Afghanistan, signalling that their qualms are not with the Afghani people, but the Taliban and the terrorists they harbour. Fears about contributing to ‘indiscriminate slaughter’ and a ‘disproportionate response’ thus appear ill founded.

Evidence of this can also be found in the October 8th US / British air and cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan, which have been highly specific, targeting communication centres in Kabul, commercial airfields, Al Qaida training camps in Jalalabad, and communications facilities and power lines in Kabul in an effort to destroy the Taliban’s ability to govern effectively. The response has been both proportionate and restrained, attuned to the broader objectives of political destabilisation of the Taliban.

Fears of ‘indiscriminate slaughter’ and a ‘disproportionate response’ appear ill founded.

The third such danger is, perhaps, the more insidious, and has corollaries with current debates in the criminal justice system that reassign blame away from perpetrators of criminal activities to systemic causes. Popular among left intellectuals, for example, is the propensity to criticise United States foreign policy as itself ‘terrorist’, wreaking loss of life through orchestrating global poverty that, they insist, causes the deaths of millions through privation. John Pilger, one such proponent, notes, for example:

Far from being the world’s predominant terrorists, the Islamic peoples have been its victims—principally the victims of American fundamentalism, a crusade whose power, in all its forms—military, strategic and economic - is the greatest source of terrorism on earth.

The willingness to kill large numbers of non-Americans in pursuit of its interests has been a feature of U.S. policy, which has long rested on a foundation of state terrorism (Pilger 2001).

On this take, the US has realised the effects of its own terrorism; a kind of Karma has punished the perpetrators of the ‘real’ atrocities. On trial should be US foreign policy, not Osama Bin Laden: a poor rich millionaire or modern day Robin Hood pushed to extreme actions. All of us, instead, should look to the ‘causes of terrorism’, for it is here where true evil will be found.

This approach is akin to not blaming the rapist, robber, or murderer, but looking to the extenuating circumstances responsible for constructing the pathologies that push individuals to commit evil. Proactive international engagement in the campaign against terrorism, is thus left moot, since it is really the United States we should be fighting, not the terrorists—the ‘victims’ of US terrorism. So it is that the faint voices of discontent with United States foreign policy grow louder with each day out from the attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.

For Australian defence planners and political decision-makers, the greatest danger lies in this type of discourse infiltrating debates concerning how Australia should respond, if we should respond, and in what fashion. Already there is a growing cry for Australia to back pedal, not to commit military personnel, equipment, or even render intelligence assistance to the US. But Australia’s national interests should be viewed aside from the debate about the rectitude of US foreign policy, as should the debate about standing firm against terrorism.

Australia’s national interests are rooted in a global economic and political architecture premised on commercial interaction, orderly disputation settlement processes, and rule governed behaviour through the progressive extension of international regimes. Terrorism is antithetical to this and rightly deserves a strong response to end it.

To that end, Australia has responded proactively, unilaterally invoking the ANZUS Treaty (Article IV), undertaking to provide whatever assistance necessary—within our capacity—to support the United States’ war against terrorism.

Declining a proactive role in the war against terrorism will serve the interests of the terrorists.

Frenetic media coverage has likened this commitment to placing Australia ‘on a war footing’, with the media now on a ‘war watch’ awaiting the replication of the Gulf War but this time played out against the Taliban. Again, such assumptions would be wrong. The US ‘war against terrorism’ will be far from that; more attuned to a prolonged ‘cold war’ interspersed with infrequent hot flashes at worst.

What are the immediate implications for Australia? Very little. Early requests from the US, for example, have merely involved the placement of Australian navy frigates undertaking patrolling responsibilities in the Persian Gulf. And, apart from on-going intelligence gathering and sharing responsibilities, Australian has simply been requested to follow America’s lead with the resumption of defence links with Pakistan to help bolster the regime. Most recently the Howard Government has confirmed that a small detachment of Special Air Services personnel will join their British counterparts and US Delta forces engaged in special operations in Afghanistan. At worst, we might be asked for significant troop deployment in support of perimeter security duties, engineers, and logistical support. In all, these commitments will be less than extensive and far from costly.

What will Australia gain from this? First, it will gain greater access to senior US policy makers, providing a receptive diplomatic climate to pursue our regional security concerns. Second, this will assist Australia to engage the US in our region more thoroughly, providing greater insurance against the emergence of ‘hot events’ with adverse implications for Australia’s security. Third, it will exert greater pressure on Indonesia, with President Bush already suggesting to President Megawati a need to address the issue of radical Islamic elements in the country, and to better monitor migratory movements and eradicate Indonesian complicity in people smuggling—something Australia has been unable to achieve unilaterally. Fourth, it will remove pressure from Sino - US relations, and dampen the question of Taiwan, greatly improving the security outlook in the Pacific, otherwise one of Australia’s most pressing security concerns. Finally, the US-Australian bilateral relationship with be strengthened with, one assumes, greater openings for trade negotiations.

There is, in short, much to be gained by standing firm with the Americans, not least of which will be a multilateral reduction in terrorist threats for all states.

The alternative approach would endanger Australia’s security. Declining a proactive role in the war against terrorism will serve the interests of the terrorists, highlighting disunity in the international community and fragmenting any response to it. More immediately, Australia would fail to insure US sponsorship for its security, possibly leading to reduced US engagement in the region. Trade negotiations would also prove more difficult, with less than stellar outcomes for Australian manufacturers and primary producers.

Well we might ponder the rectitude of the foreign policy of the United States, but we must not fail to meet terrorist violence with force, save the very structures of the international system will be imperilled.


Pilger, John (2001) ‘America must Share the Blame for Atrocities’, Western Daily Press, September 25.

Darryl S .L. Jarvis is Lecturer in Government & International Relations, School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney. He teaches units on international relations and international risk, and is currently completing an edited volume titled Handbook of International Business Risk: The Asia Pacific, 2002-2003.

View other articles by Darryl Jarvis: