Leading article Australia

A foreign policy realist

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

‘The United States does not want either side to win this war. Victory for either side would mean dreadful massacres and ethnic cleansing, as well as an increased threat of international terrorism if the rebels win.’ So said Anatol Lieven, the distinguished foreign-policy expert, in the International Herald Tribune this week. In other words, Washington does not have a dog in this fight between baddies.

All of this is well known to any sound observer of Syria’s civil war, a colossal debacle in which there is little to choose for brutality between the competing factions. Which makes it very strange that Kevin Rudd should go to great lengths to berate Tony Abbott, who merely shares the sensible caution of our Anglo-American allies. The caretaker Prime Minister has seized on the opposition leader’s use of the term ‘baddies’ in relation to both sides in Syria’s civil war, slamming it as ‘simplistic’. ‘Words are bullets,’ the sanctimonious Mr Rudd warns, and Mr Abbott’s failure to side with the rebellion, especially the opposition Syrian National Coalition means diplomats all over the globe would ‘scratch their heads’ and ‘walk away in horror at this appalling error of foreign policy judgment.’ According to Mr Rudd, a Prime Minister Abbott will damage Australia’s standing in the world.

But if anyone needs their head read, it is Mr Rudd. Leave aside the rank hypocrisy of his sermon: the Chinese are still fuming about being called ‘ratfuckers’ at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. The point here is that Mr Abbott’s realist response to this simmering cauldron of sectarian malevolence is perfectly justified. For one thing, the two-and-a-half-year conflict is morally ambiguous. Yes, President Assad is a wicked tyrant. But far from being modern-day minutemen, many rebels are linked to powerful and sinister groups of West-hating Islamist fundamentalists, including al-Qa’eda.

Meanwhile, Washington is wary of entangling itself more deeply in what is essentially an anti-Iranian (and historically anti-Russian) alliance with the Sunni autocracies of the Persian Gulf that back the Syrian rebels. As Dr Lieven warns, a Western alliance with the rebellion would sit badly with our own secular and democratic values, our commitment to a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq and our hopes for ending vicious sectarian rifts in the region.

Against this background, Mr Abbott — like President Obama, many US Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as British Conservative and Labour parliamentarians — is surely right to be cautious about military intervention. And Mr Rudd is surely naive if he thinks a middle power such as Australia can help bring the Syrian dictatorship to heel.

But this is ‘Kevin 747’, whose excessive activity and zeal on the world stage all too often degenerates into mere thrashing around and childish posturing in an attempt to make Australia punch above its weight.

Mr Abbott, in contrast, recognises Talleyrand’s wise advice ‘Above all, gentlemen, not the slightest zeal,’ which shows a profound distaste for busyness. This is especially the case when none of the supporters of a military strike against Syria has a clear sense of the mission. If it is a punitive strike against Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, what are the prospects of retaliation? If the mission is to topple the regime, can we be confident that the scores of insurgent groups fighting against Assad won’t be as nasty or even worse in power? Will intervention ease the suffering in Syria, or prolong and exacerbate it? Given that the political objective remains perilously unclear, there is much to be said for Mr Abbott’s straight talking and foreign policy realism.

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