In major speeches in mid-July Prime Minister Gillard and then-Defence Minister Faulkner clarified the reasons for Australian intervention in Afghanistan. The first was national security, based on a specific threat that the Taliban, if undefeated, would invite al-Qaeda back. This claim was always dubious and lost further credibility in August when the US, after nine years of opposition, finally endorsed President Karzai’s call for peace talks with Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar.
The second reason is the US alliance, which has been a major influence on defence policy ever since World War II, when Australian troops were brought back from the Middle East to fight with the US in the Pacific. Its benefits were again manifest in more recent years, during the Australia-led, UN mandated peace-keeping intervention in East Timor - it is doubtful if we would have accepted this role without the support of the US, and the symbolic presence of an offshore US warship. We cannot know for certain, but many people would like to think that this support was in some measure a reflection of goodwill arising from the alliance.
In these cases the use of force was justified by international law and ordinary morality. But where this is in question the alliance argument is irrelevant, even though it still influences debates. This is an important point, but one which largely escapes notice; to explain it one might begin by asking why so many people are troubled by the idea that war can be justified - that lethal force can be used against others - for reasons of national self-interest, such as to protect commercial and security interests in a good relationship with a powerful ally.
They believe exactly the opposite, that self-interest can never justify harming others. They assume that to justify war one must argue on widely accepted moral grounds, as nations do when they appeal, however sincerely, to principles of justice and humanity which underlie the right of self-defence in international law and a claimed right to intervene in a civil war. International law is quite categorical on this point; it prohibits discretionary wars fought to serve national interests; otherwise nations could, like school bullies, justify violence simply by pointing to the spoils. Expressed in this way, few politicians would disagree.
In practice, however, nations sometimes pursue their interests regardless of the rights of others. This has been described as Realpolitik, a theory of statecraft said to favour pragmatic over ideological policies. Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, has been charged by his critics, notably by Christopher Hitchens, with taking this to extremes, flouting international legal and moral standards while directing US cold war policy in the 70s. Although actions against him are still pressing in France and Spain in respect of war crimes said to arise from a CIA-backed coup in Chile, there is no evidence that he ever advocated such a view; indeed, apart from leaders of terrorist movements, it is hard to find any public figure who argues that war is justified by self-interest. Whether Kissinger is responsible for war crimes is, however, another and as yet unresolved question.
This suggests confusion over what is at stake when governments justify war by talking about national interests. No one denies they must pursue such interests, including the security and wellbeing of citizens; at the same time, those who appeal to the alliance would be astonished that anyone might think they would kill and maim innocent people to increase the standard of living or to boost national security. They would, on reflection, agree that this is wrong, and that the extreme violence of war must be justified in legal and moral terms - that it must comply with widely accepted legal norms. This is, after all, what the Iraq War debate was all about.
In the case of the alliance, this confusion of interests with values is made worse by confusing a justification with an ancillary benefit. The alliance (whether seen as a duty of mutual support or a means to advance commercial and security interests) is not itself a reason to fight a discretionary war; keeping the promise and pursuing our national interests are important, but only if the war is justified in principle. This is why the argument is used only by the weaker party, which sees itself as reliant on the goodwill of powerful allies. The US President and the UK Prime Minister would have been ridiculed had they asserted that, regardless of any security threat, the Afghanistan war was justified by the value of “the Australian alliance”.
The question is why this pseudo-argument has proved so resilient. Part of the reason is that an alliance is an obvious and prudent choice for any nation facing a threat of aggression; as a mutual defence pact few would question it. But in practice matters are easily blurred; the claim of pre-emptive defence may become a pretext for an armed strike or invasion contrary to international law. If the claim is controversial in this way, as it was in the Iraq War, the debate will focus on legal and factual issues over whether the war is one of aggression or defence; as that war demonstrated, controversy over these matters may continue for years.
The alliance rationale survives because of this uncertainty, and it is not hard to see why. If the war was clearly illegal no responsible politician would say we must support it, regardless of US foreign policy. This means that to avoid joining in a war of aggression the alliance must presuppose a genuine threat to one party such that armed force is necessary to counter it. That is, the threat will in principle justify going to war without allies, if there is no other choice. But this means the alliance cannot be a separate reason to back up the threat to security; it makes sense only if read as the same argument in a different dress, but with a duty to assist other parties facing the same threat. In short, the rationale is irrelevant because it assumes the war is already justified.
Despite this logic, the argument, because it emphasises long term defence needs and keeping faith with a commitment, has a special appeal for political leaders, especially when the primary case for war, the alleged security threat, is suspect. For John Howard and others it was another reason for the Iraq war. It also brings a special danger, that once accepted we are vulnerable to assumptions of fact which underpin the security threat but which (as in Iraq) cannot be supported by the evidence. This risk is aggravated by the inability of political leaders to admit they were wrong, and because casualties are too often seen as an investment, with victory needed to show our troops did not die in vain.
The alliance supports obligations of mutual support when parties face a genuine threat. So understood it makes perfect sense; but it cannot, in the absence of this threat, be used to justify an aggressive war. It is therefore time to bury the alliance as a reason to commit Australian troops in overseas wars, including the resurgent civil war in Afghanistan. Those who find it hard to break the habit should be asked if they truly believe that national self-interest can justify the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. It is a puzzling feature of the debate that even seasoned journalists cannot ask this question; they listen politely while leaders repeat the mantra, seemingly unaware of what it really means.
Like politicians who pay homage to the alliance, they seem unaware that the genesis of international law lies in the prohibition of discretionary war; but it also shows how far the ordinary morality of a community can be subtly distorted, with hardly anyone noticing, in order to serve its material interests and the ambitions of its leaders.