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National security has become the Prime Minister's only topic of conversation, and there is peril in that, writes HUGH WHITE.
Before he became Prime Minister, Tony Abbott hardly spoke about national security, but today he talks of little else. Indeed, national security now seems to define and dominate his leadership. That works for him politically, but it carries a risk. To keep national security on the front pages, he has become locked into a spiral of ever-rising risk assessments and increasingly draconian policy responses.
Already his risk assessments are seriously exaggerated and many of his responses are ill-considered. And it is not clear where this escalating spiral ends, because there is little sign he or his government are likely to find anything else to talk about. Until they, do he has little choice but to keep talking up our vulnerability and ratcheting up his responses. There is a danger he will go too far.
To say that Abbott exaggerates the threat is not to say we face no threat at all. The collapse of order in the Middle East, the rise of Islamic State and the risk of regional and home-grown terrorism are all serious issues that require serious responses. But they need to be properly analysed and understood, and kept in proportion. It is unlikely the government's senior national security advisers believe the threat posed by IS is as serious as Abbott and his ministerial colleagues suggest.
One wonders whether they believe it all themselves. Consider, for example, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's statement a couple of months ago that IS poses a bigger threat than the Cold War. Perhaps she had temporarily forgotten the bitter ideological struggle against Stalinism and Maoism, the major wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the ever-present and very real the danger of a global nuclear conflict, which would kill, quite literally, hundreds of millions of people.
More likely, she knew she was absurdly exaggerating, and she did it deliberately for political effect. And it works. The politics of national security works in strange ways because voters, and commentators, so readily give governments the benefit of the doubt in this area. Our habitual scepticism of everything governments say evaporates as soon as security is mentioned. We are strangely eager to place our trust in our leaders when they say they are keeping us safe from harm.
Which is, of course, one reason why Abbott talks about it so much. The other reason is that he has run out of other things to talk about. His policy agenda before the election was limited to three core issues: stopping the boats, scrapping the carbon tax and the fixing the budget emergency. Now these are all old news, with two already achieved, the third abandoned, and no big new ideas to take their place.
The polls suggest that focusing on national security is by far the best thing the government has going for it politically. But to keep that going, Abbott has to keep finding new things to say. Last month, we had the proposal to strip citizenship from suspected terrorists, and last week saw the inauguration of our new Australian Border Force, in their crisp new Ruritanian uniforms.
And there is always our military commitment to Iraq. This has been a centrepiece of Abbott's national security program ever since our forces redeployed there almost a year ago. It has always been unlikely this intervention would prove any more successful in achieving its objectives than the last one was.
No one can seriously believe our modest training program for a few Iraqi soldiers will make any real difference to their performance against IS, or even that our air strikes will do much to stop IS consolidating control over large swaths of territory. And no one who pays attention to the lessons of the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan would imagine any larger coalition effort could make much difference either.
That might explain why, for all the big talk about the IS threat, Abbott has so far been commendably cautious about what he allows Australian forces to do in Iraq. Indeed, the latest expansion of our presence in Iraq coincides with a change of role and location that keeps Australian ground forces even further from the frontline. As a result, so far, none of our soldiers has been killed or wounded on this mission.
But will this last? Abbott's national security-driven political agenda imposes relentless pressure on his policy choices. Every fresh IS outrage compels him to call for a redoubled effort against them. Thus, in Singapore last week, Abbott responded to IS-inspired attacks in Tunisia by suggesting stronger action was needed to defeat IS in Iraq.
If he is not careful, Abbott will talk himself into a corner, with no option but to expand the numbers and the roles of Australian forces in Iraq. That would add another announceable to his national security narrative, but it would do little, if anything, to help defeat IS, and it would substantially increase the risk of Australian soldiers being killed.
So one hopes Abbott is pondering the lessons of Afghanistan. The number of Australians killed in action there rose sharply after the Labor government relaxed some of the limits the ever-cautious John Howard had imposed on their operations. Now, 18 months after our forces withdrew, things in Oruzgun province seem as bad as ever, and the loss of 41 Australian lives there seems a tragic waste. Tony Abbott has a huge responsibility not to let his national security narrative lead him to the same mistake in Iraq.
Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
This piece was first published by Fairfax Media.