The Turnbull government, backed by a Labor Opposition in lockstep, has signed up to a 2017 version of “all the way with LBJ.”
That was the battle cry of former Prime Minister Harold Holt, half a century ago, assuring President Lyndon Baines Johnson that no matter what, we would stick with the Americans in the Vietnam war.
Our loyalty was sealed in the blood of our Diggers. America’s defeat was ours. But it is a price Australian governments of all persuasions have been prepared to pay to ensure that, if we are ever threatened by invasion, our powerful ally will once again save us, just as it did in World War II.
Australia, unlike Britain, Canada or New Zealand, has been marching to Washington’s tune ever since. The most problematic since Vietnam was the invasion of Iraq. But at least then we knew what George W. Bush wanted. Now we haven’t a real clue just where Donald Trump is taking us.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made a valiant attempt in a series of interviews to give the impression she was in the know. She is interpreting Trump in Cold War, world policeman terms. She is welcoming the departure from his isolationist campaign rhetoric. She told RN Breakfast that the US “is taking action when others are unable to act.”
Trump, she says, is sending a strong signal to Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea that if they continue to flout international law there will be consequences.
Those consequences can only mean armed intervention. You don’t send a formidable US Navy strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula for nothing, surely?
And that will certainly embroil Australia.
There are real concerns among some boffins in Canberra that Trump, concerned by his abysmal poll ratings at home, is playing primarily to the domestic crowd.
They, like most of the civilised world, were very impressed with Trump’s apparent heartfelt declaration that the heinous crime of gassing “helpless, men women and children” had “an impact, a big impact” on him. He said it had changed his attitude to Syria and Assad “very much”.
Australia’s Prime Minister was even more emotional in his reaction to the Syrian president’s vile use of toxic gas against his own people.
Divisions in the US
Australia certainly has skin in the game. Our jets are flying missions over Syria, ostensibly targeting Islamic State terrorists – the same ones al-Assad and Russia say they are fighting.
But the differences between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his colleague, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggest the administration itself is in the dark over Trump’s tactics or strategy – if he has one.
Tillerson says defeating the Islamic terrorists is the priority, and the missile strike was a one-off. Haley has put regime change in the frame, saying there can be no peaceful solution that includes al-Assad.
Perhaps unmasking Trump’s real agenda is the way he has ditched his previous markers for dealing with Syria. The main one was the element of surprise.
On Friday, Washington alerted its allies and Russia that a strike was coming and the Shayrat Airfield and military depots had been nominated, which goes a long way to explain why only six Syrian jets under repair were hit. The others apparently scarpered, only to be shown next day taking off from the undamaged runway.
Four years ago Trump tweeted, “What will we get for bombing Syria? More debt and a possible long term conflict. Obama needs congressional approval.”
Friday’s cruise missile attack cost an estimated $94 million for the 59 cruise missiles. That’s on top of the campaign against ISIL in Syria waged by the US and its allies like Australia. A six-year-long conflict that shows no signs of ending.
Trump didn’t seek congressional approval and the legality of his intervention is questionable. But of greater moment for Australia is how long can it afford to be an unquestioning ally.