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Instability in the Middle East: Australia’s Failed Approach to Failed States

Many strategic experts - particularly the cacophony of strategy wonks at ASPI and Lowy - have been swift to throw cold water on the Australian government’s recent decision to extend the bombing of ISIS targets into Syria. They have rightly pointed out that while mission-creep in Syria carries tactical logic, the move fails to be backed by a greater strategic purpose. While this is true, the absence of a vivid end state is not because ISIS are some new breed of adversary that emasculates our established strategy. It is because Australia has never really had a strategy for dealing with the region’s failed-states in the first place. The ISIS conflict and the Iraq-Syria dilemma are simply symptomatic of a deeper intellectual poverty within Australia’s response to instability in the Middle East.

For the last three decades Australia has had an unbroken military presence in the Middle East. Yet despite this, successive governments have never truly articulated a robust strategic policy for the region. A justification persistently echoed by scores of strategic experts is that maintaining operations in the Middle East alongside the United States reinforces the all-important ANZUS pact. However this modus operandi actually has more to do with the United States than the countries – and people – of the Middle East.

It is no longer in vogue (or politically correct for that matter) to argue that the reason Australia is in the Middle East is to spread the Enlightenment social values that we ourselves enjoy. Nevertheless, this is the ideological underpinning of our commitment. Generations of Australians have been repeatedly disgusted and distressed by the poverty, tyranny and human suffering that has been the lot in life for so many different groups within the Middle East. Whether it’s the Kurds in Iraq, Christians in Syria or ethnic minorities in Yemen and Libya, discriminatory and retrograde social values are rife across the region; particularly in the failed states that have become so prolific in the past decade.

However, while the humanitarian plight in these broken societies is abhorrent to our liberal-democratic sensibilities, Western nations have yet to come to terms with the true sacrifices associated with properly helping these states rebuild. For the region’s failed states to be made into stable, modern nations, with systems of government acceptable to the international community, a sustained Western presence would be required. Occupation, equivalent to that experienced by Germany and Japan after the Second World War, is the scale required to triage these failed states. Social values and worldviews simply cannot be reformed with airstrikes.

Elliot Cohen, a former strategic advisor in the Bush Administration, reminds us that if Western forces truly want to see success in the region’s failed states, countries such as Australia and America have to commit themselves to what amounts to inter-generational warfare. Cohen emphasises that defeating an enemy like ISIS requires the complete recreation of Iraqi society; a process that is driven by education as well as forcefully imposed civic and cultural reform. Understandably, such a task can only be conceived of in decades, not years. However, Cohen’s message is the complete opposite to that recently conveyed by Australia’s former Defence Minister who remarked that Australia’s operations in Iraq and Syria would probably only require several years of commitment. Such a comment reflects either irrational optimism or ignorant naivety; either way it’s a dangerous approach to policy-making.

The scale of the task before us may seem well-beyond Australia’s limited middle-power capabilities, however Australia has in the past made tangible - albeit short-lived - contributions to this kind of social reconstruction. In Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province Australian forces worked for seven years to rebuild basic social infrastructure and to facilitate reforms such as the education of young women. Sadly, since the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014 Taliban insurgency has wound back much of the ADF’s good work. To entrench such successes and make them last beyond our departure requires a much, much longer commitment to boots on the ground.

The Australian government needs to engage in a detailed discussion with the electorate about what it is we as a nation envisage for the broken states of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. Moreover, a frank discussion about what Australia can realistically achieve for these countries needs to be had. Australians may believe that we can make meaningful contributions, like we did in Uruzgan , and they may believe such contributions are worth the price. Similarly, Australians might determine we are too small to make a difference and should therefore call it a day. Both possibilities need to be canvassed in a debate that informs a new approach to Australia’s strategic policy in the Middle East.

Australia’s reaction to instability in the Middle East is ultimately a question of resolve: do Australians have the perspicacity and the moral conviction to commit to the long, grubby and expensive operations needed to repair imploded societies? If Australians decide they are committed to rebuilding the Middle East’s failed states, then it is the responsibility of the government to articulate a comprehensive strategy that intelligently combines Australia’s diplomatic and military statecraft towards such an end. Otherwise, we should deploy our limited resources elsewhere. What we mustn’t continue is a process of expending blood and treasure towards ephemeral, ill-defined strategic goals that have more to do with short-term political aims than with long-term international activism.

William Stoltz is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.​

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Image credit: Freedom House (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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