Canberra’s press gallery is held to account for sins of omission and commission, but this past week it excelled in sharp questioning of Scott Morrison’s decision to commit Australia once more to military engagement in the Middle East.
In the process, reporters exposed elements of the Morrison game-plan in the Gulf that should be cause for concern.
Responses were fuzzy to basic questions about command structure, rules of engagement and how Australia might relate to the Operation Sentinel model that has been advanced by US President Donald Trump to maintain security in the Gulf.
Lack of clarity about Australia’s role was apparent in differences on a command structure provided by the Chief of Defence Force, Angus Campbell, and the Prime Minister.
Asked who is going to be in charge (of Australian forces), what’s the command structure, who do we answer to, and what are the rules of engagement, Campbell said this: “It will be a US-led operation and we will be a participant in that with a multinational force.’’
His political antenna alerted, Morrison jumped in to say: “I’ll need to stress this is a multi-national force."
This is something Morrison said he had discussed with Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. I bet he did.
Assuming Johnson has paid attention to recent history, he would not need reminding that Britain’s involvement in the disastrous 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq has proved a blight on the reputations of those responsible – in particular Tony Blair.
Concerns in Europe about America’s idiosyncratic leadership and the proximity to the presidency of regime change hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton have discouraged countries such as Germany and France from joining the American cavalry in the Gulf.
These are legitimate concerns, given Washington’s responsibility for fostering the crisis in the Gulf in the first place by abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and re-instituting sanctions aimed at bringing Iran’s economy to its knees.
Let’s be clear. The Iran peace plan, designed to provide early warning of an Iranian nuclear breakout, was working. It may not have been perfect but it was working.
Predictably, Canberra has accepted what has been presented in some media reports as an “invitation’’ to contribute to a peace-keeping operation in the Gulf. “Invitation’’ is one way of putting it.
Paris and Berlin may yet make a contribution along with others but their reluctance speaks volumes about lack of trust in US global leadership.
In another telling moment in the Morrison press conference, General Campbell was asked what rules of engagement would apply in the event an Australian warship found itself in a naval confrontation.
Campbell responded that the Australian navy would operate “within international law’’, whatever that means.
The point is that the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf is one of the world’s most treacherous waterways. It is certainly the most commercially sensitive since a third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil transits each day.
Accidents can happen. This is far from a risk-free exercise. Canberra may be making a limited commitment at this stage but what if there is an incident leading to an escalation and Australia finds itself embroiled in a wider conflict?
Would Morrison resist pressures from Washington for reinforcements? I don’t think so, especially if an Australian naval vessel was damaged or sunk.
Let’s talk briefly about what could go wrong before addressing the issue of media responsibility to hold the government to account for its conduct of Middle East operations.
With an aircraft carrier battle group plus a deployment of B-52 bombers armed with “bunker-busting’’ ordnance, America has enormous firepower in the region.
However, Iran has demonstrated it has the capacity to wreak havoc in the Gulf with its mines and land-based missiles. In the “tanker war’’ of the 1980s Tehran brought shipping to a standstill by dropping World War II-era mines in busy waterways.
ProPublica, the non-profit journalism outlet, published an investigation this month that revealed US minesweeping capacity in the Gulf was run-down at the very time Iran has beefed up its mine warfare capabilities.
Iran has the ability to drop hundreds of mines in Gulf waterways, including a mix of older ones that float and blow up on impact, and a more sophisticated variety that sit on the ocean floor and explode after detecting nearby ships. In other words, Iran retains the capacity to cause mayhem.
This returns us to the issue of the media’s responsibility for holding to account government and the opposition, whose positions on the Gulf commitment appear to be indistinguishable.
From the media’s perspective, and considering its credulous performance in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, there would seem to be a strong argument for additional layers of scepticism. This is more so given cheerleading already in evidence from those whose poor judgment on a previous occasion should not be forgotten.
A good place to start would be the question of who will actually be calling the shots? If it’s Washington’s uber hawks anything is possible.