Lowy Institute

For those of us who can’t find the time to read Lawrence Freedman’s momentous new book Strategy: A History, Paul Kennedy has an excellent review in Foreign Affairs. One passage made me think of events in recent days: 

. . . For example, although the section on Mahan does explain that author’s belief that the nation with the greatest fleet would control the seas, Freedman gives more space to a lesser-known naval strategist, Julian Corbett, because he prefers the latter’s emphasis on geographic position, communications, and trade to the former’s more simplistic study of great fleets and the Trafalgar-like encounters they engaged in. Generally, Freedman approves of theorists with a Corbettian approach, since no single strategist can comprehend all aspects of war and get it right; once a conflict erupts, calm judgment and careful reasoning will prove more useful than fixed mindsets. Appropriately, this section of Strategy ends with al Qaeda, an adversary that has demonstrated the importance of surprise, confusion, luck, and passion -- and the futility of trying to use a fixed strategy against it. 

What aspect of the West's strategy in dealing with ISIS is 'non-fixed'? ISIS, like al Qaeda, has been deft at using elements of confusion and surprise to its advantage, but also in adapting to new circumstances. While the US is conducting airstrikes and partnering with local forces in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria now, in all likelihood the method will need to change soon enough. 


The Small Island Developing States conference held earlier this month included the launch of the Asian Development Bank's latest state-owned enterprise (SOE) benchmarking study, Finding Balance: Benchmarking the Performance of SOEs in Island Countries. The study compares the performance of SOEs in nine island countries (Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, PNG, Tonga, Jamaica, Mauritius and Cape Verde) over a 10-year period, and measures their impact on economic growth. The results are sobering.

Over the 2002-2012 period, none of the SOE portfolios generated a sufficient return to cover their initial capital costs. Why is this important? Because when SOEs perform poorly, the economy as a whole suffers.

SOEs in island economies are often the sole providers of core infrastructure services (power, water, transport), so when these are of poor quality and insufficient reach, private businesses cannot develop and become competitive. By absorbing large amounts of scarce capital on which they provide very low returns, crowding out the private sector, and diverting public funds that could otherwise be invested in such high-yielding social sectors as health and education, SOEs act as a drag on economic growth.

The study shows that low SOE returns are not unique to the Pacific (nor island economies), and are common throughout the developing and developed world. Chronic SOE underperformance highlights a fundamental flaw in the model: it is not an effective long-term ownership structure. While the SOE model attempts to replicate private ownership demands and dynamics, it never truly replaces the market disciplines that private firms face. As long as SOEs remain under majority public ownership, politicians will avoid commercial decisions with potential short-term political costs.

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Policy makers around the world are aware of SOEs' persistent deficiencies, fiscal costs and negative impact on growth and poverty alleviation. Consequently, efforts to reform SOEs have been ongoing for decades. However, SOE reform requires strong political commitment and this study demonstrates that this is extremely difficult to sustain over prolonged periods. Involving the private sector through public–private partnerships and privatisation is a much more effective way to sustain improved SOE performance and service delivery. Competition for investment capital means that the private sector will always have stronger performance incentives than the public sector. These incentives should be harnessed to support public service delivery. 

Governments engaging in SOE reform are therefore asking three key questions:

  1. What is the appropriate role of the state in the economy?
  2. Does the government need to own and manage state assets to deliver public services?
  3. Can these services be contracted to private sector providers? 

This is the debate all governments with large SOE sectors should be having, regardless of the size of their economy. Within the Pacific in recent years, progress has been made to reduce the size of SOE portfolios and place them on a more commercial footing. The experience of the Solomon Islands is notable, where the SOE portfolio has gone from generating an average return of -14% on equity between 2002-2009 to 10% from 2010-2012. It is now the best performing portfolio of the benchmarking sample, having liquidated underperforming SOEs, established public-private partnerships and restructured its largest SOEs so that they can operate on fully commercial terms.

The experience of the Solomon Islands demonstrates that SOE reform is possible, but requires sustained political commitment to strengthen the underlying SOE legislation, resist the temptation to directly interfere in the business of the SOEs, and allow greater private sector participation in delivering the goods and services traditionally provided by government owned corporations. These reforms are also underway in a number of Pacific countries, and with increased public awareness of the rationale for and benefits of the reforms, it is hoped that the necessary political support can be garnered to see them implemented. 


China's Peace Ark hospital ship is finishing up its four-week visit to the Pacific islands. Its tour covered Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea and was an important step in improving China's image in the region.

Part of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the ship is staffed by over 100 medical personnel and equipped with 300 beds, eight operating rooms and over 200 types of medical devices. On a 'harmonious mission' to provide medical services, its purpose was 'to carry forward the international humanitarian spirit, strengthen exchanges between the militaries, and promote the view of harmony', according to Rear Admiral Shen Hao, commanding officer of the mission.

Although Pacific islands locals may not have used such superlatives, the tour proved to be a big hit. It treated up to 1000 patients per day free of charge, and provided a range of services including pediatrics, ophthalmology, dental, surgery, obstetrics and traditional Chinese medicine. Health services in the region are often poor, particularly in rural or remote areas away from island capitals. Major surgeries require trips to Australia, New Zealand or Singapore, or else go untreated. So it was of no surprise to see reports of people lining up from 3am to take advantage of the services.

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Local medical officers in each country worked on board alongside Chinese PLAN personnel. The Peace Ark mission even provided the opportunity for cooperation with Australia, with two Australian Defence Force medical officers joining their Chinese counterparts for the Vanuatu and PNG legs. 

China also provides other health aid in the form of Chinese medical teams — a key component of its aid program around the world. In the Pacific, PNG, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu and Micronesia have had these teams for many years. Doctors typically serve two-year rotations and are often surprised at the demand for their services.

As in other parts of the world, China has experienced a backlash in the Pacific islands region. There are concerns about the 'influx' of new migrant communities. The poor quality of some Chinese construction, often funded through foreign aid loans, has prompted questions about the ongoing costs of such assistance. And there is an underlying worry in some countries about the potential long-term implications of holding so much debt to the Chinese Government.

China is starting to realise that winning hearts is a difficult task. In that regard, the Peace Ark has proven to be an easy soft-power win.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Will braveheart nationalism or unionist tradition win the Scottish referendum on 18 September? Neither is really relevant any longer, as a healthy dose of European common sense would suffice.

Alex Salmond appeals to Scottishness and David Cameron to Britishness, both of which are both better than Nigel Farage's English exclusiveness. But they are nevertheless all wrong. Full independence and national sovereignty are antiquated schemes in today's European reality. And so much the better.

A good part of the new Europe, whose foundations were laid after World War II, is now in existence in the form of the euro common currency area, the Schengen Area (common borders) and a continent-wide common market. All three have lifted both the quality of life and the ease of commercial transaction for a majority of Europeans. Incidentally, overseas visitors profit as well, as passports, border formalities and currency exchange are all things of the past when skipping from one European capital to the next.

Some will object and point to the euro's woes and other European crises. Yet the economy would have been bad within at least some of the old borders anyway, and probably worse, as Southern Europe's ills have their origin precisely in closed national shops. And Europe is slowly bouncing back, thus disappointing the feverish national dreams of those wanting to go back to the Deutschmark, the French franc and other historical currencies.

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Let me give an often overlooked yet clearly visible example of how radically Europe has changed for the better: its physical infrastructure and especially its public transportation now represent a global gold standard (not everywhere in Europe but in many places). On a recent trip to New York, on occasion of my 30th anniversary of discovering the Big Apple, it was depressing to note that US public infrastructure has not changed one iota since; it is filled with rusting bridges, potholed and jammed highways, substandard urban trains and dismal overland transportation. Greater metropolitan areas such as the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington corridor will not see rapid train transportation soon, if ever.

The same goes for the Australian equivalent, the Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor, where urban and overland transport appear to have been frozen in the late 19th century (try the the museum train from Sydney to Canberra). If there is any competition for modern European infrastructure, one has to look in China.

Such European progress meant a certain transfer of sovereignty from the national to the supranational level. Why then this headlong rush to embrace national independence for small historical regions such as Scotland and Lombardy? Or for language groups to break away, as in Catalonia, the Basque country and Flanders?

Some Scots appear to feel that 'living in your own country' will make a big difference. In fact, the great majority of Scots will go on living after 18 September just like they have before, regardless of the referendum's outcome. National borders have become somewhat irrelevant in borderless Europe. 

As Gordon Brown, possibly the last Scot to preside over a government of Great Britain, explained recently and Philip Stephens pointed out in the FT, this surge of nationalism is a reaction from those whose sense of self has been eroded by globalisation. Nationalism is thus apparently not only the last refuge of the scoundrel but also of the globalised insecure man.

The real problem for Europe with regard to the Scottish vote lies in its potential as a precedent. If the Catalans, Flemish, Basque, Lombardians and Corsicans take their cue from the Scots, political mayhem could ensue. Instead of getting closer as they have over the last 75 years, Europeans would drift apart, as newly created states have a tendency to accentuate, not dilute, their formal sovereignty.

Thus the continent would probably turn inward, preoccupied with itself, at a moment in its history when a more active European foreign policy, as well as a common effort to deal with continent-wide challenges such as migration, is urgently required. 

Small can be beautiful. Local autonomy increases the civic awareness of citizens and as a result their participation in, and identification with, affairs of state. This can be seen in the decentralised states of Germany and in my own country, Switzerland. But big challenges need big solutions that only supranational effort, and a single democratic centre of decision and supervision, can provide. 

It is often said that Alex Salmond's success with his 'Yes' campaign is due to his ability to pull at the heart strings of his countrymen, rather than than their common sense. I see another part of the human body as Salmond's leverage: the stomach. The German expression Bauchgefühl ('gut instinct') describes exactly the kind of emotions involved.

This kind of reasoning might be good enough for a sporting bet or a decision to run with bulls, but it falls woefully short as a basis for the political decision to make one country and break another.

As a citizen of the world's most direct-democratic country, one feels sorely tempted to call Scots to reason. Referenda are tricky: the people's mandate is always right, but the people do change their minds occasionally. The Scots, just like many other national minorities as they become ever more European, don't really need independence anymore. With the EU they are getting something better.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kyoshi Masamune



Last week my friend Ely Ratner echoed views he heard in Australia that Tony Abbott is spreading Australia too thin by committing RAAF fighters, surveillance planes and transports, as well as 200 SAS troops, to the fight against ISIS. Much better, the argument goes, for Australia to focus on South and Southeast Asia than to embark on missions in a far corner of the globe.

This is a debate Australians should have, but since the Interpreter editors have pulled Ely and me into it, here are my five reasons why Abbott is right:

  1. ISIS is indeed an evil scourge that directly threatens Australian security. If a brutal Islamist caliphate is established in the Levant, does anyone doubt that it will immediately focus on sending fighters back to their homes in the West or against moderate Muslim states to engage in acts of terror? The leadership of ISIS has made as much clear, so it woud be foolish to wait passively for the threat to emerge.
  2. Australia will hardly be alone. The Obama Administration has pulled together a broad coalition to reverse the ISIS offensive, including ten Arab nations and other leading US allies. For Australia to bow out amid such international consensus and immediate peril would be unprecedented.
  3. The deployment of 400 RAAF and 200 SAS personnel and associated equipment to Dubai is not going to undercut Australia's strategic engagement with Indonesia, India and the rest of South and Southeast Asia. Australia is hardly a one-dimensional player in Asia, and has more than enough capacity to shape regional developments through navy-led exercises, diplomacy in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum, and in trade negotiations such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. I don't hear Jakarta or Delhi clamouring for those 200 SAS to please stay at home.
  4. Australia's deployment will strengthen the overall deterrence capability of her forces and the US-Australia alliance. As any Australian military officer engaged with CENTCOM on previous deployments can attest, US-Australian military operations in Southwest Asia have involved far more intensive sharing of intelligence, logistics, and operational skills than would otherwise be the case. The US and Australia don't commit forces for the purpose of strengthening overall jointness and readiness, but joint operations do have that important effect — to the benefit of peace and stability in the Western Pacific.
  5. Australia is a global power in large part because of its influence on US strategy, and that flows from being at the 'pointy end of the spear' when there are dire threats to global order. Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses know who America's real friends are, and that counts for a lot when it comes time to call in the chips in Washington.

Australia has the capacity to contribute to the reversal of ISIS without detracting from security in South and Southeast Asia. To do otherwise would leave Australia — and Asia — less secure.


Later today, the 69th session of the UN General Assembly commences. One of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's first official duties last year was to address the opening of the 68th session of the General Assembly, nine days after being sworn in as minister.

Bishop had a tough start as minister. First came the Indonesian spying scandal, with angry reactions in Indonesia and pointed criticism from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. A few days later came a dressing down from China after Bishop denounced Beijing's move to unilaterally establish an air defence identification zone in late November. Ms Bishop then had to deal with breaches of Indonesian territorial waters by stray Operation Sovereign Borders vessels. There has also been the painful process of the Peter Greste case.

Then of course, the MH17 catastrophe. Ms Bishop earned the respect of her international and national peers in brokering a Security Council response to MH17.

Our Foreign Minister has been busy.

Yet amid all this noisy foreign policy action, the Minister has been quietly going about her other business. The New Colombo plan is on track. Relations with Indonesia have stabilised, with agreement reached on a code of conduct in late August. Australia is back in China's good books.

And then there is the MIKTA initiative.

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MIKTA, you ask? As I wrote at the end of last year, this is a fledgling grouping which had its modest beginnings on the sidelines of the September 2013 UN General Assembly session. The acronym represents the five nations – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia – who are 'members' of this informal group. They seek to 'strengthen the links between their nations, exchange views, consult and promote coordination on issues of common interest.' Early indications are that these are likely to include global governance reform, G20 work and finding solutions to global challenges such as the post-2015 development agenda. They have met twice this year, and in April spent a full day together in Mexico at the first MIKTA dialogue, resulting in a co-authored opinion piece in Huffpo in which the foreign ministers emphasised their similarities: they are all democracies, members of the G20, with open and dynamic economies, strategically located and each playing strong roles in their regions.

The first indications of how these nations will work together surfaced in the early days of the MH17 response, when the ministers of the five nations issued a joint statement condemning the downing and urging the peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis.

In August, Mexico hosted the first MIKTA academic seminar (which I attended) to identify some of the ways in which this diverse group ('a bunch of misfits' was the expression Michael Wesley used in his remarks) might cooperate constructively. While none of these academics spoke for their governments, there was a bundle of ideas, from working collaboratively against protectionist measures to freeing up visa restrictions, creating exchanges of students and journalists, and according each other 'most favoured nation' status.

It's early days, but each of the MIKTA foreign ministers appears enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new grouping. None of the five are part of a natural regional or security bloc, so their thinking is presumably that the grouping can achieve more together than each can achieve alone – the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. And while the parts are significant, the whole is potentially formidable. MIKTA nations are the world's 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th largest economies. Combined at US$5.8 trillion in GDP, they amount to the third-largest economy in the world after the US and China. Taken together, their populations rank the group as the third-largest in the world after China and India. If they can harness their collective strengths, this could be a useful grouping.

At the opening of the 69th session of the General Assembly, Ms Bishop will again meet with her MIKTA counterparts to progress their agenda. Watch this space. 

Photo courtesy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.


Given that emerging economies continue to grow two or three times faster than advanced economies, the persistent gloom about their prospects is puzzling. The latest example comes from The Economist, which argues that convergence, the process by which poorer countries catch up to rich countries over time, was a temporary phenomenon that has largely run its course. The past 15 years have 'deceived people into thinking that broad convergence is the natural way of things.' 

How did they come to this view? The first decade of this century saw a rapid but unsustainable pace of convergence. China led the way with double-digit growth, and even the traditional laggards (such as India and Brazil) did well. Double-digit growth is not unprecedented (pre-1980 Japan, and a number of Asian economies, have come close) but it was never sustainable in the longer term

But just because convergence has slowed from this rapid pace doesn't mean it has ended. China's 7% growth rate doubles total income every decade. And it is sustainable. After all, even countries once seen as 'basket cases', such as Indonesia, recorded average growth of 7% for the three decades of the Soeharto era.

The other sleight of hand is to focus on the catch-up period associated with the 2008 financial crisis. The emerging economies continued to grow while the advanced economies had falling GDP, which has been followed by feeble recoveries. The fact that this was a 'once-off' conjuncture which is now behind us doesn't signal the end of convergence.

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On top of this, the World Bank data used by The Economist does indeed make this look like a halcyon decade: 'output per person in the emerging world doubled between 2000 and 2009; the average annual rate of growth over that decade was 7.6%'. It was  good decade, but not that good. IMF figures suggest that emerging economy growth in this period was around 2 percentage points slower than The Economist's.

The Economist's rose-tinted version of the past is contrasted with a gloomy outlook. It says that the IMF 'put the difference between the growth in emerging markets other than China and growth in the developed world at just 0.39 percentage points this year'. With this differential, full convergence would take 'more than 300 years'.

But the latest IMF forecasts show advanced economies growing at 1.8% while emerging economies are growing at 4.6%. True, this figure includes China's growth, but even so it is inconsistent with The Economist's numbers. This difference in growth rates shown in current IMF estimates (with the emerging economies growing around 2-3 percentage points faster) might be seen as closer to the overall convergence prospects than The Economist's 'indistinguishable from never' assessment. 

But in any case, the convergence story was never about aggregates, combining the diverse experience of all emerging economies taken together. The convergence story is the counter to the view that poor countries are inexorably stuck in poverty because of geography, lack of savings, or unreformable institutions. This pessimistic generalisation is refuted by the cases of Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. Then, rebutting the argument that these were special cases, less dynamic economies like Thailand and Indonesia showed that the income gap could be narrowed, even in the face of inefficient and corrupt institutions. The point of the convergence story is that, with competent policies, poor countries can grow quickly by adopting proven technology and techniques.

It was never part of the convergence story that all poor countries would make the journey, or that it would be quick. Even China's three decades of outstanding growth have not made it rich, yet. And in any case, the objective of matching the moving target of rich-country living standards is not an essential part of the narrative. Even to get half way, to the stage where most people have been lifted out of poverty, would be a result to be cheered, not disparaged by glum mutterings about the 'middle-income trap'.

There is a message here with relevance for Australia. Convergence is happening, and it's happening in our region. Despite all the gloom from global commentators, the IMF data shows that 'emerging and developing Asia' has recorded a steady 6.5% growth rate, both in recent years and in the forecast. This is in a world full of talk of 'secular stagnation' in the advanced economies, with Europe still mired in debt and gloom, America's recovery yet to gain momentum and Latin America falling back into its traditional languor. Our part of the globe is doing just fine, thanks to convergence.

Graph courtesy of The Economist


This passage comes from Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman's2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

Did the brutal beheading of two (now three) Westerners by IS touch off an 'availability cascade'? Discuss.

(H/t Dart-Throwing Chimp, @Robert_E_Kelly.)


Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo has been internationally praised as Indonesia's first elected president not to come from the political or military elite. But stories like his could be a thing of the past if the country's legislature passes a new bill revision to put an end to direct regional elections.

The push for the House of Representatives (DPR) to pass the bill before the end of this month has come from the 'Red-and-White' coalition that backed the bid of defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Some commentators have labelled the move an act of revenge by Prabowo, who has still refused to publicly acknowledge defeat, even after his election appeal was rejected by Indonesia's Constitutional Court. But beyond being a matter of personal point-scoring, the proposed bill revision could have lasting and damaging effects on Indonesia's democracy, not least by potentially keeping out grassroots candidates like Jokowi.

Jokowi, a former furniture retailer, got his start in politics when he was elected mayor of the small town of Solo in Central Java. Initially a political unknown, his impressive performance in his first term as mayor led him to be re-elected with 90%of the vote. The extraordinary result prompted the party to ask him to run for governorship in Jakarta, and later for the presidency, which he won in July with 53% of the vote.

There are others like him across Indonesia, often referred to in the media as a 'new breed' of politicians, characterised by their non-elite backgrounds, authentic drive for political reform and clean and transparent approach to governance. Often included in this category are Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil, a former architect and social activist promoting sustainable development in the West Java capital, and Tri Rismaharini, the first female mayor of the East Java capital of Surabaya, who is driving revitalisation of the city's green spaces (more controversially, she also shut down its red-light district earlier this year). These 'new breed' leaders have benefited from direct elections in the regions, introduced as part of the push for decentralisation following the fall of authoritarian president Suharto in 1998.

Unfortunately, decentralisation has not always resulted in cleaner governance. In many cases, the expensive business of regional campaigning has further entrenched corruption, with elected leaders finding themselves in debt not to their constituents but to the powerful political and business interests that supported their bid. This is the rationale being given by the 'Red-and-White' coalition (red and white being the colours of the Indonesian flag), which argues that abolishing direct elections will relieve candidates from the burden of funding a campaign, and free up those funds for developing the regions.

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On the surface, it's a sensible argument, particularly given the great disparity in development and access to services between Indonesia's rural and urban areas. Except that it gives absolutely no guarantee that campaign funds will be redirected for the betterment of the people, and not simply constitute savings for the political elite. Furthermore, the proposal to hand authority back to regional legislative councils (DPRDs) to elect leaders, a system tried and tested under Suharto, narrows the opportunity for non-elites to enter the circles of power.

Most importantly, the revised bill would take away the people's right to elect their regional leaders and hold them accountable, which at present is the most potent force consolidating Indonesia's democracy. It is the popular backing of candidates like Jokowi, Ridwan and Risma that forces bigger political players like the PDI-P, or Prabowo's Gerindra party, to include them in political processes, making change possible.

'New breed' politicians, media and civil society groups are speaking out against the proposed revision to the regional elections bill. In a dramatic move, incoming Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama has quit Gerindra in opposition to the party's backing of the revised bill. A handful of regional leaders from coalition parties have promised to do the same if the revised bill is passed.

Aside from Gerindra, the revised legislation is also backed by outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, Suharto's former Golkar party and three Islamic parties, together making up 420 seats in the DPR. In opposition to the bill are PDI-P, the Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB), and the People's Conscience Party (Hanura), with 140 seats. Pressure is now on Yudhoyono to sway his party on the issue, especially considering that the party's current stance conflicts with that of the Home Ministry, which initially proposed the bill but has since changed its position. Yudhyono's party holds 150 of the coalition's seats, as well as the right to revoke the proposal.

A plenary meeting in the DPR will make a decision on the bill by the end of the month. No matter the outcome, the message is clear for Jokowi's incoming government: Prabowo's backers are not going to give the new president an easy ride.


Here are three observations on Iraq:

1. Australia does have a core interest in Iraq

One of the arguments already used by opponents of any Australian participation in military action against ISIS is that Australia does not have any core interests in Iraq. Leaving aside the question of whether the strategy for Iraq is the right one, there is no question in my mind that we have a strong interest in what happens in Iraq.

Iraq does threaten core Australian interests. The existence of ISIS-stan increases the terrorist threat faced by Australians both in Australia and in our region (not to mention places Australians like to travel, such as Europe). This is because, as has been mentioned many times now, Iraq and Syria are providing military skills to extremists from Australia, but also neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia the Philippines, and around the world. These fighters are also developing connections with other extremist groups that will make them a more lethal threat in years to come.

Some will ask: why does Iraq deserve particular attention above other parts of the Middle East that are also helping to incubate a new generation of extremists? It is a good question and we should not lose sight of these other problem areas even as we focus on Iraq and Syria.

But Iraq and Syria do deserve disproportionate attention for two reasons. First, the numbers of foreign fighters is bigger than we have ever seen, even compared with Afghanistan in the period leading up to 9/11. Second, the number of Westerners is also larger, which is bad because their passports and visa-free access to a larger range of countries will make it much easier for them to cross borders.

Some will argue that a military response is not the right one to this threat and that Australia should rely on police and intelligence work and cooperation. They will point to the way this worked in the 2000s, particularly in diminishing the terrorist threat in Indonesia.

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Certainly a military response won't work on its own, but neither will simply waiting for the threat to come to you. One reason the terrorist threat in Indonesia was diminished over time was because it became impossible for extremists to get the training and maintain the connections they had formed in Afghanistan. Those behind the Bali bombings were largely veterans of Afghanistan, and the hardcore part of Jemaah Islamiya behind the targeting of Westerners had intended to keep sending cadres to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training, as illustrated by the break-up of the Ghuraba Cell in Pakistan in 2003.

True, the police and intelligence effort in Indonesia was more important. But I don't think it could have been as successful without the military effort in Afghanistan at the same time.

2. The US strategy in Iraq will work, probably

A number of commentators have argued that an air campaign on its own won't defeat ISIS. This is true, but I don't think this is what the US intends. I think the US and its allies will pursue the same strategy they used successfully in Afghanistan in 2001-2 and in Libya in 2011. That is, they will provide air support to allied local ground forces teamed with Western special forces. In the case of Iraq, those allied forces will be the Kurds, the Iraqi Army and possibly local Sunni militias. In Syria it will be opposition groups opposed to ISIS.

Because it has worked before, it is reasonable to assume that the strategy will probably work again. ISIS is not that big, and is probably not as militarily competent as people think. It is true the Iraqi Army has not covered itself in glory so far, but good units can be found, and with better leadership will probably prove more effective.

But most importantly, once momentum shifts, other local militias will turn on ISIS to make sure they are on the right side when the fighting ends. Here the willingness and ability of the new government in Baghdad to reach out to the Sunnis in northern Iraq will be critical.

Of course, none of this guarantees success and there are risks aplenty. But we should not confuse the way Western countries have mishandled Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya after Ghaddafi was overthrown) for what we are about to do in Iraq. We are still pretty good at blowing stuff up. It is the building stuff after that we are not so good at.

3. There will be bleed-out

To say that the US strategy for Iraq will probably work is not the same thing, however, as saying that it is the right strategy. One of the consequences of even a successful campaign will be the bleed-out of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The border with Turkey – the last real route into and out of ISIS-stan – is likely to remain porous, although there will be massive pressure on the Turks to seal it.

Where will these fighters go? They may turn up in other conflicts in the Middle East, or they may head to other countries, but some will go home. In all likelihood this won't be the hard core but rather individuals who received some training, maybe didn't see a lot of combat and are not prepared to stay and die for the cause.

This does raise the question of whether, by targeting ISIS, we are accelerating the problem we are most worried about. In this respect there is a case for a strategy that tries to contain ISIS in Iraq. It would require real pressure on Turkey to seal the border, which may or may not be possible for Ankara to do. It would still require action to erode ISIS on the ground by local forces over a much longer period. And for this to work it would still require some Western support, at a much lower profile than what is being proposed now, to help train and mentor those forces.

But it is a line-ball call. Simply leaving ISIS alone is not the answer. We learned from our experience with Afghanistan that extremists can and do move on to other conflicts. They can and do return home and plot terrorist attacks. Eventually the problem needs to be dealt with.

The more interesting question is what to do with the guys that do come back. At the moment, the focus in Australia and some European countries seems to be on a law-enforcement response. Clearly, however, there needs to be a case-by-case treatment. As noted, you probably won't have hardcore fighters returning home. And what you don't want to do is to push returnees onto a violent course they never intended to take because they feel persecuted. There needs to some assessment process, therefore, which looks at the legal grounds and prospects for pursuing returnees, but also looks at other factors as well. Hopefully it is something Australian officials are thinking about even as our combat aircraft taxi down the runway.

Photo by Flickr user Andos_pics.

  • With Fiji elections happening tomorrow, be sure to read Jenny Hayward-Jones Policy Brief on the significance of the elections for Australian policy towards Fiji. 
  • Who gives humanitarian aid? To whom? How much? The 2014 Humanitarian Assistance Report was released last week and provides a great overview, as well as country profiles and interesting infographics.
  • Which development books should students read? A list compiled by Guardian readers.
  • Jeff Sachs alleges bias at the Wall Street Journal in its selection of climate change op-eds.
  • The UK has moved closer to enshrining a commitment to aid spending of 0.7% in law.
  • Read the full speech of the new UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, which warns that Australia's policy of off-shore detention for asylum seekers is 'leading to a chain of human rights violations'.
  • Zoom, Zoom! Sierra Leone's motorbike riders engaged by UNDP in campaign against ebola.
  • Has the era of climate change refugees begun? Interesting Washington Post blog post about Tuvalu nationals seeking refugee in New Zealand due to rising sea levels. 

The Prime Minister's unsurprising announcement of an Australian military commitment to the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition answered a few questions and raised others. I think the justification for military intervention in Iraq is relatively straightforward, but the environment within which our forces will operate is anything but.

The mission Tony Abbott described was to 'disrupt, degrade and if possible destroy this movement', a better, more nuanced formulation than Obama's simple 'degrade and destroy'. These are specific military task verbs, and 'destroying' something that is not a static target is very difficult. A movement such as IS can be rendered operationally ineffective to the point that it no longer practically exists but this will take time. Don't expect a neat surrender.

More importantly, the Australian public needs to understand that this mission is simply about targeting IS; it's not about making a better Iraqi nation. I would argue that the multiple identities (to coin a Bernard Lewis term) of Iraqis make it virtually impossible to do this in the short- to medium term, if ever. That doesn't mean we shouldn't contribute to defeating IS, but it does mean we should be mature enough to understand that this is not a binary battlefield — in other words, it's not the Iraqi government vs Islamic State.

Rather, it is IS against Iraqi Government forces, Kurdish fighters, experienced Shi'a militias (who may or may not wear Iraqi military uniforms) who see political advantage in military success and who will leverage this to advance their political aims, Iranian interests providing support to said militias (including their own advisers), and Sunni militias designed to obviate the need for Shi'a-dominated security forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.

If this appears confusing that's because it is. But it doesn't lessen the threat IS poses, nor does it invalidate our decision to provide aircraft and military advisers to the region.

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What it does mean is that the Government should not hide behind bland assurances that we are supporting the legitimate government of Iraq. We will likely be part of a coalition that is supporting forces acting in sympathy with the Iraqi Government — only in some cases we will be supporting actual Iraqi government forces. This is the Middle East, and in many ways this is the best that can be expected. That's why it the Australian public should be brought into the tent regarding the complexity of the societal landscape into which our forces will be deployed.

While the international coalition is being assembled, don't expect it to be anything other than a collection of states acting together for a limited period of time on a specific issue. Tony Abbott was keen to mention the fact that some Middle Eastern states had indicated that they would contribute to military operations, and included Bahrain while keeping a straight face. This is not to belittle tiny Bahrain's contribution, but rather to highlight the irony: this is a state whose minority Sunni monarchy actively discriminates against its Shi'a majority and refuses to undertake meaningful domestic reform which is now taking the fight to a Sunni jihadist group in support of Iraq's Shi'a-majority government. The UAE is also stumping up. This is a country which just a few years ago helped quell Shi'a protests against Bahrain's Sunni Government. On top of that, there is still concern over whether Iran, the regional state which (other than Syria) faces the most direct threat from IS, will be invited to a Paris meeting to discuss the issue. Regional rivalries infect so many aspects of security policy.

This is the environment into which Australian forces are being deployed. None of this is to say that the deployment is unwarranted. What should be articulated by the Government is the fact that we are simply providing a short-term military assistance mission to a deeply flawed nation in a deeply flawed region as part of a coalition, not all of whose members share our liberal democratic traditions. This is going to be the ultimate pragmatist's intervention, and the public should not be left under any false illusions that is anything else.


Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

The Lowy Institute’s Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones released a Policy Brief this week on the significance of Fiji’s elections, set for 17 September. Her accompanying Interpreter post argues that Australia should be doing more to assist Fiji in its transition back to democracy: 

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?

Alex Stewart, also writing on Fiji, pointed out that successful elections involve much more than just ensuring that widespread cheating does not occur:

However, a truly free and fair election requires more than the absence of extra ballots stuffed into the box. Yes, voters need to be free to make their choice on the day, but the process by which they reach their decision also needs to be fair. In a free and fair election, political parties compete on as level a playing field as the system can enforce. This is where the election process in Fiji stands on shakier ground...

...There have been a variety of issues, from candidates being reportedly barred for traffic offences to the lateintroduction of a residency requirement that has disqualified several respected Fijians, including people seconded to RAMSI. What I would focus on is not the changes themselves but the lateness with which they were made. Both measure came into force in August, mere weeks before the election. Campaigning had been going on for months by this point. For an election to be fair, political parties and voters need to have clarity as to who is running for election. Having candidates knocked out at the eleventh hour should be an exceptional matter for a functioning democracy, not one of deliberate state policy. 

Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Tess Newton Cain summarised the economic policies of the political parties running in Fiji’s election: 

FijiFirst's manifesto, unsurprisingly, rests its economic policy on the interim government's track record. It highlights four consecutive years of GDP growth and a private sector investment rate of 15% in the current year. The manifesto stresses that job creation, particularly for young people, is a priority and sees maintaining the momentum of the Bainimarama Government as the means of achieving this. While there is reference to a 'comprehensive program' to be implemented after the election to complement existing policies (eg. tax-free zones, free education), there is no detail on what the 'key initiatives' are.

The Fiji Labour Party grounds its economic policy in the belief that 'given a stable  democratic environment and honest and competent leadership with policies that ensure good governance and inspires investor confidence in Fiji's future, the economy will automatically pick up'. In terms of how the party proposes to grow the economy, the manifesto refers to reviving the agriculture sector and sustainable development of forestry and fisheries. It also identifies a number of ways in which the FLP intends to create a favourable industrial and business environment, including by bringing down the cost of doing business, setting up a 'Special Fund' to encourage self-employment, especially among professional graduates, and pursuing investment to boost employment opportunities and enhance incomes.

President Obama gave a prime-time address this week that outlined his strategy for dealing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Rodger Shanahan's first impressions

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Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military...

...Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

In James Bowen’s analysis of the speech, he argues that we have not seen a President Obama like the one we saw on Thursday in some time: 

Given the relative lack of surprises, the most notable feature of the performance was the level of conviction with which the President articulated these points, recalling for a brief time the vim and vigour on which he established his political reputation only a few years ago. Gone was the painfully slow pace of delivery and the not-so-pregnant pauses that characterised many of his recent announcements, particularly in this troubled foreign policy sphere.

Speaking after the Public Broadcasting Service telecast of the speech, New York Times columnist and frequent Obama critic David Brooks went as far as to praise the President for so clearly articulating his desired pathway, despite the fact that most of us realise he is a reluctant strongman when it comes to such matters.

In a popular and reflective post, Lowy Institute East Asia Program Director Merriden Varrall argues that a tendency to assume Western norms may impede our understanding of China: 

We tend to presume that underneath the surface-level differences, Chinese people are more or less the same as us. The reading of surface-level signs according to our own norms, like the apparently Western toilets at Beijing airport in 1999, also occurs when we try and explain and interpret Chinese politics and behaviour. One example is the way political structures and activities are described. Xi Jinping is described as 'the President', so we ascribe to him the same roles and responsibilities as Barack Obama. Li Keqiang is the 'Prime Minister', the State Council is China's cabinet, and so on. This translation and simplification, a bid to understand how China works, ultimately impairs our ability to see it for how it is, rather than just another version of how we are.

Manjeet Pardesi and Robert Ayson from Victoria University of Wellington said that the results of the Modi-Abe summit last week showed the ‘support for their (India and Japan) respective strategic roles’: 

As China converts its material power into greater regional influence, the common interests between Japan and India in preventing Beijing from holding sway over the region are becoming more pronounced. Both have long-standing rivalries with China: in the case of Japan over history and disputed islands in the East China Sea, and in the case of India over the world's longest unmarked land border and the Tibet issue. Beijing will no doubt also have noticed the commitment of Abe and Modi to 'maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight…and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.'

My assessment of the Abbott Government's foreign policy during its first year in office: 

...the Abbott Government has also rapidly advanced its free-trade talks with Beijing, and so seems wedded to the Howard Government formula that Australia does not have to choose between its main strategic partner and its biggest economic partner. This arrangement also seems amenable to Beijing, for now. But as China grows and Beijing demands a regional security order that matches its status as an economic equal to the US, it becomes less and less clear that this posture is sustainable.

When the Abbott Government is eventually unseated, and peripheral foreign policy interests such as Ukraine and Iraq have long been forgotten, this will be the ground on which we ultimately judge its foreign policy performance.

Also, Abbott’s foreign policy has been lacking in the Pacific, said Nic Maclellan: 

Abbott couldn't even spare a day to attend this year's Pacific Islands Forum (Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss spent just 36 hours in Koror, though you wouldn't know about it  since not one press gallery journalist or TV news crew accompanied him to Palau). Abbott's decision to focus on the MH17 crisis overshadowed a crucial meeting, which included the selection of a new Forum Secretary General, preparations for Fiji's first post-coup elections and the development of regional interventions for a series of global summits on small island states, climate and development.

Natasha Stott Despoja wrote of Australia's role in putting gender on the agenda of the Indian Ocean Rim Association: 

The IORA conference I hosted on behalf of Minister Bishop in Kuala Lumpur was the flagship event to further Australia's aspiration on the economic empowerment of women. The event had a focus on textiles and tourism, two areas in which women are active in every member country. Textiles involve women as artisans, workers, designers, entrepreneurs and traders. Tourism is anticipated to account for one in every ten jobs on the planet by 2022.

Finally, CNAS's Ely Ratner suggested that Abbott may be stretching Australia’s resources with his globalist agenda: 

While Australia's leading strategists don't all agree with each other on priorities and alternatives, many said quietly (and some not so quietly) that Abbott may dilute Australia's power and influence if globalist ambitions prevent Australia from devoting sufficient resources to issues where it can make more unique and significant contributions. In the case of Australia's global activism, less may ultimately be more. 

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Let Ideas Compete.