Kevin Rudd - clever but careful on Iraq

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am

In a move that will test the strength of Australia's long-standing alliance with the US, the recently elected Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is negotiating with the US Bush administration on withdrawing Australian frontline forces from Iraq. But the pullout is expected to be limited and much less radical than it sounds, partly because Australia has a strong interest in broader Persian Gulf security. Mr Rudd and his advisers have been quick to recognise this.

The Australian leader has said he will move swiftly to keep his election promise to bring about 550 'combat' troops home by around mid-2008. Talks on a timetable will be held with the US and Iraqi governments over the next few weeks so that a final deal can be sealed when Mr Rudd visits Washington early next year.

Many Australians who voted for Mr Rudd's Labor party also opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq and the decision of the then Australian centre-right government of prime minister John Howard to send 2,000 troops to support the operation. However, Mr Rudd has said repeatedly that Australia's alliance with the US sits squarely in the centre of Labor's strategic vision, and that America remains an overwhelming force for good in the world, despite the Iraq debacle.

Mr Rudd is being both clever and careful in his negotiating tactics on Iraq. Clever, because he is fulfilling his commitment to withdraw 'combat' troops. Careful, because in doing so he is not undercutting Australian interests in Gulf security or unduly straining US relations.

He has noted that one of the unfortunate consequences of removing the regime of Saddam Hussein is that it enabled neighbouring Iran to become more assertive. This, he said, had 'long-term implications for oil security' in the Middle East. Australia - like China - is becoming increasingly dependent on oil imports from the Middle East, and thus increasingly vulnerable to any disruption in the flow of oil by sea from the Gulf - which Iran has threatened to block in a conflict with the US.

Even after the frontline soldiers on the ground return home, Australia will have around 1,000 members of its defence forces in and around Iraq, in addition to troops in Afghanistan, which Mr Rudd has pledged to maintain. Several hundred of the Australians are naval personnel involved with the US and other countries in protecting Iraq's offshore oil infrastructure and energy export sea lanes in the Gulf.

Over 90 per cent of all the oil exported from the Persian Gulf is carried in tankers that must pass through the Hormuz Strait between Iran, on one side, and US allies Oman and the United Arab Emirates on the other.

Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of US naval forces in the Gulf, told The Wall Street Journal last month that protecting Iraq's offshore oil export terminals was not just an Iraq issue; it was also 'a global economic-stability issue'. Mr Rudd evidently agrees.

Michael Richardson is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment.