Address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Theatrette, Parliament House
Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007
Release Date: 21/03/2007
Release Type: Speech
Transcript ID: 15315
I appreciate Peter Abigail and ASPI giving me the opportunity to address this distinguished group on the situation today in Iraq and the broader security implications.
In one sense, this quiet corner of Parliament House is a long way from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In another sense, it helps bring into focus much of what is at stake.
A hallmark of our free society is the ability to debate issues forcefully and to resolve inevitable differences peacefully. Our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan see this as a sign of weakness. We know it is our greatest strength.
This place is where political differences are aired and resolved in policy. I am well aware of the sharp political differences that exist in Australia today over Iraq, differences that have existed since the Government's initial decision to commit forces four years ago.
I am not asking Australians to discount the enormous difficulties in Iraq or to change their views about the original decision. I am asking them to consider the situation we now face and the stakes involved.
What Iraq and her people now need is time, not a timetable. They seek our patience, not political positioning. They require our resolve, not our retreat.
This place also reminds us that our democratic processes, liberty and prosperity rest on a foundation of order and security. Without security, democratic politics and economic development are impossible.
That's why the first duty of government is to protect and defend the nation's security, its people, its borders, its interests and its values.
Sometimes that involves tough decisions which place Australian men and women in danger - no less today than in earlier times of war.
And notwithstanding our strong economy, a near record stockmarket and low unemployment, this is a time of war.
The long war against violent Islamic extremism goes on. It is a very different kind of war - a war without borders and with no clear frontlines; a war fought as much by our ideas and values as by our armies.
Terrorist cells are active today in between 30 and 40 countries plotting action based on a warped interpretation of Islam. Attacks have been planned in Australia.
Nor should we forget the essential lessons of 11 September 2001 - that failed states can quickly become havens and projecting grounds for global terror; and that terrorists can turn our openness and technological achievements against us to devastating strategic effect.
Globalisation is far from a universal solvent for ideologies of hate or old wounds - real and perceived.
The West faces a major disjunction today between political fragmentation and economic globalisation; between abundant opportunities created by liberal, democratic societies and reactionary forces bent on crippling them; between the relative comfort and normalcy of so many Western lives in 2007 and the risks and sacrifices of those striving to bring peace and stability to troubled lands.
There are about 3,300 Australian Defence Force personnel on operations overseas or undertaking security tasks in our maritime protection zone. They advance our nation's interests and ideals with great courage.
I regard them as our finest patriots and our finest internationalists.
Roughly 2000 Australians are part of operations today in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Afghanistan, our largest contingent - the Reconstruction Task Force in Oruzgan Province which I visited last week - is working in partnership with the Dutch on the reconstruction and improvement of infrastructure. It has made excellent progress rebuilding schools, roads and bridges and training the local population to ensure the benefits remain into the future.
Afghanistan is a highly dangerous theatre of war with 2006 the most violent year since the country was liberated. We can expect a revived Taliban to launch further waves of attack this year.
As winter in Afghanistan gives way to spring, coalition forces are again on the offensive to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be a safe-haven for terrorism - and to help the Afghan people surmount the many problems they face in building a secure, stable and democratic future.
This will take time and effort. I assured President Karzai when I met him that Australia remains committed to this task.
Last week, I also visited Australian troops in Iraq. I spoke with their commanding officers and men and women of all ranks; I spoke with Prime Minister Maliki; and I spoke with General Petraeus, the new US commander of the Multinational Force in Iraq.
It's just over four years since I announced the commitment of Australian forces to the US-led military operation in Iraq. This was one of the most difficult and contentious decisions this government has taken.
I share the concern and distress of all Australians about the continued violence and suffering in Iraq - and their frustration that it is sometimes hard to see progress.
Clearly there have been setbacks and mistakes on the way to Iraq taking full charge of its own affairs. The loss of life and injuries sustained by both Iraqis and coalition forces is tragic.
But I would hope even critics of our involvement in the original action recognise the need to honour our obligations to the Iraqis and to help them towards a more stable future.
Every time ordinary Iraqis are given the chance they say the same thing in overwhelming numbers: We want peace, stability and democracy.
I did come away from my visit to Iraq with a sense of cautious hope - about the new security plan and about the Iraqi government's willingness to face the big challenges ahead.
Above all, I came away convinced that the Iraqi people want the same things we look for in our own lives - safety for their families, a chance to earn a living and a say in how they are governed.
In March 2003 I was very clear about the reasons for taking decisive action against Saddam Hussein. I simply remind people of the strategic realities we faced.
That Saddam's regime was a real and growing threat to the stability of the Middle East. Containment was breaking down.
That Saddam had form, both as an aggressor against his neighbours and as a tyrannic ruler of his own people. And that his non-compliance with 17 UN Security Council resolutions over a period of 12 years was weakening the credibility of the United Nations.
That virtually all governments (including opponents of the war such as France and Germany) as well as the now Leader of the Opposition agreed that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and had designs on developing nuclear weapons. Mr Rudd said that Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction was