View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Day 26: Abbott raises a cautious voice on Syria

Kevin Rudd has questioned Tony Abbott’s skills on the world stage. AAP/Lukas Coch

Days after Kevin Rudd questioned whether Tony Abbott was too “impulsive” to handle international crises such as Syria, the opposition leader was sounding a good deal more measured than the Prime Minister on that issue.

It’s true we don’t have much guide to how, as PM, Abbott would conduct international relations, beyond the obvious (his strong commitment to the US, his references to the anglosphere).

But leaders learn quickly to be comfortable on the world stage, as Julia Gillard showed, and today’s crowded round of international conferences gives them an early education. If Abbott’s elected, he’ll have to be off travelling soon (and that’s apart from his promised immediate visit to Indonesia to discuss the boats).

Syria is providing both an early glimpse in (almost) real time of Abbott’s approach, and throwing up an unexpected contrast with Rudd.

The PM this week has taken a very robust stance on the crisis. For days, and before the weapons inspectors have finished their work, he has been satisfied about the evidence of chemical weapons, the regime’s guilt, and the need for action.

After speaking with President Barack Obama, British PM David Cameron and others, Rudd clearly felt things were moving towards quick intervention. With Australia about to take over the UN Security Council presidency and his own penchant for activist diplomacy, Rudd placed himself in the rhetorical vanguard.

Then came a serious complication: the British House of Commons voted against becoming involved, and Cameron ruled out being part of any strike. Now, with the United States in a more exposed position without Britain, it is less clear how the situation will unfold.

Today Abbott gave a comprehensive run down of his position, and he had a strong message. Be cautious.

The first thing to do was to wait for the weapons inspectors’ report and any Security Council resolutions.

Beyond that: “It is the general disposition of the Australian government, regardless of whether it’s a Labor government or a Coalition government, to support our friends and allies wherever we can,” he told a news conference.

But “we should be very reluctant to get too involved in very difficult conflicts which we may not be readily able to influence for good. We should be very careful about getting involved in a civil war between two deeply unsavoury sides.”

He said he had strongly supported Australian involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq “but we have to digest the lessons of both of those interventions.”

Any action would be taken by countries with the capability to do so and Australia was not one of those. He played down any suggestion that Australia was a key player.

Abbott chose his words carefully. In questioning Abbott’s “temperament”, Rudd had said that in such situations “you have to sit back, think, calmly reflect and then work through what the best decision is.” Abbott was directly responding to Rudd when he said: “This is a time for cool heads. It’s not a time for intemperate action and it’s not a time for Australia to exaggerate its own role in what is a very difficult international situation.”

Rudd today reiterated that the Australia government had a high level of confidence that the Syrian regime had been responsible for the use of chemical weapons. He said the weapons inspectors’ observations were “one part of the overall proof test as to what has occurred.” He did however emphasise that there had been no request from the US or elsewhere for any direct or indirect Australian military participation in any possible action.

Rudd also fired back at Abbott. If he became PM he would inherit the UN Security Council presidency. “You can’t wish it away because it’s not Tony Abbott’s preferred field of operations. I don’t believe Mr Abbott is comfortable or experienced in handling these questions.”

It’s very possible Abbott’s caution would resonate more with the public than Rudd’s wish for international action.

The Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, headed by former defence department chief Paul Barratt, warned this week that “talk of brief limited military interventions should be treated with the greatest scepticism in the light of other recent wars in which Western countries have become bogged down since 2001.”

If the Americans do take action outside the United Nations – where the Russian veto would prevent the passage of a resolution to back a strike – this would be a test of Abbott’s cautionary policy.

He would be caught between what he has said already and his loyalty to the US, which would be anxious to have the diplomatic support of as many allies as possible. You would bet loyalty would win.

Abbott’s Syrian comments also reflect a more limited enthusiasm for Australia’s role on the Security Council. Rudd would want to use that two year spot to the hilt for his middle power diplomacy. Abbott seems to have little interest in doing so. The Liberals are less into multilateralism than Labor. Then there is the tribal element. Going after the seat was a Rudd initiative.

If the Liberals win, the Ambassador to the United Nations they will inherit is Gary Quinlan – a former Rudd adviser.