Vietnam and lessons for Afghanistan and the budget
17 Apr 2013|

Minister for Defence Stephen Smith addresses an ASPI audience.

As a budget, a White Paper and an election crowd the calendar, Defence counts down the days to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s easier for the Defence Minister to talk about Afghanistan than to say too much about the budget, the Paper or the poll. When coming calendar events make it unsafe to chat in detail about the future, history is an excellent place to turn. And history can always be turned to use in preparing for future arguments. That partly explains why Vietnam featured as a motif of Stephen Smith’s ASPI speech. (video available here)

Grappling with the hydra that stretches in so many directions from Russell means that any speech by the Minister bears diverse messages. The text must be a mixture of attack and defence that seeks both to explain and argue, to announce and ignore, to reveal and conceal. What’s unsaid offers shape and context to the words that actually emerge.

The set-piece speeches are markers in an ever-evolving conversation, always shaped by the reality that the problems never travel solo, but always in series. And the big headaches are serials that are seldom finished.

The speeches, too, are serial. See the ASPI speech as a marker that sits in a direct line from the Ministerial statement on the Afghanistan transition of 7 February and the detailed ‘to do’ list Smith offered in his February 12 paper for the Australian Defence Magazine Congress. All these markers are heading towards fixed destinations, with Smith’s announcement that the White Paper will be delivered at the end of June (just meeting the promise that it would be out in the second quarter of this year).

The calendar rundown thus reads: federal budget in May, Defence White Paper in June and federal election in September. Those dates frame the big decision that haunted this ASPI speech and many that have preceded it. It is, of course, the dollar decision that will drive through the budget, the Paper and the poll. The future spend on Defence didn’t have to be addressed in the speech because the question was, predictably, the first one asked after the address.

Defence spending is heading south and will keep going south. Last year’s budget cut the Defence share to 1.56 per cent of GDP. It’s a fair bet that the budget projection announced next month will lower that share again—and that the White Paper the following month will set a floor of 1.5 per cent of GDP for Defence. The promise will be that spending will be returned to 2 per cent of GDP ‘as circumstances permit’. The central struggle in such a pledge doesn’t reside in the far-off land of future permission; it’s to see that spending doesn’t fall below the new floor.

The argument Smith mounted in responding to that funding question is that an average of budgets over the last dozen years shows 1.7 per cent of GDP going to Defence. Members of his expert audience were later scratching their heads at how to achieve that 1.7 per cent figure (subtract operational expenses and non-scheduled purchases, for example?). As it happens, the experts were wrong and the Minister is right—the twelve-year average is 1.76% according to Mark Thomson’s figures (see post below). The central criticism, though, was that the trend line over most of that period was pointing up—although the data doesn’t really support that claim either. But, unarguably, this year and next are sharply down.

All this brings us to the Vietnam motif of the speech. Defence suffered after Vietnam. We’re going to do it again after Afghanistan, but now Smith promises it will be done in a smarter manner and with more planning. With Smith having introduced Vietnam, it kept tolling in the background of his speech. He certainly set the tone with his reference to the 1975 ‘image of helicopters leaving from the United States’ Embassy roof, again underlining the old adage that people may not remember how you arrived, but they certainly remember how you leave.’

One Vietnam echo was the Minister’s reference to the need to get ‘precision’ from the US about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and what it plans after 2014. Precision was the last thing that John Gorton’s government got from Richard Nixon. Instead, Australia was the ally repeatedly blind-sided as Nixon lurched frantically towards the exit door in Vietnam. In South Vietnam, at least, the Australian task force had its own port for a dignified egress. No such luxury this time in Afghanistan. Precision, please.

Another echo of history came with Smith’s discussion of what needs to be done to help after a withdrawal. The lesson he pointed to was from the Soviet Union’s version of Vietnam:

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Afghan authorities were capable of maintaining levels of security with Soviet financial and materiel support. However, with the collapse of the USSR and consequent cessation of financial support, government and security in Afghanistan effectively collapsed, leading to insurgency and civil war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps next time Smith will quote Henry Kissinger’s argument that the ultimate disaster befell South Vietnam not because of the US military pull out but because the US Congress cut of the cash support.

In confronting the coming calendar, Smith can invoke Vietnam as both a warning but also a precedent for what is about to happen to Defence. The Vietnam-Afghanistan analogy is that after the war it is time to rethink and replan and—oh, yes—spend less. Call it, as Smith does, a ‘major transition and drawdown’ and the phrase ‘peace dividend’ doesn’t come into it. This is all about ‘the new fiscal reality we, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Europe and others face,’ as Smith argued in February.

Drawing lessons from history and coping with new fiscal reality certainly sounds more responsible and measured than a frantic effort to extract dollars from Defence to prop up other more pressing areas of government policy.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Luke Wilson, ASPI.

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