The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reported plan to ‘invade’ Iraq last year rocks Australian politics

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott addresses the media during a national security statement at the Australian Federal Police  headquarters in Canberra on Feb. 23. (Lukas Coch/EPA)
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Over the past year, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made a number of international headlines for his unique brand of Aussie conservatism. In just a few months, he threatened to body slam Vladimir Putin, announced plans to knight Queen Elizabeth's husband and was repeatedly accused of sexism.

Yet a story published Friday in the Australian newspaper claimed to show that Abbott had taken his macho behavior into the realm of geopolitical absurdity – by suggesting a unilateral Australian "invasion" of Iraq.

According to the Australian's John Lyons, Abbott became interested in sending thousands of Australian troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State in November as the extremist group's military success in Iraq and Syria became apparent. He raised the issue with his staff, including controversial Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, Lyons reports, and none saw any issue with it.

It was only when the military became involved that the proposal – dubbed an "invasion" in the Australian media – fell apart. “The military officials were stunned, telling Mr Abbott that sending 3,500 Australian soldiers without any US or NATO cover would be disastrous for the Australians," Lyons wrote.

Deep fears about domestic terrorism has made the Islamic State an issue of pressing concern in Australia, and the country does have a few hundreds troops in Iraq acting as advisers. The country's military is relatively small, however – less than 60,000 in active manpower, a fraction of the United States' 1.5 million – and the country has never declared war unilaterally before. Despite the country's involvement in the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq a little over a decade ago, for many Australians the idea of a military action without the backing of other countries seems insane.

Over the weekend, Abbott sternly denied the report, saying that from the beginning there have never been any plans to put Australian combat troops into Iraq. "It is fanciful, absolutely fanciful," Abbott told reporters, arguing that Lyons had never contacted his office about the story. A number of government ministers also suggested that the report was absurd.

"Australia does not act unilaterally in the Middle East," the Australian prime minister said. "We work with our partners and allies to meet threats to our vital national interests and to the vital national interests of our friends and partners. That's what we do."

Defense officials have come out to discredit the report, too. "The Chief of the Defense Force [Marshal Mark Binskin] does not recall, or have any record of any task from the Prime Minister to examine the possibility of a large scale deployment to Iraq of the nature described in today's media reports," a defense spokesman told Fairfax Media.

The Australian has said it is standing by its initial story, and in a follow-up over the weekend, it pointed out that Abbott had repeatedly said there was no "formal" proposal to invade Iraq – a sign, the newspaper seemed to suggest, that a more informal talk about an invasion of Iraq had occurred. The Australian's editor, Clive Mathieson, also said that the Australian never implied that Marshal Binskin was involved in talks about the "invasion" and that his reporters had contacted Abbott's office twice.

It's a big problem for the Australian prime minister. The Sydney Morning Herald points out that Abbott's government has been hit by a series of leaks recently, indications of a conflict behind the scenes in his governing Liberal Party. Whether Abbott brought up an Iraqi invasion formally, informally  or simply not at all, the Australian's story touched a nerve.

It highlights not only what is seen as a worryingly brash side to Abbott's decision-making process, but also broader concerns about the strength of the Australian military in the face of global extremism and a rising China.