Trying to convince a sceptical population why Australia could soon be at war with Iraq is proving a major test of opinion management for the Howard Government.
Meeting the challenge will depend on public amnesia and a widespread lack of concern about irony, hypocrisy and double standards.
It’s not enough to say that Saddam Hussein is a monster who has brutally killed his own citizens, plundered their wealth and invaded his neighbours. So did Indonesia’s General Soeharto on a much grander scale, and yet he was feted by the West at the peak of his crimes and enjoys a comfortable retirement in Jakarta.
Nor is it possible to focus on the dangers posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction without mentioning how Washington and London assisted him to acquire and develop them in the ’80s. Or why his use of them then against Iranians and Kurds failed to trouble the conscience of the West, but his potential use of them now does.
The Iraqi leader is guilty of heinous crimes, but an accurate indictment for the worst of them would need the suffix “with the West’s enthusiastic support” added to the charges.
And after demanding for weeks that Iraq abide by existing UN Security Council resolutions authorising the deployment of weapons inspectors, it’s difficult to disguise the fact that Washington is now the major obstacle to Iraq’s compliance because it is threatening to “thwart” their return to Baghdad until a tougher resolution is passed.
It isn’t easy to conceal the irony that Russia and France are being criticised for considering a veto of this new United States-British draft resolution on Iraq when, since the ’70s, Washington has used its veto 32 times to protect Israel from internationally authorised action.
Needless to say, the whole question of Israel’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to the Middle East needs to be passed over in discreet silence.
Given that Canberra has only recently recognised the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, it might also be hard to explain why Saddam couldn’t be handed over to the ICC and prosecuted for war crimes if he was apprehended by invading US troops, because Washington has refused to ratify the Rome treaty and recognise the court.
However, Canberra’s greatest PR challenge will come if Washington bypasses the Security Council and invokes self-defence under Article 51 of the UN charter as a pretext for a unilateral strike upon Iraq. It won’t just be necessary to explain why Canberra is so keen to endorse Washington’s decision to flout international law.
By any legal measure, Iraq has a much stronger case to use exactly the same grounds – anticipatory self-defence – to justify an attack against the US and Britain, given that both countries have recently made unprovoked public threats against it.
Neither Washington nor London, however, has been able to produce evidence of a similar threat from Baghdad.
Of course, this could only occur in a world where international law was applied universally and the West was judged by the same standards it imposes on others.
On the recommendation of consultants and spin doctors, the demonisation of Saddam has reached hysterical levels – in both senses of the word – and follows a familiar pattern set against Fidel Castro (communist subversive), Ayatollah Khomeini (Islamic extremist), Colonel Gaddafi (terrorist), Manuel Noriega (drug lord) and Osama bin Laden (Islamic extremist and terrorist).
Complex problems with social, cultural and political causes have been reduced to a simplistic struggle between good (us) and evil (them) and the individual personification of threats which only military strikes against an entire population can forestall. However, no new strategic doctrines and no amount of technological fetishism will insulate the West from the unintended consequences of its actions around the world.
Euphemisms for murder like “regime change ” and second-hand intelligence dossiers do not appear to have been sufficiently persuasive for what Howard likes to call “the mob”. Nor is the public’s failure to share Canberra’s vicarious war fever a reflection of anti-Americanism, an infantile slur cast against anyone who doesn’t uncritically accept Washington’s world view.
Australians know that it is possible to love America and Americans while despising the foreign policy that is enacted in their name.
Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at the school of social and international studies, Deakin University, Victoria.