Since being in Washington on September 11, 2001, Prime Minister John Howard has inextricably tied much of Australia’s foreign policy to George W. Bush’s America. Commentators have spent millions of column inches explaining the reasons behind Howard’s kow-towing to the US administration. Most, I believe, have missed the point, while failing to comprehend the ways in which many so-called liberal democracies since 9/11 have transformed their societies into places of greater conformity, with a lessening in importance of human rights and the rule of law and a crushing of dissent. We need to start asking what kind of country Australia is becoming in the name of conservatism as it’s surely time to examine the ways in which the War on Terror is increasing our vulnerability to the forces of extremism, both in terms of physical and mental harm.
It seems a lifetime ago that Le Monde editorialised shortly after 9/11 that ‘we are all Americans now’. These sentiments were echoed throughout the (primarily) Western world, and those Third World countries hoping to receive financial/military assistance or an IMF aid package. Let us not be under any illusions that a country such as the Philippines will be offering moral support for the US if it didn’t want something in return. (Indeed, American troops began arriving in the south of the country soon after, helping ‘liquidate’ Muslim extremists based there, many of whom are linked to al-Qaeda.) Australia, however, is in an entirely different situation, and an altogether more transparent one.
John Howard was elected in 1996 on a platform of fiscal and social conservatism. The previous years of Prime Minister Paul Keating saw large sections of the Australian populace feeling disaffected by his supposed radical agenda. There was little progressive about it in hindsight, but rather a longing by the left that someone in power was talking about their pet issues: reconciliation and engagement with Asia as two examples. Keating was the kind of leader who convinced himself that he was the one to lead Australia into the 21st century, away from years of seeing America as the umbrella under which we had to reside. He was, arguably, fairly unsuccessful in his vision. Perhaps if he had been given more time by the voting public he would have shown himself adept at negotiating the culturally and politically sensitive issues of the 2000 Olympic Games, the anniversary of Federation in 2001, 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’. John Howard ruined his chances, and almost immediately after his election in 1996 (a victory borne from a rejection of 13 years of Labor government rather than an endorsement of Liberal Party philosophy), the mood of the country began shifting radically.
These changes have been extensively documented, and it is not my intention to rehash others’ finer analysis. Rather, Australia in 2003 is a country with closer links to America than ever before. Many on the left feeling uncomfortable with this by definition, a violent reaction to an empire long known for overthrowing democratically elected governments. I do not wish to engage in a debate about the veritable merits of military ties to the US, suffice to say that any rational debate must include a realisation that links will continue to exist indefinitely no matter who is in power. However, Howard’s gung-ho adventures in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq, points to an ideology deeply rooted in insecurity, and one fundamentally happy with being painted as the region’s ‘Deputy Sheriff’. It is unwise to assume that Howard has any problem with either of these descriptions.
Now that we are so closely aligned and actively supporting this ‘War on Terror’, it is reasonable to question its effectiveness in making the world, and especially Australia, safer from terrorist attack. A recent book by French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy on the life and death of Wall Street Journal writer Danny Pearl (‘Who Killed Daniel Pearl?’), suggests that the actions of America and her allies since 9/11 have hindered, not helped, the fight against Islamic terrorism. His research uncovers the (perhaps predictable) fact that Pakistan is the current centre of world terrorism, and the recent support offered to the once renegade nation by America and Australia, amongst others, offers no incentive for President Musaraf to seriously crack down on militant groups. Levy concludes with a warning: The ousting of Saddam Hussein has “solved only 1% of the [terrorist] problem”. He claims a nuclear attack against a Western city is only a matter of time if strong action is not taken immediately. The claims of Bush and Howard before the Iraq war attempted to convince an already fearful public that the threat of world terrorism would lessen with the deposing of Saddam. How has this been achieved? Where is the evidence linking Saddam to al-Qaeda? Most worryingly, recent reports in US Newsweek confirm that Taliban forces are regrouping throughout Afghanistan, working together with the surviving members of the al-Qaeda network. So much for the claims that ‘we’ care about ‘them’. Singer Michael Franti summed it up: ‘you can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb the world to peace.’
John Pilger recently returned from a tour of Afghanistan and Iraq and his message is despairing. Writing in The Guardian on 20 September, Pilger said:
“In May last year, the Guardian published the result of an investigation by Jonathan Steele. He concluded that, in addition to up to 8,000 Afghans killed by American bombs, as many as 20,000 more may have died as an indirect consequence of Bush’s invasion, including those who fled their homes and were denied emergency relief in the middle of a drought. Of all the great humanitarian crises of recent years, no country has been helped less than Afghanistan. Bosnia, with a quarter of the population, received $356 per person; Afghanistan gets $42 per person. Only 3% of all international aid spent in Afghanistan has been for reconstruction; the US-led military “coalition” accounts for 84%, the rest is emergency aid. Last March, Karzai flew to Washington to beg for more money. He was promised extra money from private US investors. Of this, $35m will finance a proposed five-star hotel. As Bush said, “The Afghan people will know the generosity of America and its allies.”
As citizens of a so-called democracy, we are entitled to ask some provocative questions. What did ‘we’ really achieve in Afghanistan and Iraq? Our mass media have a short memory, to say the least, and no major Australian news organisation has any permanent staff based in Afghanistan. It’s a shocking fact that underlines the belief that if we are not to trust our government’s version of events, where can we receive our information? I would argue that the still relatively high support for the Howard Government could partly be explained by the lack of real coverage of events in recent theatres of action, such as the Middle East and Central Asia. How many people really know the real reason for invading Iraq? How many people really know the current situation in Afghanistan? How many people are aware of the role of US troops in Central Asia? How many people would still support either or both wars if they knew, as reported by Pilger last weekend, the following:
“In a series of extraordinary reports, the latest published in July, Human Rights Watch has documented atrocities “committed by gunmen and warlords who were propelled into power by the United States and its coalition partners after the Taliban fell in 2001″ and who have “essentially hijacked the country”. The report describes army and police troops controlled by the warlords kidnapping villagers with impunity and holding them for ransom in unofficial prisons; the widespread rape of women, girls and boys; routine extortion, robbery and arbitrary murder. Girls’ schools are burned down. “Because the soldiers are targeting women and girls,” the report says, “many are staying indoors, making it impossible for them to attend school [or] go to work.”
This is the real face of the ‘War on Terror’. All the arrests of suspected al-Qaeda members is but one important step in winning hearts and minds of communities across the Muslim world. What, therefore, is driving John Howard’s position? In my mind, commentators have been looking for too complicated a reason. Howard is a pragmatist, if nothing else, and since 9/11 a worldview has developed which he thinks has forced Australia to make a strong stand in favour of US unilateralism. The saddest irony is that despite the upcoming arrival of Bush to personally thank Howard for his support, Australia is no closer in striking the Howard favoured Free Trade Deal with the US (unquestionably a short-sighted idea anyway) and is no closer to gaining access to al-Qaeda suspects held by America who may be able to assist Australian Police in thwarting future terrorist attacks. So what have we gained? And what does John Howard know that we do not? What Bush-lite sweeteners have been offered to the Australian Government?
One of the most disturbing aspects of the ‘War on Terror’ is the US-led concentration camp at Guantanemo Bay. The justification for the camp’s continued existence makes a mockery of our democratic principles. Australia is far from immune in these criticisms. Australian citizens David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib have been incarcerated in Cuba, incommunicado, for around 18 months. Their legal status is in limbo, while the US Government makes noises about trying the two for unspecified crimes. How are these men, along with hundreds of others, allowed to simply disappear? Why isn’t the Australian Government making appeals for their release? Terry Hicks, father of David, said in late September that he hoped John Howard would raise the issue of his son when Bush arrives in Australia next month, however, “We’re hoping it will be raised, but I doubt he [Howard] is even strong enough”. The situation is perverse in the extreme. America, a country that thinks of itself as arbiter of justice and freedom, holds suspected terrorists indefinitely, in Cuba of all places, with no legal rights. It seems likely that the Australian Government simply doesn’t think the general public cares about the men’s fate.
It is quite clear that a number of governments throughout the world have made significant arrests against al-Qaeda and Jemmah Islamiah. The capacities of these terrorists groups to strike new targets may well be diminished, for the time being. However, there seems little attempt to seriously examine the root causes of terrorism, such as poverty, the Westernisation of sacred sites in the Middle East and the stealing (by Western multinationals) of natural resources from the Third World for the First World. It’s all too hard and long-winded, thinks the Australian Government, we can create much more mileage (and good TV vision) if we arrest some key militants and pronounce that we’re winning the War on Terror. If only this were true. A more dangerous world is being created in name of this War. The Shadow Treasurer, Mark Latham, make a speech to Parliament before Gulf War II. It’s a tragedy that this kind of honesty is not expressed in the public demain more often:
“President Bush’s foreign looks more like American imperialism than a well-thought through and resourced strategy to eliminate terrorists. Bush himself is the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory. It is a bit rich for him to be preaching democratic values when he himself failed to win a democratic majority in the 2000 presidential election. His war with Iraq is more about revenging his father’s mistakes. From time to time strong leadership comes from saying no to another country. The Prime Minister puffs himself up and talks about strength. The real strength and purpose of national leadership every now and then comes from saying no to another country. Mr Howard and his Government are just yes-men to the United States. There they are, a conga line of suckholes on the conservative side of Australian politics. The backbench sucks up to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister sucks up to George W. That is how it works for the little Tories, and they have the hide to call themselves Australians.”