John Howard’s remarks about US Democrat Presidential hopeful Barack Obama certainly provoked a flurry of media activity across the Pacific and the Atlantic last week. However, virtually all commentary on the matter both in parliament and the media has focused on whether Howard is right or wrong to insist that a US withdrawal from Iraq would be a major mistake. This is not where the danger of the comment lies.
‘If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats,’ Howard told Laurie Oakes on Nine’s Sunday program.
With a little reflection, anyone who has lived through an election cycle in Australia will recognise the rhetorical style as typical Aussie gloves-off electioneering. Yes, Iraq was the subject matter, but if you look closely you see that Howard did not take Obama’s comments as an occasion to rearticulate the justification for Australia’s involvement in the war, nor its alliance with the US in this foreign policy endeavour. He used it as the occasion to terrify future (US) voters into voting against both Obama and the party to which he belongs. (Indeed, as the debate unfolded this week, he did the same with respect to his own official opposition, the ALP.)
Had Howard entered into a political debate about Iraq, it would have been reasonable and quite in keeping with his role as the leader of this country. But instead he entered the debate as a political lobbyist or a proxy member of the Republican Party, against which Obama is a contender in a US election. And in doing so, he stepped out of his designated role as the leader of this nation State, and into his assumed role as a deputy to another nation State. (Of course, this is not a new role for the Prime Minister. In the case of David Hicks he continues to betray the responsibility of a State to its citizens by delegating judicial authority to the US.)
This reorganisation of lines of alliance represents a significant departure from our traditional understanding of the shape of international relations. Sovereign States (especially democratic ones) have at least ideally had State to State, not party to party, relationships. Political leaders criticise the political positions of other countries and their leaders. But it is not their role to enter into the internal democratic processes of other nation States. Nor have we, the people who elected them, given them that mandate. Political leaders must form diplomatic relationships with the democratically elected leadership of other States, not with particular parties. As the political affiliation of the elected government changes, so do international relations. And throughout the process each State retains its status as a fully independent sovereign.
Under the Coalition Government of John Howard, we have seen this traditional protocol shift significantly. Indeed, one might think that the Republican and Coalition parties belonged to a single political entity, fighting against a single entity comprising the Democrats, Labor and now al-Qaeda. For those of us who believe that the democratic institutions through which each nation State develops policy and governs are still the most important ballast we have against despotism or plutocracy, this is a deeply worrying trend.
The way in which Howard framed his remarks is also disturbing. His attack was not a reasoned argument about the right or wrong of a policy concerning Australian and US presence in Iraq. It was a moral argument about whether the people who agreed with his (and Bush’s) stance were good or bad, or even more damningly good or evil. This way of framing politics and disagreement is far from new in the US, and in the ‘War on Terror’ it has taken centre stage: these men are ‘the worst of the worst’; ‘you are for us or against us’; ‘the Axis of evil’. In Australia, however, high brow moral language has traditionally found fallow ground our political debate is usually closer to a dog fight than a televangelical sermon.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
Now though, in Howard’s line of sight, Obama becomes an incarnation of moral degeneration. And this is a very distinct flavour of moral degeneration. It is one that grows from what Americans call liberalism, and what many Australian liberals believed was at the foundational philosophy of the Liberal Party: freedom of thought and a government that stepped back from thick moral pronouncements and left people to choose the good life for themselves.
As is becoming increasingly evident, however, Howard’s Liberal Party, although neo-liberal economically, is neo-conservative when it comes to foreign policy, and indeed to much domestic social policy. In other words: people should be free in market relations, but in social and international relations, better that they be good.
The other unsettling dimension of Howard’s comments lies in their decidedly odd wording. Howard says, ‘If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq’. A great teacher once suggested to me that when your friend says, ‘Mary thinks you are stupid (mean, ugly ‘), your friend is most likely telling you what she thinks about you.
In Howard’s case, this language of substitution does not indicate that in his secret fantasies he would be running al-Qaeda. But the wording does suggest that what he is about to say will probably tell us far more about him than about al-Qaeda. He tells us that in order to reach the wished for political outcome, he would be praying, and not just once, but as many times as possible. Does that mean that Howard endorses prayer as a powerful political strategy? In which case, presumably, he has circled the calendar on the fridge in Kirribilli and will be praying for a Republican victory.
Or, does it mean that he thinks that this is what those Islamic types who run al-Qaeda do by way of political strategy? The ‘as many times as possible’ would fit in well in this case, given that we all know that Muslims pray (an excessive) five times a day. And the notion that the people we are fighting against in the ‘War on Terror’ operate by irrational means (religion) fits in well with a political strategy that has rejected diplomacy or reasoned debate as a ridiculous waste of time. What is the point, after all, of trying to have a reasoned discussion with people who still live in a pre-modern world where politics is done through prayer and holy destruction? The only way to counter such irrationalism is to destroy it with Absolute Go(o)d.
In a sense, none of this is new. Carl Schmitt, the Nazi political theorist who insisted that in politics, the friend/enemy dichotomy trumps any concern for legality or reason, has for some time now been among the theorists of choice in US foreign relations. We can be assured that as long as we are still among ‘the friends’ we are safe.
What is new, and genuinely threatening, is that Howard is now overtly linking Obama and the Democratic Party who, after all, are still Americans and so friends with al-Qaeda, who is the enemy. In the last week, he has placed the ALP in the same camp. Creating this type of radical schism is not a political ethic any of us, irrespective of party, religion or views on Iraq ought to be endorsing. It is also worth remembering that it was this type of radical internal and external enmity and inability to negotiate across differences that gave rise to the politics of tolerance and reasoned debate a politics we can ill afford to sacrifice today.
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