Beyond Empty Rhetoric


Unlike the nearby city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and its capital city Doha generally do not evoke reaction when defining the Persian Gulf. Dubai comes to mind as a new Mecca of conspicuous consumption, fuelled by crude oil investment but Qatar is also a rapidly developing country where construction embodies the skyline.

Perhaps a crowning jewel defining Doha, is the recent expansion of the Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel. The launch of its English version and what it promises to achieve received much fanfare across the globe last year.

I have been working as a Producer at Al-Jazeera for the past few months. As they do at rival broadcasters worldwide, daily bulletins come in with news from Iraq, but as Doha is only a few hundred kilometers away from the action, we tend to get a closer perspective on events.

Understandably, given Washington’s recent troop surges and security crackdowns, Australia’s involvement in Iraq is not a high priority for Al-Jazeera. But since Prime Minister John Howard’s criticisms of Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Barack Obama a couple of weeks ago,  my colleagues grow curious about Australia’s role in the Middle East.

Howard’s attack on the Iraq exit strategy proposed by Obama (initially proposed by the Iraq Study Group) took many here by surprise. It is not rocket science to suggest a continuing foreign presence in Iraq despite efforts to quell the violence is contributing to over a thousand Iraqi deaths a week.

In the news room here, a shrill alarm goes off everyday as wire services alert us of another explosion on the streets of Baghdad. This no longer stops conversation, and I’m told to ‘get used to it.’

Good news rarely comes from the quagmire further up the Gulf, but news of carnage happens several times a day. Al-Jazeera is criticised for its constant use of negative, confronting imagery but reporters do continually look for positive stories. To no avail. (The Australian media, relatively sanitised compared to Al-Jazeera, is itself a victim to Iraq’s current cycle of death and destruction.)

It is high time Australia had an open and honest debate about Iraq. Shouldn’t the rhetoric of ‘mateship’ and ‘allegiance’ also serve the interests of the people ‘we’ came to liberate? Mateship isn’t only a relationship between occupying powers, surely it is also an obligation to the people who were promised ‘freedom.’ If honesty is an aspect of mateship, then the Iraqi people are still waiting for ‘democracy’ now, more than ever, a mirage shimmering over the hot desert sands.

The Australian Government needs to be frank about the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, and how an emerging civil war in Iraq is spilling over into what could be a wider regional war. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is set for a large-scale withdrawal of part of  the British contingent in Iraq. It now seems America’s strongest ally is adopting (at least, the beginnings of) the very ‘cut and run’ strategy Howard is lobbying against.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

But spare a thought for the 1.8 million Iraqis who have already had to ‘cut and run’ to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, before and since the 2003 invasion. Or the additional 1.6 million Iraqis who are believed to be internally displaced.

The Age editorial for 21 February stated that US Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Australia last week ‘is tempered with disillusionment, not with America, but how it handled Iraq.’ On the so-called ‘Arab Street,’ however, it is quite the opposite.

A face-to-face survey  of 3500 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates found that over 80 per cent of Arabs consider Israel and the United States the two biggest external threats to their security. Only 12 per cent cited Iran.

According to the survey, less than one in four Arabs believe Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear program, while 61 per cent, including majorities in all six countries, said Tehran had the right to pursue it even if, as most believe, the program is designed to develop nuclear weapons.

The poll, the fifth in an annual series conducted by Zogby International and designed by Shibley Telhami,  a senior fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution,  was carried out in November and early December 2006 after last summer’s war between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel, but just before the controversial execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

According to some reports, Hussein’s execution widened the divide between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims throughout the region and played into recent efforts by the US to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and Sunni-led Arab States including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf sheikhdoms in an effort to contain what they see as growing Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

But Telhami, who presented his findings at a major Brookings-sponsored conference of Islamic leaders in Doha last week, said he doubts these sectarian tensions are changing basic attitudes among the general public on key regional issues in the countries covered in the survey, with the exception of Lebanon.

‘The public of the Arab world is not looking at the important issues through the Sunni-Shi’a divide,’ he said. ‘They see them rather through the lens of Israeli-Palestinian issues, and anger with US policy [in the region]. Most Sunni Arabs take the side of the Shi’as on the important issues.’

Indeed, the survey strongly suggests the US, whose image in the Arab world has fallen to an all-time low over the past year, according to this and other recent polling, faces a steep uphill battle in rallying any Arab public support on critical regional questions.

Three quarters of a trillion dollars have been spent on the ‘war on terror.’ Osama bin Laden is still at large, the Taliban are regrouping in Afghanistan and the US military is stuck in a civil war in Iraq. ‘We have the largest Pentagon budget since World War II, but we are losing to an opponent in Iraq that spends less over an entire year than what we spend in one day,’ says Winslow Wheeler,  a longtime expert at the Center for Defense Information.

Australia may feel geographically isolated, but my home country needs to realise just how perilously close we are to a foreign policy disaster. Australia’s future role in this region needs to be viewed from a standpoint of what is important for Australia. ‘Empty rhetoric’, in the words of Barack Obama, is not helping.

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