Strange Liberators


The United States and Australia like to say they have been ‘defending freedom’ in many places for years. Yet their achievements as liberators are not numerous. Since 1945 they have won two wars, drawn one, lost one, and look like losing two more. Regard for their wars is diminishing in a growing number of countries. Many Americans are turning against the war in Iraq. Some 70 per cent of Australians think the US endangers us, so why are we so little concerned?

John Howard knew that ‘patriotism’ and the compliant media would win elections for him. But the Iraq War was the wrong war in the wrong country. It can’t be sold for much longer as part of a universal fight against al-Qaeda that makes Australia safe from terrorism. This year, voters should take a critical look at the American alliance that got us into it.

Many Australians still expect the US to defend Australia against attack, not realising that the ANZUS Treaty doesn’t commit us or the Americans to defend each other unless either country is attacked in the Pacific and even then we are only obliged to consult in accordance with our constitutional processes. It offers no guarantee that the US will defend Australia, nor that Australia will fight in the US’s wars.

The US has never defended Australia under ANZUS. Indeed, successive US leaders have made it clear that the US will always act in its own interests, not those of allies or other countries, and that Australia should take care of its own defence. On the few occasions when Australia sought US support over West Irian, ‘Confrontation’ in 1963-66, and East Timor military participation was refused. For our part, Australia told the US in the mid-1950s that we would not get involved in a war over the Taiwan and the offshore Chinese islands Quemoy and Matsu.

But it is perilously unclear what Australia would do if the US became involved in a conflict between China and Taiwan, or an invasion of North Korea or Iran. This is because the Prime Minister invoked ANZUS immediately after the attack on America on 11 September 2001, offering Australian support for the US anywhere in the world. His unilateral re-interpretation made us an unequal Treaty partner.

A year later, he asserted Australia’s intention to pre-emptively strike countries in our region suspected of harbouring terrorists. This made it difficult for Australia to accede to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, which binds its parties to non-aggression and non-interference in each others’ affairs. In 2005 we did so, rather than be excluded from the East Asia Summit, but with reservations to enable Australia to do deputy sheriff duty if called upon by the US.

The other benefit that ANZUS is said to deliver is ‘access.’ This too is questionable. Access is of three kinds: access to highly classified intelligence; to defence cooperation and military equipment; and to top American officials.

The value of American intelligence depends on its quality, timeliness and accuracy all of which have been found wanting by the Baker-Hamilton Committee’s investigation of the intelligence on Iraq. Assuming that al-Qaeda perpetrated the 2001 attack on America, we must then ask why US intelligence has given up trying to find Osama bin Laden? Why did they take so long to find Saddam Hussein? Why did they bomb buildings when the people being targeted had left? Why, if they wanted to arrest senior Iranian intelligence officers in northern Iraq in March 2007, did they get only junior ones, giving Iran the opportunity to retaliate by arresting 15 British sailors? How reliable is their intelligence on Iran’s nuclear plans?

Two years ago, Greg Sheridan wrote front page stories in The Australian about Australia’s elevation to a level of intelligence access in Washington shared only by Britain: but the Pentagon has apparently been slow to deliver on Bush’s promise, although Howard has made several requests for it.

The benefits of defence co-operation and access to military hardware are equally questionable. More joint exercises and military expansion could antagonise Australia’s neighbours and provoke a new arms race in the region, with consequences we could not control. Members of the Preventive Security Initiative originally pushed by the State Department’s John Bolton, link hands around China and North Korea in a circle whose intent must appear aggressive, whatever Howard and Downer may claim to the contrary.

Thanks to Carl Gopalkrishnan

Defence co-operation between the US, Australia, Japan and India will have the same result. New US bases or ‘joint facilities’ in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, whose purposes have not been sufficiently explained, make Australia a bigger target for attack. No future Australian Government that wants to survive will be able to close them down. Hopes that the equipment we buy from the United States delivers interoperability and military superiority might come true, if it is the right equipment, delivered on time and at the right price, and our enemies can’t match it. But often it isn’t and some of it, the Pentagon won’t sell to us, but may sell to Japan and Israel.

As for access to top officials in Bush’s Washington, that may be have been great for Howard but it has not come without its costs. Australia’s Ambassador, Michael Thawley talked hostile Republican Senators out of pursuing Australia over AWB, but Democrats in office after 2008 are less likely to be forgiving.

Too close a relationship between the Australian Government and AWB and too personal a relationship between Howard and Bush may damage Australia even before 2008. The benefits of US access are diluted if US views are all that the Australian Government wants to hear. As conservatives do, Howard clings to old friends and old ideas. Thus, Australia’s excessive dependency on the alliance endangers us more than it protects us.

Australia ‘s dependency spreads to foreign policy, where our capacity for diplomacy is reduced because Howard’s views are seen abroad as uncritically identified with those of Bush. Our latest defiance of international norms is the refugee swap, with Christmas Island looming as our Guantánamo Bay. Before it’s too late, Australia should develop genuinely independent policies in consultation with our region, with the UN, and with multilateral trading partners.

If we do not, then as the damaged Bush Presidency ends and distaste for its policies spreads even among America’s friends, Australia will be left behind. For a decade now, we have been unelectable to the UN Security Council, and in the General Assembly we often vote in tiny minorities with the US, Israel, Palau and Micronesia.

Experienced critics of Australia Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohammed were not wrong when they recently warned that Howard was out of date and that by associating uncritically with Bush, he made Australia the butt of the world’s ridicule. Wait for the consequences in the South Pacific.

If success in Asia means Australia being able to export coal, gas, and uranium to some of our neighbours, and to discuss with a few others how to fight terrorists and deter refugees, that’s hardly a triumph. In fact, our dependency on the US permeates trade, where the bilateral preferential agreement with the US (AUSFTA) delivers Australia few identifiable advantages, while it withers our capacity to take other initiatives and our trade deficit with the US soars to new heights.

Meanwhile, our deference to the US on climate change endangers Australia’s environment and that of the planet. For no good reason, Australia has allowed the US alliance to foster a national culture of fear and subservience, deceit and division, xenophobia and militarism. We are still fighting the last war, and it is taking far too long.

On 4 April 1967, Martin Luther King made a speech in which he disavowed the war in Vietnam and dissociated himself from those who in the name of peace burn, maim and kill. American soldiers sent to do this must realise, he said, that none of what they were told they were fighting for was true. The US was ‘on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.’ The Vietnamese, he reflected, must consider the Americans ‘strange liberators.’

Forty years later, we are at it again, with Australia still urging the United States to stay involved, and still fighting the US’s enemies, only now it’s in Iraq instead of Vietnam. Now we substitute ‘terrorists’ for communists; and cluster bombs, white phosphorus and depleted uranium for napalm. Strange liberators indeed.

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