Osama bin Laden is dead and the war on terror apparently vindicated: "Tonight we are once again reminded America can do whatever we set our mind to." That’s what US President Barack Obama told the world late on Sunday night, US time.
As Glenn Greenwald observes in Salon today, "virtually every major newspaper account of the killing of Osama bin Laden consists of faithful copying of White House claims."
And Australian politicians have stuck firm to the Obama line, too. They’re cheering the death of bin Laden and reminding voters that as far as our troops in Afghanistan are concerned, it’s business as usual. John Howard was in Washington on 11 September 2001 and he frequently cited his proximity to the attacks as an important component of his strong relationship with George W Bush and consequently of Australia’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Julia Gillard wasn’t in the US over the weekend but Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd was. In a speech to the Brookings Institute, he said, "It’s an honour to be in Washington in a week where America walks tall in the world".
After meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Rudd delivered a resounding affirmation of the importance of Australia’s relationship to the US: "In our relationship with the United States, this alliance for us is bedrock. It is the guiding principle of Australia’s engagement with the region and the world."
At the same presser, Clinton made it clear that the US wasn’t planning to quit Afghanistan anytime soon: "In Afghanistan we are committed to supporting the people of Afghanistan against the violence that is sown by the extremists, and we hope that the Taliban will take note of this and begin seriously to consider alternatives to continuing violence."
This commitment has been echoed by Australian politicians from both sides this week.
When asked yesterday by ABC journalist Marius Benson whether the fact that bin Laden was found in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, meant that Australian and the US were fighting the "wrong war", Rudd was brusque:
"That sort of analysis is simply factually incorrect. Of course al Qaeda is active in a number of theatres around the world, to say that Afghanistan is not relevant, is simply wrong. Remember what al Qaeda had in Afghanistan at the beginning, was a free range training base for their operatives for deployment in multiple theatres across the world."
Gillard issued a statement when the news was released promising vigilance — but not a withdrawal of troops. She repeated the message in a more relaxed conversation with Melissa Doyle on Sunrise yesterday:
"We’ve got a mission to see through there, and that mission will take us through training the Afghan National Army. We have a timeframe there of 2014, where we are looking towards Afghan nationals being in charge of the security of their own country, but we need to stay the course in Afghanistan and to make sure that it does not again become a safe haven for terrorists."
Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean on Q and A on Monday welcomed the news of bin Laden’s death and told Tony Jones that it is "only a punctuation in the fight against terror and we, as a country, supported in a bipartisan way, our involvement in Afghanistan".
He’s right about the bipartisanship. On the same broadcast, Crean crossed swords with Shadow Minister for Industry Sophie Mirabella on pretty much everything but this. Mirabella might have upped the emotional ante but she was essentially singing from the same songsheet as the ALP:
"This is a victory for every democratic nation that has part of fighting this insidious war on terror. It’s not like normal warfare and this is a very important victory. Of course it’s not the end of the war on terror. Terrorism has been with us in one form or another for generations and it’s important not to lose sight of the continuing effort."
Tony Abbott, never one to shy away from contrarianism, also agreed with Gillard and Rudd. In a press conference on Monday, he said:
"Australian forces which have operated with distinction in Afghanistan and elsewhere are entitled to feel satisfaction today and the loved ones of the 23 Australians who have died in Afghanistan are entitled to feel that that sacrifice has not been in vain. This is not an unwinnable war and the fact that Osama bin Laden has finally been brought to justice is something that should be a source of quiet satisfaction to freedom loving people everywhere."
Speaking to reporters in Sydney, former PM John Howard took the opportunity to claim a win for his enthusiastic support for the Coalition of the Willing, calling the assassination "something of a repudiation of the naysayers, and the critics and the cynics".
The foreign minister who presided over Australia’s initial involvement in Afghanistan, Alexander Downer, was hunted down for comment too. He told the ABC, "it’s not the end of al Qaeda. I think al Qaeda will exist indefinitely. There will always be a handful of people who subscribe to that extremist ideology."
To help people work out whether they’re with us, or against us, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie Bishop issued a press release that declared "His death will not be mourned by people who wish to live their lives in freedom and away from the threat of violence and oppression." That would be everyone, wouldn’t it?
Of course, the assassination may not have been legal. But this latest breach of international law should come as no surprise. After all, as Karen Greenberg reminds us in The Guardian, "under the rubric of fighting terror, the United States rolled back its hallowed notions of civil liberties, its embrace of modernity, and even its reliance on its own courts."
So is this, as the Guardian announced yesterday, "a turning point in the global ‘war on terrorism’ that has been waged since 9/11"? It might be — but for all the excitement and earnest triumphalism, not a lot looks like changing.
The assassination of Osama bin laden is clearly an historical event. But Australian politicians agree — with each other and with Washington — that it’s not big enough to warrant leaving Afghanistan.
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