My following article appears today in the Guardian:
In April 2010, as the war in Afghanistan was raging and US president Barack Obama “surged” 30,000 more troops into the country, Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott suggested that under his leadership, a Coalition government would have considered increasing involvement. “The government should explain why it’s apparently right that Nato countries should commit more troops, but not Australia”, he said.
Abbott remained silent on the catastrophic civilian toll since the 2001 invasion, evidence of US incompetence, and failed Western policy in the nation – all of which were revealed in recently deceased journalist Michael Hasting’s blistering 2012 book The Operators.
Instead, Abbott’s commitment was to Washington and a war that had helped, in his own words, to bring “universal decencies of humanity” to a “country which has been pretty short on decency for a very long time”. He was also noticeably silent on Australia’s collusion with the notorious warlord and multi-millionaire Matiullah Khan in the Oruzgan province. Independent reporting from the country, away from embedded journalism on the military’s drip-feed, reveals a damning assessment of 12 years of Western occupation leaving the Afghan people exposed to rampant corruption and rising tensions between India and Pakistan.
As Australia approaches a federal election and with the re-appointment of Kevin Rudd as Labor leader and prime minister, it’s worth considering the similarities and differences in foreign policy between the two major parties. In short, there aren’t many. Although foreign minister Bob Carrrecently told the National Press Club that Labor had bravely opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq while in opposition – “there’s no way we would have supported that war” if in power, he stated – there are few precedents for a government in Canberra resisting the overtures from America when war is in the air. I believe Labor would have been seduced by the Bush administration’s sweet whispers just the same.
The war, still costing thousands of Iraqi lives every month, is barely discussed today. Without any apparent regret about the massive loss of life, Abbott claims it “advanced everyone’s interest” – except, presumably, the innumerable Iraqis no longer alive. At least in 2008, Rudd rightly blamed a craven Liberal government for taking Australia to war in Iraq based on an intelligence “lie”.
It’s remarkable how little has been examined about Abbott’s view of the world. There’s a coterie of former advisers to prime minister John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer, some of whom are now rising Liberal politicians, who have learned nothing from the disastrous conflicts since September 11, and who still influence Abbott today.
Liberal MP and former Howard adviser Josh Frydenberg has supported the bombing of Iraq since 1998, and claimed in 2005 that a “vibrant, tolerant and democratic Iraq” was possible. The Australian columnist Chris Kenny, a former adviser to Downer, bleats about “anti-Americanism” to anybody questioning the wisdom of bombing and monitoring Muslim countries. In 2010 he was still talking about a US “victory” in Iraq and Afghanistan, willfully unaware of the reality for locals away from the Green Zone.
Abbott seems to retain a Bush administration style perspective – you’re either with us or against us. He told Washington’s right-wing Heritage Foundation last year that, “Australia’s foreign policy should be driven as much by our values as our interests”. It isn’t clear what values he cherishes when he told the Central Synagogue in 2012 that, “[Israel is] a country so much like Australia, a liberal, pluralist democracy. A beacon of freedom and hope in a part of the world which has so little freedom and hope.” He made no mention of Israel occupying millions of Palestinians under brutal military rule. He went on: “When Israel is fighting for its very life, well, as far as I’m concerned, Australians are Israelis. We are all Israelis in those circumstances”. It’s a comic book reading of the Middle East (at least foreign minister Carr, along with British foreign secretary William Hague, now rightly calls Israeli colonies “illegal”).
When I met Abbott in Sydney in 2010 and challenged him to learn more about Israel’s flouting of international law, he reverted to familiar, right-wing Zionist talking points. Both the Liberal party and Zionist lobby remain upset that in 2012, Australia didn’t reject Palestine’s statehood at the UN. Foreign affairs spokesperson for the Coalition, Julie Bishop, haspledged to return Australia to an uncritical stance towards Israel, placing us in a very isolated position globally. (The Greens, especially senator Lee Rhiannon, condemns Israel’s destruction of aid projects in Palestine,some of which are funded by Canberra).
Abbott would probably rely less on UN scripture – there’s already talk of removing Australia from the Refugee Convention. Private contractors would continue to benefit from bloated “boomerang” projects through AusAid, and rogue nation Sri Lanka would surely be as warmly embraced as it has been during the Labor years. Indonesia’s brutish military, especially in West Papua, would probably remain unchallenged.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s virtually identical to policies under a Labor government. This bipartisanship, shared by major parties in most Western nations, inhibits independent thought. It’s beyond time for Australia to embrace a different path, one not tethered to the whims of Washington’s entrails.