Indepedence…to the US

April 29 is the 40-year anniversary of Australia committing troops to Vietnam. It was a disastrous war, killing hundreds of conscripted young men. When Australia withdrew in 1973 under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the country had decisively turned against the imperial deceptions of the Americans. The current Governor-General Michael Jeffrey, who fought in Vietnam, still believes in the correctness of the war – saying a few years ago: “I believe passionately that Vietnam was a just cause in the circumstances of the time” – but for most Australians, the Vietnam War was nothing but folly.

The Communist “threat” was constructed and manipulated for geo-political gain in the unhallowed halls of Washington. Canberra went along for the ride, deceiving its citizens with an initially unquestioning media. John Pilger says that the invasion and devastation of Vietnam can be directly linked to today’s Iraq. “It is the essence of imperialism, a word only now being restored to our dictionaries. It is racism.”

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Alan Ramsey reminds us why this anniversary is so important. When then Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced Australia’s involvement in Vietnam in 1965, he stated that a request had arrived for assistance from the South Vietnamese. The American President, Lyndon Johnson was “delighted” with our acquiesce. Years later, it was revealed that no such request ever came and the Americans were simply hoping that other nations would see the benefit of being by its side.

Fast forward to the latest engagement. John Howard gave a commitment to George W. Bush as far back as September 2002 to join the “Coalition of the Unwilling”, ideally with a UN resolution, though how important this was to Howard remains unclear. British Prime Minister Tony Blair may have given his country’s commitment in April 2002. Neither leader informed the public of their true plans and remain aloof to this day. Indeed, the legality of the war remains (marginally) unclear, and in the UK the situation seems dubious at best. In Australia, Howard would rather this debate became irrelevant and no legal advice has ever been released. Surely a government with nothing to hide would thrust the truthfulness of their claims into the hands of anybody interested?

This brings up the current ASEAN debate. Australia is attempting to gain entry to the forthcoming meeting of South-East Asian nations. A sticking point is the reservation of the Howard government to sign a non-aggression pact. Howard made the oafish comment in 2004 that, “If I believed that there were going to be an attack, a terrorist attack on Australia and there was no alternative but action being taken by Australia I would unhesitatingly take it to prevent that attack occurring.” It was a statement that caused many Asian countries grief and contributed to the theory that Howard’s Australia is little more than an obedient US outpost. Pre-emptive strikes should have no place in 99% of modern diplomacy.

New Zealand has agreed to sign the pact. Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer responded with typical sensitivity: “Australia is a proud and independent country, we’re able to beat New Zealand at rugby, we thrash them at cricket and there is no reason why we should always do what New Zealand does. We’re a more confident country than that.” Or not. The report details Australia’s concerns that signing the pact might upset America. So how independent are we really?

Recent visits by Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi has brought near uniform praise and uncritical adulation by the Australian media. The Sydney Morning Herald tells us that, “The democratic election of Dr Yudhoyono in Indonesia means Australia has a new reformist partner, unafraid of confronting corruption and human rights abuses at home.” New Zealand, unlike Australia, still refuses to even discuss the idea of restarting military co-operation with Indonesia. And human rights abuses continue in West Papua and Aceh. By all means welcome renewed positive relations between Australia and our region, but leave the scepticism intact. When Prime Minister Bob Hawke champagne toasted the dictator Soeharto during his first overseas trip as head of state in 1983, he said: “We know your people love you.”

Australia’s world-standing has taken a battering in the last decade. We may be receiving praise from the Bush administration, but harsh criticism elsewhere. Our government claims independence but is in fact increasingly dependent on US approval.

Yesterday’s lies on Vietnam are being repeated with Iraq and once again subservience to the whims of the White House is paramount. Our position in Asia is unsure. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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