Daily Media Quotation
It's The Region, Stupid
May 15, 2006
by Glenn Milne - The Australian
John Howard's visit to Washington cannot hide the foreign policy truth that dare no longer speak its name: for the first time in a decade, the Prime Minister is vulnerable to a national security attack from Labor from the Right. Not some peacenik assault by Kim Beazley about the immorality of the Iraq war and the neo-conservative obsessions of the US administration.
No, Howard is now in such a weakened state on national security that Labor can credibly take him on over issues of competence, miscalculation and misallocation of resources. How do we know this? Because on Friday Howard confirmed that a fleet of Australian gunboats was headed north in an attempt to head off further devastating civil unrest in East Timor, an emergent state sponsored against Indonesia's wishes by the Coalition Government and Howard in particular. This is the straw that threatens to break the camel's back of national security policy in Canberra and suggests that Labor's paradigm on the so far failed war on terror could be about to prevail domestically.
Don't be fooled by the deployment to Timor. The defence establishment is hoping against hope that Australian troops don't have to set foot again in Dili as they did in 1999. This is a logistical conclusion, not a political analysis. Our defence assets are now dangerously overstretched.
Ministers on the cabinet's National Security Committee are willing the show of force implicit in the deployment to be enough to head off further trouble in the fledgling democracy without Australian soldiers having to fire a shot in anger. This is shadow puppet theatre diplomacy. Appropriate when you think about the Indonesian context.
What the state of play in East Timor has confirmed is that Australia now has potentially four failed states on its back doorstep: Timor, where five people have died in riots and the security forces may already be non-viable; the Solomon Islands, where in the wake of renewed civil unrest we have had to reinforce our RAMSI federal police presence with troops; Papua New Guinea, where we're still trying to resolve the status of our allegedly mutually agreed police assistance to the government; and finally Fiji, where there are now suggestions that alleged vote rigging may provoke post-election unrest.
For Howard, there is no getting around the fact that this has been Labor's projected nightmare scenario ever since Beazley's re-election as leader, driven jointly by defence spokesman Robert McClelland and foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd. That scenario runs thus: Howard's preoccupation with his personal relationship with George W. Bush has meant we are fighting a legitimate war on terror post 9/11, but in the wrong part of the world.
Labor not only opposed the Iraq war from the outset, but it has consistently argued that our real national interests in the war on terror lie in our own backyard: places such as Timor, the Solomons, Fiji and PNG.
This rests on the logical assumption that given the global nature of terrorism, failed states on Australia's doorstep represent a confirmed threat to national security. Failed states are natural conduits for financial and logistical support for terrorist attacks on domestic soil.
So where is our anti-terrorism focus under the Howard doctrine? Iraq. The neighbourhood is falling apart but the Backyard Blitz team is on the wrong side of town. If you doubt this argument, let's compile a check list.
• Iraq: Our involvement has compromised, not improved, Australia's security. We have no rational exit strategy because there is no political or military solution in sight.
• WMDs: They didn't exist, undermining the single most important rationale for going to war.
• The terrorist threat: Howard argued that our involvement in Iraq would reduce the threat to Australia. Instead Iraq has become the training ground for the next generation of terrorists, to be deployed at will.
• Iran: Before the Iraq war, Saddam, no matter how odious, was a counterbalance to Iran. With the US now bogged down, the Iraq war has effectively liberated Iran to pursue its theological obsessions, notably nuclear armament. Without Saddam, Iranian influence in Iraq is much more significant, to the detriment of the US and Australia. Witness the increasing profile of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in moderate Muslim states, notably Indonesia last week.
• Intelligence resources: Diverted 70:30, according to some expert estimates, to Iraq. In Australia's sphere of influence, the warning bells apparently went unheeded. In 2000, Rudd says, Labor's Duncan Kerr, the head of a parliamentary committee, wrote to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer warning of a potential meltdown in the Solomons and recommending an increased police presence. We're only cleaning up now. At great expense.
• Papua: The Government jammed between its foreign policy objectives (to keep relations with Indonesia on an even keel) and its UN refugee imperatives (to give compassionate asylum to legitimate applicants), all in the context of Howard's 2001 declaration, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." All very confusing from Jakarta's perspective.
• And finally the AWB: Stripped of the niceties, we bombed Saddam one day and bankrolled him the next.
All of the above, and the last point in particular, will make it impossible for Howard to attack Beazley on national security in 2007 in the same way he carved up Mark Latham in 2004. Beazley has already sensed Howard's new weakness on his right flank. Expect the Labor leader to begin mounting the case on Howard's national security competence. And also have a close look at related issues in the Opposition Leader's budget reply speech. To the deep intake of breath of some frontbenchers on his own side, Beazley declared on Wednesday night that Labor in government would refuse skilled foreign workers access to Australia for as long as any Australian could not get access to a TAFE college.
Speaking of the Prime Minister, when he met the US President at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2003, Bush tagged him as "the man of steel" because of his continued commitment to the war in Iraq. At that point Bush's approval ratings were hovering around 60per cent. Last week they dipped below 30 per cent. Given the developments in our own region during the same week, there might be a lesson there for Howard as well.
Having said all that, thanks, PM for the nice letter about the birth of my son last week.