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September 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Still Mired In The Dust Of 9/11

September 12, 2006

Editorial - Canberra Times

No-one who viewed the television coverage of 9/11, played out again and again in agonising replays in the hours after that terrible day five years ago, could fail to be affected by the enormity of the crime perpetrated by al-Qaeda. For those Americans who witnessed the actual events in New York and Washington, the effect was more visceral: numbness and pain in the immediate aftermath, followed in the days and weeks afterwards by anger and a thirst for revenge. It was a time when the world rallied around America and its President, George W.Bush, as his Administration regrouped after initial panic and confusion and began devising a strategy for a new global conflict unlike any other before it: an existential struggle against terrorism.

Prime Minister John Howard happened to be in Washington on September 11, having met Bush in the White House the day before. Howard was hurriedly spirited out of the capital, but not before a unique political friendship and alliance had been forged through the shared trauma of that day - from then on, few world leaders were more supportive of America's response. None remains as unquestioningly loyal as Howard.

In the beginning, the Americans had made no particular request for support, but Howard immediately invoked the terms of the Anzus treaty, in part to signal his determination that Australia identified with the plight of its ally. When asked on his return to Australia what type of military support Australia might offer, Howard declared that "we would be willing to participate to the limit of our capability".

Five years on, the financial cost of that support has been about $8 billion. That's money well spent according to those who argue that no cost is too high when it comes to ensuring the protection of Australian life. On the war's two big battlefields, Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia has so far been strikingly lucky, with only a handful of casualties. Even in the most direct terrorist attack on Australian life and property, the Jakarta embassy bombing of September 9, 2004 by Jemaah Islamiah, no Australian lives were lost, though some 11 Indonesians died in the blast.

The greatest single loss of Australian life in any theatre of this war remains Bali, where 82 people, along with 120 other mainly foreign tourists, were killed. Far harder to quantify has been the cost to Australia's international standing and reputation as a result of Howard's enthusiastic enlistment as America's No.1 recruit in the war on terror. In the Asia-Pacific region - the area of fundamental importance to our security outlook - many would argue that Australia has paid a very high price. And it's not just perceptions about Australia's willingness to act as a US deputy sheriff in the region, either - as damaging as that is to Asia perceptions about our independence. By openly backing the US Administration's arrogant dismissal of multilateral solutions to the terrorist threat, especially in dealing with Saddam Hussein, by echoing America's unilateralist swagger (especially when Howard said he would favour pre-emptive military strikes on neighbouring countries to thwart a terrorist strike against Australia), this Government has demonstrated an unnerving capacity to let ideology shape foreign policy.

This preparedness to abandon principles of non-intervention, sovereignty and multilateralism has hardly wavered, despite the embarrassment for the coalition of the willing at America's inability to find the weapons of mass destruction it swore Saddam had, the revelations of human rights abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the worsening civil strife in Iraq.

Howard would argue that Australia had no choice: that 9/11 changed everything, and our national interest and security were best served by our unequivocal support for the Anzus alliance and our principal ally. But a longer-term view of the relationship, one influenced more by cool pragmatism than ideology and the personal chemistry of two conservative leaders, demands more than unquestioning support for a country whose interests do not always coincide with ours.

Australia's support for the US has won Howard plenty of encomiums in Washington, but not delivered much else. America's refusal to allow market access to Australian agricultural produce under the free-trade agreement shows the limits of US gratitude.

Five years on from 9/11, Bush's anti-terrorist doctrine is looking increasingly threadbare and discredited.

Support for continued American involvement in Iraq is falling, even as the Taliban, which so effectively played host to al-Qaeda in the 1990s, is reasserting itself in parts of Afghanistan. In all likelihood, Bush's successor will not waste time in retreating on his neoconservative adventures - which makes it imperative that Australia recalibrate its own position in the war on terror to one that is more nuanced, and one which stresses strategic self-reliance and regional engagement.

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