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February 18, 2003

The boy from the Adelaide Hills

I have been wondering how Alexander Downer, the local boy from the Adelaide Hills made good as the Foreign Minster of Australia, argues for why war now. And secondly, how does he engage with the critics of the Australian Government more or less signing up to go to war with Iraq.

We can find the answers in the Foreign Minister's Statement to Parliament on Iraq on the 4 February, 2003. This is a stage for the boy from the Adelaide Hills to be eloquent orator. The speech has a particular rhetorical style as Alexander is addressing the Australian people as someone who possesses authority, high virtue (wisdom and prudence) and long experience in government. Alexander is educating us ordinary citizens and to persuade us to adopt the course of action taken by his government.

Downer poses the problem sucinctly. He says: 'There is no greater threat to our common future than the spread of nuclear weapons and their budget counterparts, chemical and biological weapons.' He then poses the key issue: 'why we must be part of the international effort to deal with this problem, and why the international community must not fail.'

Alexander understands the need to give reasons for why we need to deal with the Iraqi regime. Two are given:

1. 'that stopping Iraq, and other countries, from acquiring weapons of mass destruction is a key to ensuring our security.If we allow countries in other parts of the world to develop weapons of mass destruction, then these weapons will turn up in our own neighbourhood.If Iraq is allowed to develop weapons of mass destruction, what message does it send to countries like North Korea?'

2. 'And do we really need to consider what might happen if these weapons fell into the hands of terrorists?We know from two unnecessary wars Saddam started – against Iran and against Kuwait - that he is malevolent. And we know he remains a strong backer of terrorist organisations. Can we really sit back and accept the risk that this threat poses?'

So far that pretty much boils down to there is a risk to Australia's nation security. We cannot afford to take the risk. Why not? Where's the evidence? Trust me on that one says the boy from the Adelaide Hills. Saddam has the weapons alright and that is a very big risk.

It's a big move this 'trust me'. If we accept this then we go along with rhetoric being disconnected from truth. It is the pathway of eloquence being divorced from public reason. This is a rupture with the classical rhetorical tradition that was grounded on finding out the truth (ratio) and eloquence (eloquenta) to make us hear it.

So why war with Iraq now? Downer says that we---meaning the government-- feels pretty strongly about this issue for two reasons.

3. 'Australia and the United States share alliance commitments and obligations, and we benefit greatly from the influence we have in Washington, which enables us to help shape international approaches. Moreover, we also share common values and interests – and we value US global leadership in defending and promoting them."

And the other reason is that Saddam is guilty of trying to hide his weapons of mass destruction and that this matters to Australia.

Okay, so we feel strongly about this risk. Alexander says 'The real question today is what we – the international community – are going to do about it.'

Okay. So why war then? Why not vigilant containment? Alexander now turns to his critics. He says:

'Critics portray the situation as being a choice between giving the inspectors more time – of "giving peace a chance" - or going to war against Iraq. But this is a false distinction. More time on its own does not give peace a chance. But it will give Saddam a chance -- a chance to renege again on his obligations to the Security Council, and a chance to keep hiding his WMD capabilities, until he again can threaten us.'

Alexander builds his case against his critics further. He says that Saddam is a threat to our national security and containment will not work. Saddam will no co-operate, and he keeps playing a game of deception and contempt for the UN. Alexander reminds us of previous threats from the storehouse of history. Saddam is monster like Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, who commit acts of barbarism at home, and aggression abroad. We have learn the lesson history we have to say no and take steps to protect the victims of barbarity.

Its not a good history lesson. Saddam is guilty of barbarism at home yes. But where is the aggression abroad in 2002/3?

Never mind, the boy from the Adelaide Hills then introduces the appeasement bit in a soft kind of way. He says that 'many – particularly on the political left – shrug and say that the murder, torture, and rape of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – by their own rulers – should go unchecked. And they would trust Saddam not to repeat his use of chemical weapons on his own people and neighbours.'

Oh yeah. Who says that? Most agree with Alexander that Saddam is a bad guy who has oppressed and killed his own people. Its a mantra thats all. The boy from the Adelaide Hills needs to re-read his Cicero about cultivating kindly feelings so that he can exercise liberality and generosity(humanitas), reread Seneca about the need for mercey and compassion in public life.(clementia)

Alexander then ends with a big ornamental flourish. He cannot in all conscience:

'ignore the record of Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant who tries still - in the face of concerted international pressure – to retain and develop the most evil of weapons. As the Foreign Minister of our great country, I will not be remembered for turning my back on such evil and allowing the spectre of Saddam to haunt future generations.'

There you have the case for war now. At the surface level it goes like this: Saddam has not disarmed. He won't. He will pussy foot around with the UN. Saddam is a threat to our national security.Those who say otherwise are appeasers who defend the totalitarian gulag. Its war now. At the deeper more philosophical level it is a moral argument:----a dead simple one. No more Auschwitz.

But you have to admit its rhetorical machinery is big on working on stirring up the emotions by appealing to the historical emotional undertow and very short on argument to establish truth.

Alexander's wisdom looks a bit tatty really. He lacks the qualities of character to be the truly and completely civic man that he poses to be. We must ask: is the boy from the Adelaide Hills really fit to administer public affairs?

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 18, 2003 12:54 PM


I think you eloquently answered your own question, Gary. No he is not. And neither are Hill and Howard. They are treating us like ignorant mugs who can be whipped into a war lather with transparently false, recycled arguments from the Team Bush PR corps. Downer's smug pollyanna dismissal of Bob Brown's demand for a plebiscite before Australians are committed to a war truly made me feel sick.

Posted by: ausyankee at February 18, 2003 03:18 PM

But there's no evidence of any wisdom to replace it.. so we might be seeing a bit more yet from the boy from Mayo...

Posted by: Scott Wickstein at February 18, 2003 11:22 PM

we ordinary citizens don't claim to have wisdom, nor does the classical rhetorical tradition recognize that. It is the noble leaders who have it and educate and instruct the rest of us.

The boy from Mayo self-consciously works within that tradition--the ornamental oratory etc. So he is the bearer of wisdom in the polity.

My argument is that he fails to live up to the standards of that rhetorical tradition.

One of those standards is speaking the truth-- in this case evidence that Australia's national interest is substantially affected by Iraq.

Its not on the evidence presented so far; the boy from Mayo knows its not; and he makes no serious attempt to present the evidence.

So we are left with going to war to keep the Americans happy as an insurance policy; we may need them when we have to take out militant/fundamentalist Islamic groups in an Islamic Indonesan state.

By the boy from Mayo cannot publicly say that can he?

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 19, 2003 07:15 AM

Not really, no. Speaking the truth never really did come within the ambit of a foreign minister's job- it's called 'diplomacy' not 'truth telling'!

Posted by: Scott Wickstein at February 19, 2003 11:11 PM

I thought that diplomacy had some connection to truth?

Isn't that what we are arguing about re the Iraqi regime?
How great a threat he is the national interest; the linkages to terrorist groups; his weapons of mass destruction?

This is the bit Alexander lets float away after tossing it overboard when nobody was looking.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 20, 2003 10:53 PM

Diplomacy is about advancing your nation's interests. And I posted that he's done a good job when you look past the smirk and the image.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein at February 21, 2003 02:28 AM

Hi Scott,
If you are to do a good job as a foreign minister then you must speak the truth---talk in terms of reason---about the nation's interests. Downer does not do so.

He may well speak the truth behind closed doors when speaking to the other elites. And I'm sure he does and does a good job at it.

But he is supposed to be persuading fellow citizens that his course of action is the right one. He would do this through a mixture of reason and rhetorical ornamentation.

In the rhetorical tradition the noble elite deploy the open palm of rhetoric to speak to the vulgar---eg use the moving power of eloquence.

But you still need to speak the truth. Downer is widely seen as failing to do that on the Iraq war issue.

He is not persuading. it is seen to be froth and bubble built on untruth by a wide section fo Australian citizens.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 21, 2003 07:42 AM

It's true that he's not persuading, but you haven't persuaded me that this is of primary importance- when military factors come into the calculation, the military will insist on secrecy to protect the servicemen.

Ok, lets get hypothetical here- let's guess that the real reason the government is going all the way with GW Bush is that the government is concerned to keep in with the Americans in case of an agressive Islamic republic emerging in Indonesia. This might be an actual threat to Australian security- (The Bali terrorists wanted to annex the Top End) so the government is very keen to keep the alliance with the US in good shape.

If that was the government's thinking, would you really expect (or want) the Foreign minister to state that those were the assumptions that they are working on? Becuase if the government revealed it's real thinking, the diplomatic consequences, and the internal political consequences would be explosive. (And might aggrivate the situation that the government might be trying to prevent.)

In a lovely ideal world, Ministers would tell the honest straight truth. But we don't live in a ideal world.

We don't know what the government is really thinking. And there's often good reasons as to why we shouldn't know.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein at February 21, 2003 11:54 PM

Downer has said it--pre-emptive strike against terrorist groups in Indonesia may well be necesary.

There was hell to play, if I remember.

Why cannot he say: we are going to war cos we have to support the Americans?

Posted by: Anonymous at February 22, 2003 08:46 PM

It was actually Howard that said it, and there WAS hell to pay- so that is why they don't say it now.

Why don't they say we have to support the Americans? Think about it, hey.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein at February 22, 2003 10:15 PM

Hi Scott,
see the post'Good Journalism & some realism'above.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 22, 2003 11:39 PM

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