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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

the lie of the land « Previous | |Next »
July 28, 2003

Robert Manne has an interesting account on why the Australia reaction to the spin and lies about the threat Iraq posed to Australia is much more muted than in the US and the UK.

War is a serious business:

Iraqi War1.jpg

And civilians get hurt big time:

Iraq2.jpg

So we need to remember that Australia went to a war with a country that has not attacked Australia, and no credible evidence of the intention of the Iraq to attack Australia was produced. We followed the US.

The reason for the US intervention was to ensure that the US was centered in the Middle East, that it could fundamentally reorder the strategic balance in the region, and that it could do so to defend Israel's strategic interests in the region. The rhetoric of war aimed to persuade public opinion, and it placed an emphasis on the WMD question and the links the Hussein regime had with Al Qaeda.

As Daniel Drezner points out the fallout has been on the ethical and practical implications of these tactics. This article and this one by Stephen den Beste in the Wall Street Opinion Journal reckon that the two level tactics of the rhetorical strategy to persuade public opinion were okay; Josh Marshall disagrees.

This debate has little resonance in Australia. Manne says that the muted response in Australia--ie., the lack of fallout---is a combination of:

---a weak Labor opposition that has adopted an electoral strategy of prioritising domestic issues over national security ones;

----the moribund character of the contemporary Australian parliamentary system which means that our parliamentarians are simply incapable of pursuing a matter of public interest where a government is vulnerable but an opposition leadership is weak.

---an acceptance by Australian citizens that it okay to lie in order to achieve a desirable end. If the Government needs to twist the truth a little, then this is a relatively trivial price to pay.

---and an acceptance that our support for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was nothing less than the insurance premium we are required to pay in return for the security we received from association with a great and powerful friend.

I think that Manne is right on this. There is an acceptance of US hegemony, of the way the neo-conservative Bush administration has defined good and evil in international affairs and the open-ended pre-emptive strategy. Australians have accepted Howard's linking Australia's national interest to that of an imperial US. Howard's judgements on national security are trusted by Australian citizens; as are the strategic shifts Howard has made in Australian foreign policy. Accepted here means judgement not passivity.

The implication of these judgements is that, unlike the US and the UK, the public debate in Australia has been very muted. As Glen Condell over at Blogorrhoea asks:

"Where is that debate? Our gloriously diverse media don't seem to be banging on about it."

They are not. But they should be calling the Howard Government to account, if they watchdogs for democracy.

So where to now? One option to to keep engaging in criticism to keep the embers of critical thinking alive in the public sphere.

If we adopt this perspective then we can discern a bit of debate in Australia. It has different concerns to the UK and US one. Thus Paul Kelly (no links) talks in terms of imperial overreach arising from a combination of open-ended pre-emptive strategy and substantial budget deficits. Kelly mentions three lines of criticism of the Bush administration's geopolitical strategy: its aggression provokes rogue states; it exaggerates what the US can achieve alone; and it downplays the importance of winning the battle of ideas.

It is more than a debate about the US as the new Rome. It is about the implications of the strategic direction of Australia's foreign policy under the Howard Government. Thus Ross Garnett says that:

"...two long-standing premises of foreign policy have been violated.

One is that close and productive relations with prominent Asian countries are critically important to Australian security and prosperity.

Another is that the ANZUS treaty has served Australia well and works best for both Australia and the US over the long haul if Australia exercises independent judgment about its national interest."

The debate---what there is --- is over these two issues in Australia. Is the Asian region of critical importance to Australia, or should Australia hitch its star to the US? Should Australia exercise independent judgement about its national interst or just go along with the US?

There has not been much of a debate so far.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:45 AM | | Comments (4)
Comments

Comments

Of course it could also be interpreted that the Howard Govts. foreign policy stance is really much more independent than the Whitlam/Fraser/Hawke/ Keating eras that preceded it.You know, those halcyon independent foreign policy years.

How so? Well for a start, for Australia at least,the early 70s ushered in a retreat from the 50s and 60s 'domino theory' of Asia after Korea and Vietnam. It could be said that the Whitlam govt. was following the US with its engagement of China after Nixon led the way. No bold independent policy here. We subsequently 'engaged' with Asia by ignoring Indonesian unpleasantries in East Timor and West Irian and happily opened up trade with Asia, quietly ignoring human rights, etc(remember those tanks squashing citizens in Tiananmen Square). We generally accepted, being the poor white trash of Asia among the new Asian tigers and were quick to shut our mouths about any 'recalcitrant' Asian leader who told us to. Yes just like the US we withdrew from the scene to lick our wounds and ponder our heinous colonial past.

The new Asian tigers, would strut the stage and show us how it should be done, as well as how to behave in polite international society.

Suddenly a bit of a problem arose in the ME with Iraq invading Kuwait and the new independent Hawke govt led the US and UN into battle in the Gulf War.(notice the tough independent stand from world opinion here)It seemed the Europeans needed plenty of urging from us to get off their butts and intervene in their own back-yards(Bosnia and Afghanistan)when they felt threatened by failed or rogue states.All the while Hawke and Keating tip-toed on egg shells over atrocities in East Timor and JI was plying its trade in Indonesia. Mustn't upset the neighbours.
Cometh the moment, cometh the man. Sept 11 rang an alarm bell with John Howard and he defied his own electorate and immediate world opinion by sending troops to Iraq. I notice he has done likewise in East Timor and the Solomons, despite what our neighbours think. You're with us(the minority Anglo-alliance) or you're with them(the majority UN) was the catch cry. Funny thing is our neighbour Indonesia with its get tough on JI, is coming around to that point of view, after getting its nose out of joint with us in ET. (notice some of the Phillipines military is taking up the message too)

Now you might criticise the policy of Howard, but it could well be said that it is the most in your face, like it or lump it foreign policy stance in decades.Perhaps this is a sign of maturity in Austn. foreign policy now. We are not afraid to offend some countries in order to do what we think is right. That may be a sign of true independence.

On the other point as to why Austns. are more forgiving of their intelligence/govt for getting the WMD bit wrong- simply we are not doing the ongoing heavy lifting in Iraq and taking the casualties of our allies. This has probably led to the degree of introspection seen in the US and UK.

Hi Observer,
very good comment.

Do you want to have it posted as an entry on public opinion.

I could repsond to it by introducing more of Ross Garnett and you could respond to him.

I am quite happy opening up public opinion to an ongoing debate with different perspectives engagign with the issues.

It is too much of a monologue at present. It is weighted too much with me as the dominant voice and you as the maker of comments.

That is too unbalanced when you comments are equal to, if not better than, my original posts.

Have a think.

PS same applies to your River Murray one. I've been thinking of incorporating your ideas into another post. Can I?

Yeah go for it Gary.

I have lately been pondering the uneasy silence to my broad brush question (which I have found is always a party stopper) on John Quiggin's Monday message board last week. Seems the market boys are not game to answer it. This market green might have to have a go at it himself when time permits. Interestingly enough I think PQ is on the scent with his piece on the price of securing oil supplies cf the price of conservation for the US.

However time is short at the moment with a busy patch at work, plus end of year financials to get my teeth around.

Mmmm. I'm pretty sure Whitlam was ahead of Nixon on China. If not as PM, then certainly as Opposition Leader. Of course, he copped a predictable bucketload of red baiting from the McMahon Govt. and Young Libs like JWH at the time. They looked pretty stupid when Nixon 'went to China'.

Oh, and as for Gulf War Round II (IMO Iran v Iraq was Round 1), even though I agree that Hawkey was doing a bit of arselicking at the time, at least that operation didn't involve pre-emptively invading a country that was no real threat to our own. JWH can take all the credit he likes for that ground-breaking piece of foreign policy. I'm with the "it will ultimately come to no good" crowd on that one.

Cheers.