Thursday, April 29, 2004

True Friends Tell it as it is 

In defence of Labor's US stand
Comment by Doug Bandow
April 29, 2004

AS its occupation of Iraq goes from bad to worse, the US has found itself increasingly isolated. One of Washington's few friends not looking for the exit is Australia. That's good for the US – anyone would prefer to have companionship as their car hurtles off a cliff – but not necessarily good for Canberra.

Questioning Australia's commitment in Iraq is 'certainly not anti-American', says Bandow / Ray Strange

Prime Minister John Howard mirrors the rhetoric of President George W. Bush with his Government's promise that "our troops will stay in Iraq until the job is done". But that might not be within either leader's lifetime. Such a commitment seems imprudent at best. To question it, as Opposition Leader Mark Latham does, certainly is not anti-American.

The US and Australia have much in common, including economic ties, cultural heritage and security interests. There is much room for co-operation. But that doesn't require "fawning compliance", as Latham puts it. After all, the overarching security concerns that once drove the alliance are gone. Japan never re-emerged as a danger after World War II and the Soviet Union imploded more than a decade ago. China has yet to offer a replacement threat. Washington's principal geopolitical concerns today lie far away from the South Pacific.

The US really doesn't need a "deputy sheriff", as Howard reportedly once put it. In contrast, Canberra's interests are centred nearby, especially in Indonesia, where terrorism and instability pose a clear and present danger. There's obvious value in bilateral consultation. Intelligence sharing and emergency base access offer real benefits.

But there's no need for the US to hand out security guarantees to Australia. Nor is there reason for Australia to follow the US lead in distant parts of the globe. There certainly is no cause for Canberra to commit itself, even in a small way, to Washington's misbegotten occupation of Iraq. Even many Americans now realise the Iraq war was "based on a hunch", as Latham has observed. The Bush administration shamelessly manipulated the intelligence process and the information that resulted. Perhaps Howard can't be blamed for relying on Bush's word, but he deserves to be questioned for continuing to back Bush's policy.

Had Iraq ever posed a global threat – and it manifestly did not – it no longer does so. What has not been achieved, and likely never will be achieved, is turning the Bush administration's dreamland in the air into reality on the ground: Iraq as a liberal, pro-Western democracy. It's not that Iraq can never develop into one. But it is not likely to do so on Washington's time at the point of US guns (whether or not supported by a few barrels held by Aussies).

Frankly, what the US needs most are good friends willing to tell it unpleasant truths. Expecting to be "an equal partner", as Latham does, might be unrealistic – Washington has yet to learn to treat any nation as an equal. Still, Canberra need not feel the need to play a role Latham criticises as "simply one of nodding agreement".

The US obviously would have benefited from better advice before spreading instability throughout the Middle East. Giving freedom to the Iraqi people was a positive result, but by that standard of intervention another two or three score nations await liberation. Alas, when it comes to terrorism the US has managed to create yet another grievance, however cynical, that has helped invigorate a host of smaller jihadist groups across the globe.

Washington also has created an entirely new front in Iraq in which US and other coalition forces are destined to continue dying. Unfortunately, the war on Iraq – in contrast to the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan – has been a boon for terrorists. Western-oriented states are less, rather than more, secure today than before the war.

Rather than confront a policy failure that threatens to become a debacle, war advocates in Australia, like those in the US, attack anything other than lock-step support for Washington as a proposal to cut and run. Cute rhetoric, to be sure, but "stay forever" isn't much of an alternative. What's needed is to accelerate elections and initiate a real transfer of power, followed by a coalition military exit in months, not years. A Christmas deadline, perhaps?

Doing so won't be easy. But doing so would be easier if Washington's allies began pressing it to base policy on practical realities rather than on ideological fantasies of people who told us that the Iraqis would toss rose petals at foreign forces, the occupation would pay for itself and coalition troops would be down to 30,000 or so by the end of last year. This would not be isolationism, or turning one's back on the alliance, or anti-Americanism, or any of the other silly epithets tossed Latham's way. It would be simple good sense.

Of course, as Bush made clear at his recent press conference, he can't think of a single mistake that he has made as President. So there's no doubt that Bush administration officials would respond badly if Canberra decided policy based on Australia's, and not US, interests. But, then, Australian voters have to decide just how much an invitation for their Prime Minister to visit the White House is really worth.

Of course, there are good reasons to criticise Latham's ideas. For instance, I believe the bilateral free trade agreement to be a significant boon for both nations. But claims that the Labor leader's desire for an Australia-centred foreign policy is anti-American should not be treated seriously.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington.


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