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THE COALITION OF THE UNWILLING

Capital LetterJohn Howard probably committed Australia to a coalition of the willing two or three months before the Opposition suspects he did, but his enthusiasm for a conflict has been declining from the time that the Opposition brought United Nations assent into the equation.

Since then the Prime Minister has been backtracking, trying desperately to narrow and redefine the commitment he made, insisting that he had always reserved the right to drop out at the last moment, ruling out participation in anything but a short war and rejecting any notion either of participation in an Iraqi peacekeeping force or an army of occupation.

First off he was snookered by Kevin Rudd, who succeeded in persuading local public opinion that assent to any intervention should be contingent on a United Nations resolution. Then a piece of mischief by Laurie Brereton, that was focused on undermining Simon Crean and Kevin Rudd, finally embarrassed Labor into outright opposition to a mere American intervention. But it’s not Labor that’s the problem—Labor is only marginally less keen on participation than Howard is. It has been the failure of the United Nations to play to script that means Howard now has more to fear from the coalition of the unwilling at home than from the coalition of the willing abroad.

He’s not the only one who miscalculated. One of the reasons for Labor’s dithering (until Brereton’s intervention) was the belief that the UN Security Council would ultimately cave in to American pressure. Labor never wanted to rule out the idea of joining an expeditionary force, even one going without United Nations sanction—provided the UN had been seen to fail.

What no-one seems to have anticipated is that France and Germany, with help from Russia and China, would devise a UN Iraq strategy appealing both to the realists and the moralists. The European line has been to push for time, and for threats falling short of war. However much John Howard has pooh-poohed European and Asian comments on the continuing scope for diplomacy, the prospect of further concessions and the uncertain state of knowledge about Saddam Hussein’s weapons, he has been forced into the position of seeming an enthusiast for war. Or at least an enthusiast for whatever the US position happens to be at the time.

Now he’s in a host of binds. The charge of being an American poodle hurts—the more so when the master does not seem to appreciate how much political capital Howard has been expending at home. Howard has become an articulate describer of the general sins of Saddam, but that’s not the argument: no-one is defending Saddam. Howard cannot get any traction. No more than George Bush has he been able to show how dislodging Saddam or making war with Iraq makes international terrorism less likely, or stability in the Middle East more achievable. Like Bush and Tony Blair, he has seemed incapable of describing what he hopes will happen after the war is won, and all too optimistic that it will be won quickly and cleanly, with no great loss of life.

If he cannot describe it to his defence forces, or to parliament, he cannot explain it to the population either. The most he can hope for is that the population will quickly separate this from other issues, and vote for him or the Liberals next time around anyway, on the basis that Labor is a disunited rabble not to be trusted on the economy. Or that the contradictions of Labor’s own stand will become more obvious, or that luck will swing his way, as so often it does, with the UN ultimately coming to the party, a triumphal march into Baghdad, and a free trade treaty with Washington.

Howard has had so much luck that nothing can be discounted. It is hard to imagine, however, that European nations will become more tractable, particularly as it becomes more clear to them that their policies are popular as well as being probably right. They do not have the same interests in toeing an American line, or being thought to. They have good reasons for allowing the jihad against the West to dissipate into one against the English-speaking West, and a more realistic appreciation of the power balances in the Middle East, if only because they do not see things through the prism of oil and Israel.

One might have thought, indeed, that Australia’s interests, even as an American friend, were rather closer to those of Europe than of America. Certainly it is hard to see a free trade treaty being a substantial bait, if only because Australia’s trading interests lie more in eastern Asia than with America, and that the inevitable result of a treaty would be the creation of retaliatory trading blocs from which Australia would suffer. And that’s assuming that the deal we made on American agricultural subsidy was worth having.

But parades and free trade agreements are not necessarily going to appease the coalition of the unwilling, a group far bigger than the chattering classes and instinctive leftists Howard so often derides. Nor is this coalition simply afraid of cold steel. It includes those who want more action on Zimbabwe and who pushed for armed intervention in East Timor—and those who want more concentration on what is happening in North Korea, which has a leadership more unpredictable and malign than Iraq’s, is more likely to use the weapons of mass destruction it undoubtedly has and which is a more clear and present danger to the peace than Saddam Hussein. Not to mention a clear and present danger to Australia’s security interests.

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.

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