Grim reaping

The United States will probably complete its war against Iraq with its military clout enhanced, its diplomatic clout reduced, and its place in the world less secure. Australia will share the last two outcomes, but will not have even the comfort of the first. Nor, probably, will it have the satisfaction of knowing that, in standing by its ally when all but Britain had fled, it will win any particular brownie points in a post-Iraq America.

The US could hardly have handled its diplomatic battles more carelessly, or more arrogantly. Its accession even to the idea that the United Nations had any role to play in disarming Iraq was slow and reluctant. The military build-up proceeded apace not because the US believed that weapons inspections would not work, but because they thought the inspections process a sham in any event. The message was that the US wanted war at any cost, and that any slowdown for diplomacy or concessions involved being conned by Saddam Hussein. Australia and Britain loyally tried to anticipate every American argument, and get on the record with them first. Tony Blair at least focused initially on the moral case—one that came to John Howard only late in the piece—and, with Australia, helped persuade the US that it should at least attempt to get a UN Security Council blessing.

That was a blessing that might have been obtained a year ago. But America’s arrogant carelessness has sapped not just the goodwill of most of the non-English speaking world and actively alienated public opinion in all parts of the world that count, but has actually created a new form of international anti-Americanism—one not so much hostile to its culture as believing that international American power needs checks and balances. The apostles of some counterweight, France and Germany, represent much more than an old Europe used to creating balances of power against the strong: they have the support of public opinion in most of the non-English speaking world, and substantial support even in Britain and Australia.

Increasingly, moreover, such nations will seem able to put the US in the moral wrong. The way in which the US has squandered any moral advantage it had after the events of September 11 is staggering—a result primarily of the ‘ourselves alone’ play on its domestic opinion, and its ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric in international forums. But the process of alienating other countries had begun much earlier—with US rejection of international agreements such as Kyoto, and the creation of the International Criminal Court and some deliberate dismantling of diplomacy initiated by Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, not least over North Korea.

Yet if America has been more conscious of its military and economic primacy, and more determined to defend and assert it, it has also never been more in need of diplomacy, and of multilateral bodies such as the UN, to help it do so. An Iraq, or an Afghanistan, can be coerced. A Pakistan, or perhaps a
Turkey, can be bribed or bullied. But practical trade and general peace and good order require co-operation and agreed rules. Moreover, there has been much goodwill towards America, not least among the old Soviet satellites and Europe, even if mild anti-Americanism has been fashionable among the
intelligentsia. The feat of George W. Bush and his coterie of advisers has been to convert that advantage to antipathy, even among the more conservative classes.

The problem with Australia’s and Briain’s close identification with the American cause comes in part from their inability to define what specific British or Australian interests they are defending. Even the general case—that Saddam is an evil man who persecutes and murders his own citizens and is a threat to his neighbours, and that there is a serious risk that he will use weapons of mass destruction or, worse, make them available to terror groups such as al Qaeda—did not, of itself, mandate war. Neither Britain nor Australia, as pigs in the minefield, nor the US, ever convincingly demonstrated a connection between the secular apostate, Saddam, and al Qaeda. But, even were that taken as read, it has never been clear how war would make al Qaeda’s acquisition or use of such weapons less likely.

Indeed, America itself has accepted that war with Iraq would produce an enormous counter-reaction in Muslim circles, and make terror incidents more, not less, likely, particularly in the short term.

And not only in countries such as Iran, or Syria, or even Saudi Arabia, which are presumably further down the American list for some cultural cleansing. The risk is as great, in some respects even greater, in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh or Pakistan or, on the other side of the Middle East, in Nigeria, Morocco or Tunisia. And those who want to use terror primarily for demonstration purposes, as all the best terrorists do, have now had it spelled out to them that the English-speaking union—sans, perhaps, Canada and New Zealand, if anyone could be bothered to distinguish—provides the best targets.
But just as significantly, the impact of American arrogance on public opinion as much as on the politicians in such countries, and the fact that one can take a swipe at Australia, or Britain, rather more easily and more safely than at America, accentuates the diplomatic risk Australia has adopted. The cost of this will not be felt in military expenditure, but in trade and humiliation, and declining influence. Just the sort of thing America could not shelter us against, even if it wanted to.    

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



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