ALISON BROINOWSKI. Till war do us part.

Aug 30, 2017

A survey reports a significant movement of Australian opinion about the US alliance, away from current government policy which unquestioningly supports the Afghanistan deployment.

There is nothing surprising about Australia’s new deployment to the war in Afghanistan, which amounts only to an additional 30 troops. It follows the pattern that has become customary since Vietnam: Australia offers, the US requests, and off they go. What the government in Kabul has to say about the Australians, totalling 300, is neither seen nor heard. Nothing will improve, on our terms, in Afghanistan, so we will send more, until eventually the US gives up, and we do too, leaving Afghanistan for the third time to sort out the mess.

What was interesting about last week’s announcement was the public response, expressed in scathing letters to editors, and in some guarded commentaries. A Fairfax readers’ panel was asked ‘Do you think the federal government should send more troops to Afghanistan, following Trump’s lead?’ Seven percent said yes, nine percent didn’t know, and 84 percent said no (SMH 26-7 August 2017 28). Although the sample was small (1314), this emphatic ‘no’ may represent a significant shift of Australian opinion away from current government policy of unquestioningly supporting the Afghanistan deployment.

Since Australia invaded Iraq in 2003, foreign and defence orthodoxy has come to require such bipartisan sycophancy to the US that it is now normal for Canberra automatically to do whatever Washington does, including under the current presidency. Well, semi-automatically: we are hanging in on the Paris agreement on climate change, we haven’t demonised Iran too much, and Julie Bishop has called for calm over North Korea – even while Australians participate in provocative US-ROK war games, and while we vote with minorities in the UN against Palestine and against banning nuclear weapons.

In some other ways, it seems, Australia may be having second thoughts about wanting to be the US 51st state. By two-thirds, Catholics in Australia are reported to support same-sex marriage, ( q=Catholics+in+Australia+support+same+sex+marriage) which President Trump doesn’t. In Australia, ASIO is as concerned about what far right activists are up to as it is about terrorists:  President Trump virtually excused the neo-Nazis after the recent Charlottesville shooting. Australia, where cricketers occasionally wear pink for a good cause, would not conceivably go along with pardoning a Sheriff who makes prisoners in Phoenix jails wear pink underwear and is proud of giving them only two meals a day.

Or would we? Sheriff and former Congressman Argaio, who was convicted of contempt over racial profiling, is now immune to the law. New Australian provisions give unprecedented leniency to ASIO officers for illegal acts, more powerful guns to police, and SAS may even be allowed to shoot and kill Australian citizens. As for refugees and illegal immigrants, with Australia preparing to take its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, what rings in our ears is Trump’s statement to the Prime Minister about Manus and Nauru: ‘You’re worse than we are!’

IS has now declared Australia to be a ‘regional guard dog’ for the US in Marawi ( Whoever wrote this knows the Australian raw nerves to probe: satrap, suckling state, lapdog, running dog, deputy sheriff. The danger is that we may prove IS right, and by responding militarily to their presence in Indonesia and the Philippines we may bring the consequences of our perennial lack of independence in foreign and defence policy closer to home. The US, as always, in this new war wants Australia in a coalition.

But what is happening in Marawi is not war or terrorism, it’s a siege. For a century and a half Muslims (‘Moros’) have fought the Spanish and then the American imperialists, and kidnapping and gun-running have for long been their most lucrative industries. The latest outflow of fighters from the Middle East, funded by Saudi Arabia, supports this latest Moro re-group. Australian observer Graeme Wood sees Mindanao as an example of a global problem: ‘Any place with a history of unrest is a potential niche for the caliphate…Wherever there is savagery, it can be used and exploited’ (Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers, 2017: 278). No doubt IS will promote Marawi as vengeance for the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century, as well as for recent American activities. Either way, it’s not Australia’s business.

If we don’t want revenge attacks in Australia, we would be wise to stay out of it. We should talk seriously to President Duterte about the response that his extra-judicial killings invite from Muslims in Mindanao. But at the very moment when Australia should be drawing on its long association with Southeast Asia and offering a balanced view, we saw Nick Warner, Director-General of ASIS, on 22 August performing a clenched fist punch in solidarity with the President. Duterte’s extra-judicial killings of thousands of his own people, if performed by al-Assad in Syria, would have justified a UNSC resolution, and our leaders would be accusing him of crimes against humanity. Instead, Australia supports him, and wanders into a civil conflict that is no more our business than is Afghanistan. It will have the same result.

Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA, a former Australian diplomat, has worked in the Philippines and the Middle East.

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