Thursday 06 February 2003

No easy way out

“Like most Australians,” writes Paul Sheehan in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, “I’m against the Bush Administration’s war, but that doesn’t mean that we in the majority can congratulate ourselves about our moral superiority.”

Sheehan’s opinion piece is worth reading in full, since it lays out with uncomfortable clarity the dilemma that any intelligent person faces when trying to formulate a position on how to deal with Saddam Hussein. I’ve already argued against Australia’s participation in a war against Iraq—but only against a war conducted without UN sanction—because I fear the consequences of allowing the United States to be the sole arbiter of what is or is not an acceptable government and because I agree with Robert Manne that legitimizing the preemptive strike casts us back to the law of the jungle.

Sheehan asks why Australia should support a US administration that:

  • Appears willing to use nuclear weapons as a first-strike option.
  • “Botched the endgame against al-Quaeda” in Afghanistan.
  • Makes no connection between its Iraq policy and its blank-cheque support for Israel.

But then comes the sting in the tail:

The moral virgins in this debate who pronounce themselves “against war”, and who rail against American arrogance, need to at least acknowledge the impact that inertia and appeasement have had on the continuing murders and torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, the genocide against the Kurds and the Madans, the invasions of Kuwait and Iran, the missile attacks on Israeli civilians, the use of chemical weapons, the degradation of the environment and the general malevolence of a kleptocracy run by Saddam and his Caligula-like son, Uday, and their vast apparatus of suppression.

Had this regime not been decisively and violently checked by US power 12 years ago, it would now control the vast oil resources of Kuwait as well as its own, would have used this economic power to build an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, would have sought nuclear weapons, and would probably be untouchable. All thanks to prudent, peace-loving people who are against military interventions and American imperialism.

It’s clear that the revulsion Australians feel towards Saddam Hussein is balanced by a deep distrust of both the Bush administration’s motives and those of our own government. The end result is an overwhelming insistence that our participation be sanctioned by the UN.

Sheehan suggests that, in offering Australian support for the attack on Iraq, with or without UN sanction, Prime Minister John Howard is paying an insurance premium against the time when Muslim Indonesia implodes on our doorstep. Then, the argument goes, our alliance with the US would be the only thing that could save us. (How George W. Bush can guarantee the actions of a future US government is not explained.)

If that is the case, and I suspect it probably is, then it’s impossible for the Prime Minister to admit his true motive without causing a massive diplomatic row with the Indonesian government. As Sheehan concludes: “There is no easy way out for the Prime Minister. Or for the rest of us.”

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Thanks for the perspective, Jonathon. In a perverse sort of way, it's pleasant to know that we Statesiders aren't the only ones in a stew.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 7 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Iím just worried about the long term damage thatís being down to the United Statesí relationship to the UN. If the United Nations snubs the US and doesnít sanction military action, I can see domestic support for the commitment of American troops to UN operations drying up really quick.

When the next Kosovo happens, when American airpower, for instance, could really be used for the good, I can see Washington saying, "Well, itís not a threat to us, so deal with it on your own." Taking the threat of American military intervention out of the equation removes a lot of the UN's teeth and invites a lot of adventurism, none of which will be good for peace and stability.

Posted by John on 7 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dorothea, that's what I admired about Paul Sheehan's piece -- that in picking me up and dropping me squarely on the horns of the dilemma he forces me to think more deeply about the alternatives.

John, I agree with you, though I think that European attitudes lie at the heart of this dilemma. Last year I linked to an article called Power and Weakness by Robert Kagan in which he argues that only American military power has made it possible for Europe to develop an attitude of moral superiority towards the United States.

Interestingly, my post attracted no comments at all.

Posted by Jonathon on 7 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

That's an excellent article, Jonathon. I don't know how I missed it when you posted it the first time.

Posted by John on 8 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour