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Coalition of the Unwilling


Jake Lynch, TFF Associate, Australia


June 12, 2008

Councillors from the inner Sydney district of Marrickville are off to Palestine later this year. They decided last year to ‘twin’ their patch of urban sprawl with the little town of Bethlehem. But the good burghers have been warned not to meet representatives of Hamas, the party that won elections for the Palestinian Authority in 2006 and which boasts several representatives on Bethlehem’s town council.

An opinion poll recently showed Israelis themselves are in favour of talking to Hamas. Nearly two-thirds wanted direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza to try to bring about a ceasefire and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas itself has repeatedly offered a ten-year truce to create time for progress on substantive issues between Israel and the Palestinians, without the drumbeat of bombs and bullets for a soundtrack. Israelis, at least, want to find out how serious they are.

But that would not suit Israel’s patron in Washington, which has sunk too much blood and treasure into shoring up its primacy in the region to allow resistance to emerge unchecked. Engaging with Hamas would reward influence-mongering by Iran and Syria, the reasoning goes – so no such overture will be permitted. Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, put it well: “Israel is America’s unsinkable battleship in the Middle East”.

Pull at another thread of the foreign policy tapestry, the campaign to rid the world of cluster bombs. These deadly munitions spread mayhem and misery in war zones long after firing has ceased. The hundreds of ‘bomblets’ inside each one often fail to explode. Some get picked up by children, who mistake the small, brightly-coloured objects for toys – with tragic consequences.

It’s a cause the Australian government would like to join, especially as Canberra was a keen supporter of the previous campaign to ban landmines, which eventually bore fruit in the shape of the Ottawa Convention. The logic was the same – to impose humane limits on the legacy of war. This time, however, there’s a catch. There’s no prospect of the Americans foregoing these weapons, and the Australian Defence Force is committed to maintaining ‘interoperability’ with the Pentagon – so, regretfully, we cannot lend our weight to efforts at mobilising support among world governments to bring the era of cluster bombs to an end.

Australians, in common with publics in many other countries in military alliance with the US, are getting fed up with it. Polling by Sydney University’s US Studies Centre last year found that fully 48% supported a more independent foreign policy, nearly double the proportion a generation ago.

The odd thing is that these perspectives find virtually no echo in either politics or the media. Public service broadcasters – commercial channels no less than public broadcasters ABC and SBS – are obliged, in their charters and licence agreements, to reflect public opinion on matters of controversy. But, when US officials arrived in Canberra for the bilateral AusMin talks, a few weeks ago, editors apparently did not feel it incumbent on them to hear from opponents of the military alliance.

Australian troops are now being pulled back from frontline duties in Iraq, of course, though aerial attacks on civilian neighbourhoods are still being guided by the global military communications web, including America’s secretive base in the Australian outback at Pine Gap. At the same time, public opinion is split down the middle on whether we should be in Afghanistan, either – the case against it is seldom aired because the mission is supported by leaders of both main parties in the Australian Federal Parliament.

Make no mistake, ‘interoperability’ means training and preparations for more military adventures alongside the US. Last year, the biggest-ever joint exercise on Australian soil, Operation Talisman Sabre, saw fully 20,000 American troops join 7,500 from the ADF in several days of war games in northern Queensland. Only when they came to Sydney on leave did it gain any attention – and then it was reported as a benign visitation and a boon for the tourist industry.

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What we have now is a crisis of military legitimacy, following two previous ones – the end of the Vietnam war and the end of the Cold War, when loose talk of a peace dividend scarified the arms industry. The ‘war on terrorism’ that followed has seen the Pentagon’s budget grow proportionally bigger than at any time since World War II, but US influence is now having to be advanced covertly.

Look at the Senate testimony by the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus – the so-called ‘troop surge’, sold to Americans as a temporary measure, is now revealed as a long-term commitment.

The proxy war in Somalia, waged by the Ethiopian army with American weaponry; the stealthy establishment of ‘lily pad’ military bases in the southern Philippines; getting Israel to weaken Hezbollah and, with it, the influence of the ‘Iran-Syria axis’ in Lebanon; all are symptoms of a global military campaign taking place below the radar of sceptical, if not downright hostile global public opinion.

Moving in lockstep with US foreign policies will sign us up for more of the same, whoever takes power in November.

Now is the time for a genuinely Australian foreign policy.


Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.



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