Hard News by Russell Brown

So spare me the hectoring

I'm sure I've read more confused, angry, paranoid tracts in the New Zealand Herald than Denis Dutton's effort yesterday, but I can't presently remember when.

Dutton opens with his favourite conceit, casting himself as the keen-minded sceptic in a room full of feeble-minded Kiwi liberals discussing, in this case, the Australian government's actions during the Tampa refugee crisis:

A memorable moment came when I challenged the group to explain what they would do with the stream of refugees were New Zealand situated west of Australia, instead of east. What would we do if the boats were coming to us first?

The possibility had never occurred to anyone present. Like our geographic isolation, our moral superiority to the Australians was simply a given.

As anyone with an appreciation of regional politics going back further than five minutes would know, the problem of seaborne asylum-seekers is hardly a new one in the Asia-Pacific region. And not all Australian leaders have dealt with the problem as Howard did - indeed, in the 1970s, Malcolm Fraser bucked public sentiment to follow what he regarded as a humanitarian imperative to help the Vietnamese families who made for Australia in their leaky boats.

No one should envy Australia in its exposure to this problem. But Australia's flow of refugees and economic migrants is dwarfed by that of many European countries, including those which, like New Zealand, have not signed up to the new American beliefs on foreign policy that Dutton seems to think are the only acceptable response to the problem.

The fact is that Australia was and is a signatory to an international refugee convention under which it has clear obligations. Its own humanitarian programme allows for an annual tally of 4000 "onshore applicants" - people, like the Tampa's cargo, who arrive on Australian soil and seek asylum. Australia is not bound to accept these people, but it is expected to treat them humanely. The policy of interning families in isolated, privately-managed detention camps, where, according to reliable reports, social order was allowed to break down with hideous results, was not humane.

New Zealand's official response, as I recall it, was not censurious. We took 140 of the Tampa refugees and integrated them into our society in what appears to have been an admirable process.

Dutton then goes on to link our "bargain-basement moralism" with the "smugness" of our past and present leaders.

Helen Clark suggested that Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq and that the war was obviously "not going to plan". Both of these false statements were made on a day when Americans and Britons were dying fighting for the security of the Western world and the freedom of Iraqis from a ruthless dictator.

As regards the first of these "false statements" (Clark responded to a specific interview question about whether American foreign policy was explicitly tied to the current leadership with the words "it’s a bit hard, for example, to see an Al Gore Presidency having delivered this"), Dutton can, I suppose, be forgiven for not having caught up with Gore's unequivocal statement that, no, he would not have invaded Iraq.

The second was impolitic, but, at the time it was made, perfectly true. Basra was refusing to fall and US Lt General William Wallace was telling the press that "the enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against."

Dutton then moves on to Clark's "truly repellent" suggestion that John Howard's government was willing to send young Australians to their deaths in pursuit of a trade deal with the US. Which wasn't of course, what she said. She said that New Zealand wouldn't "trade the lives of young New Zealanders, for a war it doesn't believe in, to secure some material advantage." Again, check the papers: at the time, some members of the New Zealand Parliament were shouting that New Zealand's failure to sign up for war would lose us a trade deal. (Some Australian commentators are now openly gloating that our failure to sign up for Iraq has lost us the deal.)

Such a suggestion, says Dutton, is "as contemptible as suggesting that the Americans are in Iraq for the oil". I guess he could tell that to Richard V. Allen, the member of the US Defense Policy Council, who told Kim Hill that the war was necessary "to protect the sanctity of oil supplies." To any sensible observer, there are a variety of motives behind the US move on Iraq but Dutton seems to regard the suggestion that any of them might be less than benign as a form of thoughtcrime.

And then there's this:

Consider the situation: Australia is geographically large but underpopulated, with long, hard-to-secure borders, at the edge of what is becoming an explosively unstable region. China might go completely to pieces in the next 20 years. Muslim fanatics are blowing up churches in the Philippines. North Korea now boasts of nuclear weapons and, while starving its own people, threatens both South Korea and Japan.

Most ominously, there is Australia's near neighbour, Indonesia, with 233 million inhabitants, 88 per cent of whom are Muslim. It controls a huge standing army but has vast internal problems, in the rebellious Irian Jaya, for example. The mass killing of young Australians in Bali could be a foretaste of what might become endemic terrorism. Worse, an invasion of western Australia is possible.

Scary. It's difficult to see why Dutton feels the need to emphasise that an "ominous" 88 per cent of Indonesians are Muslims, unless it is to imply that Muslims are per se dangerous or potential terrorists and invaders. And liberals are supposed to be paranoid?

He doesn't say whether, say, India, should assume the right to deal unilaterally with the nuclear-armed Muslims on its borders. Frankly, treating the whole of Asia as a threat demanding a pre-emptive response is just stupid. Our future lies with Asia, and its ongoing integration into the global economic and social structures.

In the face of these deep uncertainties, Australia has decided to throw in its lot with the most powerful country the planet has ever seen. Both Australia and the United States are brash, spirited nations, natural allies in democratic politics, Anglo-Saxon heritage and lively temperament. These buoyant, optimistic peoples love freedom and will fight to protect it.

Yet according to opinion polls, the "buoyant, optimistic" Australians opposed the war in nearly as great a number as their sulky- soft-headed cousins across the Tasman (the same was true of public opinion in almost every member of the "coalition of the willing"). That they have, after the fact, swung in behind Howard - as the British did behind Blair, who also enjoys the luxury of weak political opposition - is hardly surprising, but that's not what Dutton is claiming.

Dutton's glossy brochure for the New American Century presents US policy as considered, consistent, clear and unified. In reality, of course, this is not the case.

We know that the US State Department and the Pentagon are effectively at war with each other, that the CIA is leaking documents to support its own case. Career diplomats have resigned. Newt Gingrich has come out of the woodwork to demand a purge against the State Department. Richard Perle and, now, Donald Rumsfeld, have been guilty of extraordinary failures to disclose conflicts of interest related directly to the new foreign policy. It's a circus, and a potentially dangerous one.

And yet, New Zealand is, by Dutton's lights, a pathetic international failure because it has declined to abandon foreign policy principles it has pursued for decades in favour of a policy unabashedly based on narrow American self-interest. His slurring, as an American, of New Zealand is particularly unpleasant given our contribution of troops in Afghanistan, our long record of contributing to US intelligence, and our participation in naval surveillance for terrorist activity. None of this, it appears, accords us the privilege of saying no when we believe it.

The Americans, in case no one has noticed, have begun a long-term war against terrorists, mainly Islamo-fascists, and their potential helpers among rogue states capable of producing enriched uranium or other devices and materials for mass murder. The ultimate aim is to make sure that no one ever sails into New York Harbour with a nuclear bomb packed into a shipping container.

And to this end, odious central Asian regimes are groomed as "allies", sovereign governments are explicitly threatened at the rate of two or three a week (the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, Iran and Malaysia in the past seven days by my count), international institutions and treaties are undermined and domestic civil rights are progressively suspended by laws of a kind America has simply never seen before.

So spare me the hectoring, and the admonition to look up to America as a paragon of democracy. Christ, at least under our system the outfit that gets the most votes actually wins.

If any nation showed a commitment to democracy on the road to war, it was Britain, where Blair and his inner circle put their political careers on the line by allowing a Commons debate and vote on Britain's participation (the unelected Rumsfeld's comment on this was a pearler: "they have a government that deals with a parliament in their way, a distinctive way"). It was what democracies are supposed to do. Meanwhile, US Congressmen were too busy renaming French fries.