May 15, 2006
On Friday 12 May, shortly before flying off to see George
Bush, Australian Prime minister John Howard did two remarkable things.
Firstly, he ruled out Australian involvement in any military action
in Iran. "I’m not in favour of other than trying to achieve
a diplomatic solution", he told the media. Then he announced an
unexpected and highly provocative military build-up for a possible new
occupation of East Timor.
the face of it, Howard’s Iran war stance is an extraordinary piece
of evasion. Since US ground forces are completely engaged fighting the
Resistance in Iraq, an attack on Iran could only take the form of an
open-ended bombing campaign. All military analysts have pointed out
that Iran's response would include a ground offensive in the south by
pro-Iranian shia militias aided by regular Iranian forces. These will
vastly outnumber and outgun the weak and scattered Coalition forces
of which the Australian contingent is a symbolic part and US air power
cannot be relied on to make up the imbalance. The Coalition troops in
the south are effectively already hostages of Iran. If the US attacks
Iran, Australian involvement is unavoidable.
Howard is not so stupid as to be unaware of this grim reality, so what’s
his game? And what’s the connection with his deliberate and very
provocative East Timor build-up?
government of the tiny new nation did not request help from the Australian
military and Howard’s move caught the mainstream media by surprise.
A palpable sense of astonishment attended the first reports of troops,
armour and naval units assembling in Darwin.
has recently been through a crisis involving the mass resignation of
600 soldiers (about a third of its army). The men are mostly former
guerrillas from East Timor’s long struggle for independence from
Indonesia. Before Howard’s move, indications were that the East
Timor government had the crisis in hand, and was close to a settlement
with the disaffected troops.It isn’t only East Timor that Howard
has alarmed. The Indonesian government – which Australian foreign
policy has under almost all circumstances striven to accommodate –
will also see the move as precipitate and threatening, especially in
the context of renewed demands for independence by the Melanesians of
Indonesia’s province of West Papua.
this year, the Howard Government was caught off-guard by a demand for
political asylum by 43 young Melanesian activists from West Papua who
had landed on Australia’s north coast. In the circumstances Howard
had little option but to reluctantly grant them asylum. The Indonesian
government took the move badly, withdrawing its ambassador and seeking
guarantees that Australia didn’t support Papuan independence and
would, in future, reject asylum seekers. Indonesia got the necessary
assurance in plenty.
occasioned a furious attack by the right-wing, pro-Howard commentariat
on small left-wing groups and academics who support the West Papuan
cause, accusing them of recklessly endangering relations with Indonesia.
Barely has the ink dried on their editorials and columns when Howard’s
unexpected bellicosity over the Timor troubles placed Indonesian relations
in more danger than a handful of leftists ever could have!)
ago, Iranian president Ahmadinejahad made a state visit to Indonesia,
which is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The warm reception
he received officially and from ordinary Indonesians was a measure of
popular hatred of US foreign policy – especially the war in Iraq,
and US bullying of Iran – and came despite the fact that Ahmadinejahad
represents a majority Shiite nation whereas Indonesians are overwhelmingly
in this highly-charged atmosphere that Howard deliberately threw his
Timor bombshell. A logical explanation for his behaviour can be found
in his long-standing ploy of keeping Australia’s commitment to
Iraq and Afghanistan to the barest minimum consistent with remaining
within the US alliance. Lately this embarrassing fact has become so
obvious that even conservative commentators like Michael Duffy and the
Sydney Morning Herald’s creepy right-wing populist, Paul
Sheehan, have felt moved to remark on the tokenistic nature of Australia’s
provoking a military crisis over East Timor, Howard was able to fly
to Washington with a new excuse for his persistent failure to provide
more than a token contribution to Bush’s existing adventures or
throw any military resources at the forthcoming Iranian campaign.
to make the point totally clear to Bush, Howard, on arrival in the US,
sent another message via the Australian media. The Sydney Morning
Herald of 15 May quoted un-named "senior sources" (that
would probably be the prime minister's press secretary speaking on condition
of anonymity) as saying Howard, while in Washington, "did not expect
to be asked by the Americans to increase Australia’s troop commitment"
to Iraq or Afghanistan. Sorry, George, we're overstretched. Can’t
help with the Iran business.
is no fool. He must, by now, deeply regret getting involved in Iraq
and Arghanistan. He would understand clearly that Bush, Cheney, and
the neo-conservatives were mad, bad and dangerous to know. His problem
is that he followed them into the quagmire out of dumb loyalty to the
American Alliance. That knee-jerk reaction has now placed Australian
troops in danger of being overrun in a wider and more disastrous Middle
East conflict – one which will place in jeopardy Australia’s
lucrative trade relationship with China.
prime minister dare not admit his mistake and call a retreat, so he’s
desperately trying to at least not step further into the swamp.