The images of recent days have an eerie familiarity, as if the horrors of the past decade were being played back: masked gunmen recapturing the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Ramadi, where so many American soldiers died fighting them. Car bombs exploding amid the elegance of downtown Beirut. The charnel house of Syria’s worsening civil war.
But for all its echoes, the bloodshed that has engulfed Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in the past two weeks exposes something new and destabilizing: the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds…
The drumbeat of violence in recent weeks threatens to bring back the worst of the Iraqi civil war that the United States touched off with an invasion and then spent billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers’ lives to overcome.
With the possible withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan looming later this year, many fear that an insurgency will unravel that country, too, leaving another American nation-building effort in ashes.
It is news of this kind that makes me think much better of the now departed former Labor leader Simon Crean who had the courage back in 2003 to oppose the sending of Australian troops to Iraq.
The issue of Iraq, perhaps unlike any issue of recent times, defines the differences between the two major political parties in this country.
This difference comes from a fundamental divergence of principle.
Labor has always supported the role of the United Nations and the rule of international law.
We helped create the UN out of the rubble of the Second World War. That attempt to settle international disputes through peaceful means was the great tribute our nation paid to the men and women who died in World War Two.
It’s one of the proudest pieces of our history that a Labor foreign minister, Dr Evatt, was the founding president of the General Assembly.
But while we always support the role of the UN, the Liberals always support their “great and powerful friends”.
The parallels between Howard and Menzies are there to see: cow-towing to London and Washington, the constant sojourns at the Savoy, the nod and wink in support of military action – even if it doesn’t have legitimacy.
That is the Liberal’s political tradition.
The Liberal Party has never had the courage to state an independent foreign policy that is in Australia’s interests.
It’s only ever asked: what’s in the interests of the US?
Labor supports the US alliance, but we want a mature one, not a toadying one.
The US alliance has endured for over 50 years.
It has always had bipartisan support.
But it does not mean that we have to agree with every policy position of every US administration.
We have had our differences in the past but the alliance will endure, because Australians and Americans believe in the same things – democracy, freedom and respect for the rule of law.
Why is the UN so important?
If the US flaunts the decisions of the UN, it sends a signal to other nations not to be bound by its decisions.
It is in the interests of nations the size of Australia for the rule of international law to be strong.
A strong UN can ensure that nations disarm and can stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction to our region.
The prime minister says that his main reason for deploying Australian troops to Iraq was to stop the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
But what has his government done in seven years to strengthen UN arms control?
He has remained silent on the Canberra Commission Report.
The Canberra Commission said it clearly – “The possession of nuclear weapons by any state is a constant stimulus to other states to acquire them”.
Where is John Howard’s brave new initiative to push forward on nuclear arms control?
Labor has called for the Canberra Commission to be re-convened, with a new mandate to decide what steps are needed to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles.
The prime minister has been unable to convince the US government to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – which Foreign Minister Downer has called “a major milestone” and said “will bring the nuclear arms race to a definite end”.
The prime minister said nothing when last year the US government walked away from negotiations towards a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention which would have provided transparency and confidence that all countries were working towards eliminating these terrible weapons.
* Barbara Tuchman in her 1984 book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam seeks to explore ‘one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’.