CANBERRA OBSERVED: by NWNews Weekly
First strike? With what?
, December 14, 2002
Despite the near hysteria of recent days over John Howard's "first strike" against terror doctrine, the truth is that, in theory at least, very few Australians would disagree with the proposition.
The threefold problem for Howard is that such an event is not only unlikely in the extreme; it masks the real issue of terror which is far more likely to originate internally and therefore be far more difficult to prevent; and it smacks of hubris because Australia's defence is so depleted and undermanned we couldn't execute first strike if we wanted to.
While using the words to mount the patently false case that Howard is some kind of warmonger and Asia-hater, commentators have overlooked the more obvious problem in Howard's words, which is Australia's singular incapacity to launch any kind of pre-emptive strike against anyone.
Firstly, though, consider the following scenario: International terrorists have a secret base in say New Zealand or Papua New Guinea (Australia's closest neighbours and traditional allies) where weapons of mass destruction were being targeted directly at an Australian city, thereby directly threatening hundreds of thousands of lives.Possibility
Consider also the possibility that authorities knew that those weapons were about to be launched, what should an Australian Prime Minister do? It is fair to say that most people would consider it a grave dereliction of the duty for any Australian Prime Minister not to use whatever means at his disposal to prevent that event occuring.
Which is exactly what Howard said during his recent interview. Asked if he knew JI (Jemaah Islamiyah) people in a neighbouring country were planning an attack on Australia, would he prepared to act, Howard replied:
"Oh yes, I think any Australian Prime Minister would. I mean, it stands to reason that if you believed that somebody was going to launch an attack against your country, either of a conventional kind or a terrorist kind, and you had a capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity then of course you would have to use it."
Howard went on to say that there was now a new reality of non-state terrorism which had rewritten the rule books as far as defence and international law were concerned.
"Any Prime Minister who had the capacity to prevent an attack against his country would be failing the most basic test of office if he didn't utilise that capacity if there's no other alternative."
The comments sparked a predictable furore in the region, and in the Australian media, and dismay from various commentators who have accused Howard of inflammatory language and ramping up his "anti-Asian" rhetoric again (sic).
Greens leader Bob Brown described Howard's comments as "inherently threatening", while Labor's Foreign Affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said Asian neighbours would regard the comments as "unfriendly".
Other commentators, including defence academics Anthony Bergin and Hugh Smith, described Howard's words as giving the appearance of "aggressiveness" and "a willingness to push the boundaries of international law to suit Australia's interests (and those of the US)".
"It suggests Australia is looking to use force other than as an absolute last resort," the pair wrote in The Australian
Opposition Leader Simon Crean was predictably all over the place and refused to say what he would do in a similar situation. "The last thing I would be doing at the moment is talking about pre-emptive strikes. The Prime Minister only ever wants to talk about war. I want to talk about peace."
One newspaper reported after Howard's controversial comments: Australia couldn't launch a pre-emptive strike against Christmas Island. Australia has recently recalled its Special Forces troops from Afghanistan in light of the increased danger closer to home at the Bali bombings, but our over-reliance on this small force of crack troops is one worrying sign among many.
It is true that Federal and state governments appear to be finally getting serious about building up Australia's police, security and intelligence organisations, although it also appears they are still going to remain uncoordinated and lacking the necessary cohesive over-arching national body.
Yet defence is still in a serious financial and administrative mess, six years after Howard came to power and after six years of solitary protection from budgetary cutbacks.
Far from worrying about Australia's macho aggressive foreign affairs policy, Asian leaders know the truth about Australia: that it had spent the last 30 years running down its defences, making it more vulnerable than at any time since World War II.
Simon Crean should be concentrating his time on defence issues and building Labor's credentials on defence policy.
If there should be a pre-emptive strike anywhere, it should be against the Department of Defence.