February 9th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Water - Australia's most urgent priority

Canberra Observed: Simon Crean faces a horrible year ahead

South Australia: Close contest looms in SA Election

A tale of two legacies

Straws in the Wind: Old crooks and new / Paying the piper

East Timor: Opposition warns of Fretilin power grab

MEDIA: ABC TV 'Media Watch' - Who polices the police?

Letters: Public servants defended

Letters: Population: asset or disaster?

Letters: Harris Scarfe retailing business

DEVELOPMENT: Privatisation and the national debt: what is to be done?

Comment: Terrorism, refugees and the the populist resurgence

The new Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh and The Colonel

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Comment: Terrorism, refugees and the the populist resurgence

by Bob Browning

News Weekly, February 9, 2002

The rise of right-of-centre parties campaigning with an eye to populist sentiments has been a feature of the opening of the 21st century.

In Europe, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, and Ireland have all turned right of centre. To various degrees, European coalition governments have accommodated right wing populist parties to gain electoral assistance. In most cases, as the New Statesman recently noted this included "adopting harder lines on immigration" (January 21, 2002).

  • In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition includes the formerly fascist National Alliance and the anti-immigrant Northern League as its first and second partners respectively.
  • In Austria, Wolfgang Schuessel’s centre-right People’s Party has Jorg Haider’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party as its major coalition partner. Haider’s party holds the Vice-Chancellorship and the portfolios of justice, finance, defence, infrastructure and social affairs.
  • In Norway, the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives depends on the support of the 26 deputies of the far-right Progress Party. The Progress Party, Norway’ second-largest party, is hostile to multiculturalism, wants immigration restricted and refugees repatriated.
  • In Denmark, the Conservative-Liberal coalition of Anders Rasmussen relies on the support of 22 deputies of the Danish People’s Party, Denmark’s third-largest party. The Danish People’s Party campaigns to expose "welfare cheats" among immigrants.
  • In France, the centre-right President, Jacques Chirac, is expected to fight the next election emphasising immigration, security, and law and order. Since September 11, the National Front led by far right Jean-Marie le Pen has regained some of its political clout.
  • In Germany, polls give Edmund Stoiber’s centre-right CDU-CSU coalition which emphasises anti-immigrant views a strong chance of success in this year’s elections. Stiober’s coalition is currently running level with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s Social Democrats. But Schroder is also toughening his stance on immigration issues. He is opposing, for example, efforts to allow Turkish guest workers to take German citizenship. Turkish "guest workers" have resided in Germany for over two generations, many having been born in Germany.
  • In America, George Bush’s Republican administration last year defeated the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton by a controversial whisker. Post-September 11, however, Bush’s national approval shot up to unprecedented heights.
  • In Australia, John Howard’s Coalition Government won the 2001 elections campaigning strongly on refugee issues. Howard’s electoral tactic drew votes from the Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, dislocating its opposition over economic and rural policy.

As usual, a degree of American exceptionalism applies. The Bush Administration is pulled strongly by the Christian fundamentalist and the neo-liberal corporate right. It is not however anti-immigrant as such although post-September 11 security-orientated ethnic profiling of resident and visitor Muslims is being rigorously utilised.

Social democrats still hold power in Britain and centre-left liberals govern in Canada. Blair’s New Labour, however, is frequently accused of being more Thatcherite than the New Right conservatives he replaced.

Blair keeps in the forefront of US-led international efforts to extend neo-liberal economic policies globally. Since September 11, Blair, like Australia’s John Howard, has been one of the most unstinting supporters of the US-led war against terrorism. Some have accused Blair and Howard of overdoing the stance.

This criticism has sharpened with the reluctance of both the Blair and Howard governments to ask the United States to repatriate for trial in their own countries British and Australian citizens taken prisoner among the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan.

The widespread turn to the right is partly caused by and also accelerated by international terrorist and refugee-creating conflict in the Middle East. Following the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the recent unprecedented foreign terrorist attacks on the American homeland, the United States has become increasingly assertive - and unilateralist. Despite the waging of the war against terrorism being attributed to an international "coalition", it is clear that the United States superpower not merely leads but dominates.

For example, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld let it be known in no uncertain terms that any country that said it would not hand over prisoners taken in Afghanistan to the United States military would not be in a position to take any prisoners. (Some of the coalition "partners" said that if any of their troops in Afghanistan took prisoners in Afghanistan - or arrested suspect Al Qaeda terrorists at home they would not hand them over to a country such as America which practises the death penalty.

The Promethean exuberance of America after its military success in Afghanistan was unashamedly expressed in the New York Times by one of its leading columnists William Safire. Under the heading "That Dog Won’t Bark" (January 24, 2002) he wrote:

"What happened when the US, in defence of homeland, asserted its superpower and blasted terrorists and their religious-extremist allies in Afghanistan? The "street" in Cairo and Damascus did not erupt ... Thanks to America’s new assertivism, rulers in the Middle East now know they cannot encourage those in the streets to revile us publicly while those in the palaces rely on us privately... we have shown by our willingness to go it alone that we need not go it alone. Angered and injured, we turned resolute, and lo! anticipated opposition melted away".

Safire went on to boast that "diplomatic dogs are not barking all over the world". He attributed this "welcome silence" to a "grudging" worldwide assent" to the achievements of George Bush’s first year as President.

The resolution of the Bush team, he said, has shown the feared reaction of Islam worldwide to have been a "chimera" and "a cover for timidity by Western politicians that long resulted in appeasement and payoffs".

In Safire’s view, US assertiveness is having payoffs for the lone superpower in areas other than in the war against terrorism:

"In China, the Government let it be known that it had discovered 27 spying devices hidden in the lush interior of the Boeing 767 purchased from the US and intended for riding in high-style by the Communist boss Jiang Zemin. (Purchase price was $120 million; the sophisticated electronic bugs reportedly planted in the leather seat upholstery and headboard of his bed were presumably free.) ... And how did Beijing react? Not a peep ... with Bush, fresh from the Afghanistan victory, on his way to Beijing next month, China kept the spy story from its people and made no public protest.

"In Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has just closed down the only independent television station that dared criticise him, the US was warned a year ago that the expansion of NATO to its borders would be regarded as a hostile development. And yet the Baltic States are now on the march to membership. Not only has Russia not barked, its muzzled generals are not even growling ...

"Same with missile defence. Remember how Bush’s threatened "abrogation" of the ABM treaty was supposed to be met with a renewal of the Cold War? We have since withdrawn from the outdated treaty, and the open skies have not fallen.

"Putin ... is publicly accommodating himself to the American assertion of its national interest in missile defense."

Cautioned perhaps by the old adage that warns of pride before a fall, a few risk-taking US columnists have sought to temper the triumphalism of the Bush administration and its media cheer squads.

Thomas Friedman, one of America’s foremost journalists, following investigations that took him through Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe to test the current state of Muslim anti-Americanism (NYT, January 23, 2002) wrote:

"I somehow hoped that after the fall of the Taliban, or bin Laden’s confessional tapes, they [anti-American resentments] would have melted away. But they have not. Indeed, they have congealed into an iron curtain of misunderstanding separating America and the Arab-Muslim world, and are now as deeply held as they were on September 11 - even if people are slightly more reticent about airing them.

"And they add up to a simple point: that while America has won the war in Afghanistan, it has not won the hearts and minds of the Arab-Muslim world. The cultural-political-psychological chasm between us is wider than ever.

"And if you don’t believe that, ask any US Ambassador from Morocco to Islamabad - any one of them. They will share with you cocktail party chatter about the ‘American conspiracy’ against the Muslim world that will curl your ears".

Arab self-esteem is very low these days, Friedman says, because of the lagging state of Arab political systems and economies that feeds the free-floating anger that bin Laden has been surfing on.

"Finally, we have to admit that bin Laden touches something deep in the Arab-Muslim soul, even among those who condemn his murders.

"They still root for him as the one man who was not intimidated by America’s overweening power, as the one man who dared to tell certain Arab rulers that they had no clothes, and as the one man who did something about it."

  • Bob Browning

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