So Australia’s Labor Party prime minister, the Chinese-speaking Kevin Rudd, has promised Australia will stay the course with the United States in Afghanistan right to the very end. That’s interesting. Canberra once also promised the U.S. it would stay in the Vietnam war till the very end. “All the way with LBJ (then U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson)” was the slogan, and we all saw what happened there. Afghanistan will probably go the same way, even if our military/intelligence experts say otherwise.
But first some personal experiences. Back in 1959, I was to precede Rudd as the first postwar Australian diplomat to be sent to Asia to learn Chinese. En route I took a bus across the Mekong delta to Saigon; Canberra’s intelligence experts had told me that the area was safe from communist “bandits.” Yet my bus was the last to cross the delta; almost the entire area already was under the Viet Cong control. And the Vietnam war had not even started. It was my first lesson in how our experts get it wrong in Asia.
The next lesson came a few years later during a Moscow posting. I had met with famous Australian correspondent Wilfred Burchett, who had virtually been expelled from Australia as a “traitor,” partly because his highly accurate reports on Asia based on procommunist sources conflicted with the far less accurate reports by rival journalists relying on Western intelligence sources.
Burchett had just returned from a visit to the procommunist controlled areas of South Vietnam, bringing back the photos that proved that those “bandits” — the Viet Cong — were in fact a trained, dedicated force. He said they had even been able to take him all the way to a procommunist village at the very edge of the Saigon military airport.
Australian and U.S. intelligence experts pooh-poohed the report, claiming there was no way the Viet Cong could be near the airport area. Shortly after, rockets fired from that village landed on the military airport.
It has been the same over Afghanistan. Our military/intelligence experts simply do not know what is happening there. Few know the country; even fewer the language. There, as in Vietnam, Australia will almost certainly be sucked into a quagmire.
Why has the intelligent and moderately progressive Rudd allowed himself, like U.S. President Barack Obama, to be dragged into this disaster waiting to emerge? In Australia’s case the problem begins with yet another disaster created by our Western military/intelligence hawks — the 1965 massacre of over half a million leftwing and progressive Indonesians.
At the time Canberra’s hawks thought that it was a great idea, claiming it improved “security.” In fact, it created the ideological vacuum now being filled by Islamist extremists who already have targeted Australians in Indonesia for attack. Australia’s fear of future Islamist threats from Asia is now on a par with U.S. al-Qaida fears. Hence the decision to get involved in Afghanistan.
Another reason is the ease with which progressive politicians, including even Obama it seems, are seduced by the military/intelligence hawks around them. I worked for a time as policy adviser to another Labor Party administration in Canberra — the Whitlam government of the early 1970s, which also came to power promising radical and progressive change.
But it, too, was soon to be slave to the bad advice from its military/intelligence hawks — that it should support the U.S. puppet Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, that it should permit and even assist the ruthless Indonesian takeover of East Timor, that it should avoid quick relations with the new Hanoi regime, and so on.
They even managed to persuade Gough Whitlam and the people around him to reject the treaty of friendship and cooperation Whitlam had wanted so badly with Japan, claiming Tokyo would use it to try to dominate the Australian economy. (It was left to the subsequent and conservative Fraser administration to conclude the treaty. So far there are no reports of Australia being dominated.)
We see the same thing over Afghanistan. The “lie and deny” machines of the military hawks operating out of the Pentagon tell us that all goes well there, that its military does not torture or kill civilians, that it is cooperating closely with the Kabul administration to end to corruption, that just a few more thousand troops and a coalition of the willing will solve all problems.
Then as the rot spreads — to Cambodia and Laos in the case of Vietnam; to Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan — we are told how it will be checked by bombings: B-52s in Cambodia and Laos, drones in Afghanistan.
And when the ruthless bombing produces the inevitable reaction — the Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia and the increasing Taliban influence in Pakistan — we will no doubt be told how maybe it did not matter in the first place. After all, the U.S. was later able to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government in Cambodia. Washington once hailed the Taliban as freedom fighters and recognized them as the legitimate government in Afghanistan. In foreign affairs the “experts” can say and do what they like. People will believe them anyway.
Canberra’s hawks used to say China was responsible for the Vietnam War, as “the first step” in its push toward Australia! As a result Australia was alone among the Western nations in refusing to join in the 1971 pingpong diplomacy opening to China (it was left to me then a news correspondent in Tokyo to organize a team).
Later Canberra was to switch 180 degrees to embrace Beijing, as China’s resource purchases came virtually to sustain the Australian economy. Under Rudd it has moved even closer. But now Rudd is under severe attack from Australia’s still viscerally anti-China rightwing, some of whom condemn him as Beijing’s running dog.
One thing you can say about us Australians — we never do anything in half-measures. It is always one extreme or the other. Sadly, common sense and humanity easily get crushed in the process.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and policy consultant in Canberra’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.