22 June 2004

Fighting a War in Name Only

With the third anniversary of the war on terror fast approaching, the administration has not expanded the armed forces and apparently has no plans to do so. It categorically rejects proposals to revive the draft. It has left untouched the rituals of consumption deemed essential to the American economy. It has studiously refrained from curtailing corporate profits or prerogatives. Old-timers will recall when big wars meant rationing and higher taxes. Not this time. Through deficit spending, we will slough off the cost of war onto future generations.

Thus, for most Americans, the global war on terror has become a little like global warming: We sense dimly that we ought to take it seriously, but in practice we go about our daily routine as if it didn't exist.

Pass through a major airport, visit a mall, shop for a new car and look for signs that this nation is engaged in anything approximating a great struggle. There are none.

Which suits Bush just fine. Real wars -- those that engage the passions of the American people -- energize politics and subvert the established order. Change is the last thing this administration wants. For despite the high-sounding talk, the overriding aim of this war is not to march toward freedom but to dissuade Americans from peering too deeply at the events of 9/11. Were they to do so, they just might pose discomfiting questions about the competence of our leaders, the organization and purposes of government and the rationale of U.S. foreign policy.

The contrast with World War II is instructive. To fight that war Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized the nation. The result was decisive victory. But with victory came other, largely unanticipated consequences. Roosevelt's crusade to liberate enslaved nations raised questions about the meaning of freedom at home. As such, it gave impetus to the embryonic civil rights movement. It undermined old notions of a woman's 'place.' It affirmed workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively. It extinguished old forms of religious bigotry. It created a new class of politically aware and upwardly mobile citizens -- 16 million returning veterans.

Australia is in the same boat. In fact, the Man of Steel announced we had withdrawn from Iraq and were not an occupying power, until Labor said it would withdraw the remaining troops. The Australian presence then suddenly became the central pillar in the occupation of Iraq.

The truth is that Australia never withdrew. We reduced the ADF Iraq commitment from (roughly) 1800 to 850. Essentially we pulled out the SAS. Labor will not withdraw the troops in any real sense and very little apart from symbolism separates the major parties. In Australia, as in the US, the War on Terror and the War in Iraq are being fought with press releases aimed at domestic opinion.

The 'debate; about the US alliance grossly exaggerates the positions of Australia's major parties and also grossly exaggerates the threat to the alliance. Neither party opposes the alliance. Neither party is going to threaten the US bases -- Pine Gap and North West Cape -- we already host. Pine Gap will have crucial role in missile defence. It's unlikely a Labor Government would even refuse the US plans for bases in northern Australia. Equally the US is unlikely to strain the alliance to a point where the existing bases come under question.

Alliances are always a two-way street, under Labor governments as much as Coalition governments.

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