Australia’s Foreign Policy: Time for a Rethink

56462222On Hiroshima Day this year the recently retired Director-General of Australia’s premier spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), Mr David Irvine, addressed a meeting organized by the Griffith University (Brisbane) Asia Institute. The talk was billed as a reflection on Mr Irvine’s 45 years in the public service and on the basis of that experience how he perceived the future.

With his considerable foreign policy background as a senior diplomat prior to heading up ASIO, and freed from many of the constraints of government service, it could have been an opportunity for a frank analysis of Australia’s foreign policy, past and future.

Instead, Mr Irvine’s analysis, while erudite and informed, demonstrated the huge disconnect between the government/public service view of the Asia Pacific region and the realities of the geo-politics in the Asia Pacific region in the post World War 2 era. Three of the topics canvassed by Mr Irvine illustrate this point clearly and I will discuss each of them briefly.

Mr Irvine asserted that the United States, notwithstanding what he obliquely acknowledged as some of the perils of great power hubris in a unipolar world, had been the major guarantor of ‘peace and stability’ in the Asia-Pacific region since 1945.

That claim does not withstand scrutiny. The fallacy of the argument may be seen for example in the US’s attitude to China in the past 70 years.

When the revolutionary government of Mao Tse Tong took power in China in 1949, the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai Shek fled to what was then called Formosa, a Chinese island off the coast of the Chinese mainland.

Chiang was able to maintain the fiction that he represented China because the American Navy patrolled the strait between Formosa and China. The then naval superiority of the US prevented the final overthrow of the Chiang dictatorship.

Over the succeeding 23 years the Formosa Strait was one of the most volatile and potentially dangerous areas in the world. This military support for the Chiang dictatorship was matched by political support, with the Republic of China, as the Formosa regime became known, holding China’s permanent Security Council seat. This manifest absurdity, loyally supported by Australia, was not rectified until the dying days of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. When the Australian Opposition leader Gough Whitlam went to China in 1972 to explore normalization of Australia’s relationship to the People’s Republic in the event that Labor won the 1972 election, he was attacked by then Prime Minister William McMahon for his “disloyalty” to the American position. McMahon was unaware that at the time of his attack on Whitlam, Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was also secretly visiting China aiming to normalize relationships. The Americans had clearly not thought fit to advise their closest ally in the Asia Pacific region of the fundamental shift in their foreign policy.

A second illustration that casts serious doubt on the “peace and security” hypothesis advanced by Mr Irvine was the 1954 Geneva Accords, which concluded the long battle of the Vietnamese people to achieve independence from their French colonial masters. The Accords provided for the holding of a national election in Vietnam, which would in the ordinary course of events, have lead to a national government of Vietnam. The Americans refused to allow the holding of the election in the southern part of the country, no doubt because the Northern leader Ho Chi Minh would almost certainly have won. The country was therefore divided into a North and South section, in a manner identical to the post war division of Korea and for the same reasons: maintaining an American foothold in the region and opposing the spread of “communism”.

From 1954 to 1975 the Americans supported a succession of dictatorial regimes in the South. A build-up of US military “advisers” in the South had begun under Eisenhower. When his successor President Kennedy signed a National Security Action Memorandum in 1963 providing for the withdrawal of US troops after the 1964 Presidential election, he undoubtedly contributed to the reasons for his assassination in November of that year. The architects of that assassination were the same military-industrial-intelligence-financial forces that are the effective arbiters of US foreign policy, then as now.

Immediately after Kennedy’s assassination President Johnson rescinded the order for the withdrawal of US troops. In 1964 the wholly manufactured Gulf of Tonkin incident gave Johnson the excuse to wage all out war on the North of Vietnam. That was to cost over two million Vietnamese lives, destroyed Vietnamese infrastructure, and left a lasting ecological disaster from the use of Agent Orange and other toxic substances. Among the many atrocities was the large-scale assassination program carried out in the South under the codename Operation Phoenix under which at least 40,000 suspected opponents of the southern regime were murdered.

The Australian government enthusiastically supported that war and made a significant contribution with troops and other forms of military assistance. Former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt infamously proclaimed “all the way with LBJ”, a perfect encapsulation of Australian subservience to US foreign policy. Quite how that war was a “major contribution to peace and stability” is elusive. The devastation was wrought not only on Vietnam, but also Laos and Cambodia, the latter two countries never officially part of the war, but that was insufficient to protect them from being bombed to a greater extent than suffered by Europe in World War 2.

In 2001 following the events of 11 September of that year, the United States, again with the enthusiastic support of its Australian ally, invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly because the Taliban government of Afghanistan was sheltering Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

That war and occupation continue to the present day. The huge lie upon which it was based has never been part of the official Australian discourse. The official justification for Australia’s involvement has morphed from ‘combatting terrorism’ to ‘bringing democracy and human rights’ to Afghanistan, to a sheepish withdrawal claiming ‘mission accomplished’ when the reality on the ground demonstrates that is at best a delusion.

With the death of bin Laden, most likely from natural causes in late 2001, even the flimsy excuse provided by that former CIA asset for the invasion disappeared. The real reasons for the Afghanistan invasion and occupation have never formed part of the official Australian foreign policy discourse. They have a great deal to do with Afghanistan’s crucial geographical location viz a viz the Caspian oil and gas resources. We now know for example that the decision to invade Afghanistan was made in July 2001 when the Taliban government awarded a critical pipeline deal to the Argentinian company Bridas, a contract immediately cancelled by the US after the invasion.

Afghanistan is also a convenient staging post for Operation Cyclone, a program commenced in the 1980s using Pakistani training camps and Saudi money. With the assistance of bin Laden, a Saudi fundamentalist whose family had close ties with the Bush family in the US, the program trained Islamist insurgents for infiltration into the Muslim majority republics of the then Soviet Union surrounding the Caspian Sea and into the Muslim population areas of western China. The aim then, as now, was to foment destabilization in those areas as a means of promoting “regime change” among governments unwilling to accept US hegemony.

Today, Russia and China are prime targets of destabilization and “containment”, another euphemism for preventing any challenge to US hegemony. A map of US military bases on the Russian and Chinese peripheries emphasizes the point.

Afghanistan also produces 93% of the world’s heroin, the production of which has flourished under American occupation. As Peter Dale Scott, Alfred McCoy and others have amply demonstrated, heroin sales are a major source of funding for clandestine US operations throughout the world. Mr Irvine made no mention of any of this in his presentation, and indeed the subject of US involvement in the international drug trade is a non-topic as far as the Australian media are concerned. Given the enormous damage that heroin does to individual lives again it is difficult to reconcile drug trafficking on a major scale with the maintenance of ‘peace and security’ in the region.

Mr Irvine did however refer to the tragedy of large-scale refugee problems. Again, the disconnect between cause and effect was apparent. The largest flows of refugee migration in recent years, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of their populations, include the following: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Syria. Yemen is likely to join that benighted list sooner rather than later.

Their common denominator has been that they are the victims of US aggression, whether through bombings, invasions, occupation or general destabilization. It is little wonder that millions of their people have fled; often taking extraordinary risks to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. A comparative handful of this massive flow has endeavoured to make landfall in Australia. As a comparison, more refugees have landed in Italy and Greece (180,000) from North Africa and the Middle East this year alone than have reached Australia in total in the past twenty years.

Mr Irvine rightly deplored the problems created by uncontrolled refugee flows, but again failed to address one of the major root causes: the very same policies that he says were the major contribution to ‘peace and stability’ in the Asia Pacific region since World War 2. Again, there is complete resistance to the idea that notions of cause and effect should be debated in this context.

These same policies are closely linked to the scourge of international terrorism, another of Mr Irvine’s themes. The drumbeat of fear over terrorism has contributed handsomely to the ASIO budget in recent years. It is less than surprising that people might react to the invasion and destruction of their countries by retaliating through asymmetrical warfare. But that is only part of the equation and the only part that is tacitly acknowledged in Australian foreign policy discourse. (Not that it has lead to any dissent from the US policies that are responsible for a large part of the problem in the first place).

The other part of the equation that is entirely missing from the national dialogue is the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. There is a well-documented history of the US creating, fomenting, supporting and otherwise utilizing terrorism for its own policy ends. ISIS is only the latest manifestation of this policy. The original Gladio operations were European based, but the aforementioned Operation Cyclone and the current Gladio B operations throughout Asia are in the same tradition.

In short, it is insufficient, as Mr Irvine did, to refer to the problems without acknowledging western culpability, including Australia, in the creation and continuation of these problems. The dirty secret is that we are largely responsible for the very behavior that our political leaders condemn.

Rather than characterizing the US as the guarantor of ‘peace and security’ in the Asia Pacific region, a much more realistic view would be one that is encapsulated in the late Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s book, aptly titled ‘Dangerous Allies.’

The imperatives of the 21st century demand a more sophisticated, subtle and nuanced foreign policy for Australia. Being the ‘Deputy Sheriff’ to the US in the Asia Pacific is not a policy designed to advance Australia’s long-term vital interests. The shedding of illusions and false narratives would be a very good place to start.

James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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