Tuesday 2 August 2011

Gathering on the frontier: racism and Australia's alliance/s with the US and Israel

As I foreshadowed in an earlier blog, the Australian American Leadership Dialogue (AALD) s meeting in Perth this month. The climax will be a Gala Dinner on August 13, co-convened by mining magnate and AALD member Hugh Morgan, and attended by both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Perth is an appropriate setting for this secretive, “private” talk-fest, reinforcing the alliance between two nations whose dominant foreign policy ideologies have been shaped by their histories as colonial settler societies. Perth is at the centre of Australia’s current new frontier mineral boom, with a new round of the dividing of indigenous inhabitants, buying off some and marginalising others - as the battles over the James Price Point gas hub, and with Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group, illustrate. This sense of a go-ahead booming Australian economy at odds with the natural environment and an inconvenient indigenous past also has another frontier dimension, the fear of foreign (asylum-seeker) invasion, primarily directed at the north-western coastline.
There is a resonance here in the coming together of these two allies, whose dominant national identities and ideologies have been shaped by the frontier experience, with a recent analysis of the same kind of synchronicity between the US and Israel. Wring for Al Jazeera in May, Cambridge academic Tarak Barkawi described US support for Israel, including an implicit support for the Israeli settlers in the “Wild West Bank” as “their own preferred reflection of themselves”. Americans, he argues:
See a lone, devout and free people on the edge of a vast continent full of dusky, hostile natives. Like the European colonists who settled North America, the destiny of this free people is to build a “city on the hill” on virgin land, a beacon of freedom and civilisation in a tragic world
This bond he argued was sealed by the events of 9/11.Both societies see themselves as embattled and united against the savagery of terrorism.
This kind of analysis can also be applied to the US-Australia alliance and the emerging, triangulated relationship between the two countries and Israel. In Australia’s case this has also been sealed in the post 9/11 world with john Howard’s backing of the US war on terror, a position essentially continued by the Labor Government. Gillard in particular has taken this forward in the unashamed prejudice in favour of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. A bi-partisan (Labor and Coalition) position on this was re-enforced in the first week of the new Senate with the government and opposition uniting to declare Israel a “good friend” of Australia while explicitly rejecting a proposal to accord the same status to the Palestinian people.
This episode is merely the latest expression of an evolving Australia-US alliance, now more emphatically linked to Israel, which has its foundations in racism.
Empire and Race.
Australia’s alliance with the US didn’t begin with World War II or the post-war ANZUS Treaty but in a crisis of confidence in the British Empire linked to race. Britain’s desire to enter into an alliance with Japan in the Pacific before World War I raised fears in Australia that in order for Britain to appease Japan, the White Australia policy would come under pressure. Hence Prime Minister Alfred Deakin’s invitation, behind London’s back, to President Theodore Roosevelt to include Australia in the tour of the Great White Fleet in 1908. The fleet was a floating double entendre: so-named because the ships were painted white but also clearly understood as a projection of US white power in the Pacific. This was in the face of an emerging Japan, and Roosevelt’s own problems in dealing with anti-Japanese immigrant sentiment on the US west coast, and the more generalised home-grown racism in the era of the entrenching of Jim Crow.
World War I saw Australia re-cement its relationship to the British Empire as its principal protector, but when Australia turned again to the US after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour and Singapore, General Douglas MacArthur publicly affirmed a “consanguinity of race” between the two countries. This was moderated by US realism in terms of its national interest, which held back from the establishment of a permanent US-Australia alliance until the Korean War when the US agreed to ANZUS as an inducement to Australia to agree to the peace treaty with the new US ally, Japan. The conservative Menzies government was during this time, motivated by an ideological fear of communism melded with the traditional Australian racial fear of Asia, and sought to balance its new American friend with the old empire loyalties to the British.
It was the Vietnam War, which marks the beginning of the “real” alliance with the US. Australian fear of the Red and Yellow Perils from the north melded with racist US assumptions about Vietnamese “gooks”, “dinks” and “slopes”, linked to the home-grown racism on display in America in the death throes of Southern segregation and the challenge of the civil rights movement. The extraordinary military holocaust visited on the people of Indochina by the US and its allies could only be justified by a view of the lives Vietnamese as worth considerably less than those of Westerners, building on the old imperial views of Asian peoples as inferior.
From Saigon to Tahrir Square
America’s defeat in Vietnam, and the successes of the civil rights movement at home saw the focus of US imperial racism shift in the 1970s, courtesy of the 1973 Israel-Arab war, the 1979 Iranian revolution, and the impacts on the west of the resultant oil shocks. Attention now turned to the troublesome “sand niggers” and “towel heads” and what followed were decades of US foreign policy manipulations, favouring the state of Israel and confounding the politics of Middle-Eastern and Central/South Asian states. This included the US backing Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s before turning on Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It included Ronald Reagan’s backing of the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, helping lay the groundwork for the development of al-Qa’eda and the Taliban. And it included the carrying out classic divide and rule policies among the Arab states, aligning itself with authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others. What also followed from the 1970s was a continued, conflated, orientalist view of peoples from Middle-Eastern/South-Asian/Islamic backgrounds in US popular culture. Hollywood was happy to play along with its crude characterisations, particularly of Arabic peoples. The movie The Hurt Locker was a recent and egregious example of this, with Iraqi Arabs portrayed as stupid, cruel and child-like, with its central, telling, paternalistic relationship between an American, bomb-disposal, soldier-adult, and Iraqi-Arab child.
Australia bought in to this racial construction by falling behind the US in the first Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s, followed up by participation in the ongoing military blockade of post-war Iraq which, along with Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, immiserated the Iraqi people, taking the lives of thousands. This softening up laid the groundwork for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. And of course Australia has fallen in to line behind the US in its disastrous Afghanistan war. Australia’s commitment is based on orientalist views of the Afghan people as needing to be tutored in democracy and civilisation by outsiders. This racial construction is further reinforced by the asylum seeker “threat” from “dusky hostile natives” from countries including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan; countries that have been on the receiving end of US (and Australian) foreign and military policies.
All this carried over into Australian governments’ backing of the US-Israel relationship, and a strengthening of direct relationships between Australia and Israel. Prime Ministers Bob Hawke, John Howard and Julia Gillard have been unashamedly pro-Israel. As with the Vietnamese at the time of the Vietnam War, this basically boils down to a view that an Israeli life is worth more than that of a Palestinian. Gillard underscored this view in her official response as Acting Prime Minister to the Israeli invasion of Gaza in early 2009. It was further underscored by the Australian government’s opposition to adoption of the UN Goldstone report on the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the recent bi-partisan Senate vote mentioned above. These developments in an Australia-US-Israel triangulation since the 1990s have been marked by the parallel development and strengthening of the secretive, “backdoor” diplomatic forums underpinning this triangulated alliance structure: the Australian American Leadership Dialogue and its offshoot, the Australia Israel Leadership Forum,
This then is the background to the meeting of the AALD in Perth. But it comes at a time of revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East and North Africa, associated with the growing support for Palestinians through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and the moves for the UN to recognise a Palestinian state. The potential threat of these movements is profound. The US defeat in Vietnam shattered the assumptions of Western (and specifically US) military and cultural superiority. The shift in focus to the Middle East and South Asia in the aftermath of Vietnam was in many respects an attempt by the US to restore that superiority. The Arab Spring, and the political and military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan again challenges this superiority and the racist and orientalist assumptions underpinning it, and places the colonial, settler cultures of the US, Israel and Australia under existential strain.
So in Perth on August 13, as the AALD dinner guests gather, there will be a great degree of backslapping, and self congratulation, not least among the coterie of hand-picked, mainstream media hacks in attendance. But there will be a little nervousness in the laughter, and the wagons on the frontier will be circled a little tighter.