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Australian Prime Minister backs ‘pre-emptive strike’ doctrine (english)
04 Jan 2003
Australian Prime Minister backs ‘pre-emptive strike’ doctrine as civil rights recede in face of Terror threat.
Australian Prime Minister backs ‘pre-emptive strike’ doctrine as civil rights recede in face of Terror threat.
Australian Prime Minister backs ‘pre-emptive strike’ doctrine as civil rights recede in face of Terror threat.

This article can also be found at 'Shout Monthly'

- Your source for international news and analysis

The author would be interested in expressions of interest from anyone interested in republishing this or any other article he has written. He can be contacted at: tristane (at)

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has recently sent the South East Asian region into turmoil, publicly backing a ‘pre-emptive strike’ policy that, theoretically, could see pre-emptive action by Australian forces against ‘terrorist cells’ in neighbouring sovereign nations. Referred to in last month’s ‘Shout! Monthly’ Editorial, this article examines the question in greater depth, probing deeply for the motivations behind the Prime Minister’s statements.

Interviewed on December 1st 2002, the Prime Minister responded to questioning concerning proposed changes to the UN charter so as to allow pre-emptive strikes in ‘self-defence’, and what possible action Australia might take if confronted with a real and credible terrorist threat. Specifically, John Howard responded that,

“…it stands to reason that if you believed that somebody was going to launch an attack against your country - either of a conventional kind or a terrorist kind - and you had a capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity then of course you would have to use it."

Elaborating, the Prime Minister went on to espouse a position in favour of ‘reforming’ the UN charter to allow pre-emptive ‘first strikes’ against terrorist targets without UN approval. Moving to justify his position, the Australian leader explained, "What you're getting is non-state terrorism which is just as devastating and potentially even more so."

Despite the Prime Minister’s qualification that pre-emptive action would only be used where “there was no alternative”, surely anyone even modestly schooled in the art of diplomacy could have foreseen the consequences of these statements.

The Malaysian Foreign Minister forecast that Howard’s comments would come up for discussion by alarmed member nations at the impending ASEAN meeting. Continuing, he argued that,

“As a nation in the Asia-Pacific, he should be more sensitive and not talk about breaching the rights and sovereignty of the regional countries….. He (Howard) was even talking about amending provisions under the UN charter. He has overstepped his boundary and he has even refused to budge from his position and retract his statement despite demands from his Asian neighbours.”

Certain regional papers went further, comparing Howard to Hitler and expressing extreme outrage, while the government of the Philippines questioned whether it would proceed with an anti-terrorism/security deal previously negotiated with the Australian government.
Kevin Rudd, the Foreign Affairs spokesman of the Australian Labor Opposition, meanwhile, was clear in his criticism of the Australian Prime Minister’s statements:

"I cannot understand how any government of this country could believe that as a nation of 19 million people on the fringe of a region of three billion people and with an economy slightly smaller than the Kingdom of the Netherlands, next door to the largest Islamic country in the world, that we think it's a smart thing for this country's long-term national security interest to make enemies with our neighbours."

The Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has spent the past weeks hosing down the fires of discontent amongst Australia’s Asian neighbours, but nothing, it appears, will repair the damage to Australia’s profile amongst the ordinary people of the region.

Why, then, did Howard speak out as he did? Certainly, the Australian Prime Minister is no political novice. As he has insisted himself, he has a penchant for choosing his words deliberately and precisely.

The answer, in part, lies in the domestic populism of the conservative Australian government. Buoyed by security fears, and a public backlash against refugees, the Australian Prime Minister has enjoyed an exceptional period of popularity, as evidenced by all major polls, which place him well ahead of the struggling Labor Opposition. By playing to public fears: over refugees, ‘border security’, terrorism and other related concerns, the conservative Australian government has driven a wedge between elements of the opposition Labor Party’s left liberal and working class support bases.

Meanwhile, the Labor Opposition itself, succumbing in no small part to the prevalent populism to minimise its electoral losses, has faced defections from its intellectual base, with voters in the Australian inner suburbs defecting to the left-wing Greens in unprecedented numbers. Australian governments at all levels, now, Labor and Liberal (ie: conservative), are moving to implement an array of new security laws, enabling police and security agencies with unprecedented powers to search, monitor, incarcerate or interrogate suspects. In the populous Australian state of New South Wales, new and hastily rushed laws passed by the state Labor government now allow police break-ins, strip-searches of individuals as young as ten, and arrests without judicial warrant in cases which, according to the police, involve terrorism.

Simultaneously, at a Federal level, the conservative government is moving to beef up the powers of Australia’s domestic spy agency, ASIO. The government’s original, unammended proposals, call for a raft of new powers under which ASIO would be empowered to detain and question people for as long as seven days, even where there is no case for suspecting involvement in any criminal activity. Furthermore, provisions intend to allow the detention and interrogation of minors aged between 14 and 18 without charge or access to a lawyer.
( and,5936,5662750%25) These provisions, however, have met with opposition in the Australian Federal Upper House, where Labor and minor Left parties have united in an effort to secure ammendments despite attempts by the conservative government to label opposition parties as ‘weak on security’. The contradiction between Labor’s behaviour at a Federal level, and at a State level in New South Wales, is palpable.

John Howard’s statements concerning possible pre-emptive action against ‘terrorist targets’ in the South East Asian region play into and exacerbate the already acute atmosphere of tension and fear which has permeated Australian society since September 11th, and even more so since the terrorist atrocity in Bali which claimed almost one hundred Australian lives. In doing so, the Australian Prime Minister has helped to foster those conditions under which the aforementioned far-reaching security measures might be implemented, brushing aside the concerns of civil libertarians, and threatening to isolate all opposition elements which attempt to secure amendments. Furthermore, he has secured his own domestic electoral position, playing to the public’s fears, and appearing to take a ‘strong stand’ on issues of security.

The Australian Prime Minister’s statements have, however, been made with more expansive intentions in mind also: those of building support for the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. By giving credence to the idea of ‘pre-emption’ in the current, security conscious environment, John Howard has lent significant weight to efforts by the Bush government to justify such a policy in relation to war in Iraq: and potentially unlimited military action elsewhere in the globe. Indeed, ‘pre-emption’ is hardly a policy without precedent, as evidenced by the 1981 Israeli bombing of Iraq’s Tammuz#1 nuclear reactor - in fact aimed at securing Israel’s own nuclear monopoly, without the restraint of any mutual deterrence. Where crucial long-term strategic interests are concerned, therefore, the powerful have only ever had to pay lip-service to the idea of ‘international law.’ Now, however, the US and, apparently, the Australian government, are seeking to resolve this contradiction by removing the (theoretical) constraints provided under the UN Chater..

According to the Howard ‘Liberal’ (read: conservative) government, Australian national security is inseparable from global US military, economic and cultural hegemony, including throughout Australia’s own South-East Asian region. Unchallenged by any significant ‘rival’, including China whose military, economic and cultural clout is dwarfed by the U.S, the conservative Bush government has been at the forefront of popularising such terms as ‘rogue states’, which dovetail nicely with rhetoric of an ‘Axis of Evil’. Forever the ‘loyal deputy’, Howard has moved to break down opposition to the unrestrained exercise of US hegemonic power, in ‘mopping up’ the remaining pockets of resistance which have persisted since the break up of the Soviet Union. Clearly, when Bush and Howard speak of ‘peace’, they refer to a modern day ‘Pax Romanus’: where peace is secured only by total and unquestioned military, economic and cultural domination.

Perhaps the most questionable aspect of the ‘pre-emptive doctrine’ of Bush and Howard is its extreme selectivity. There is an argument to be made that nation-states have the right to take action in self-defence where other states deliberately foster, or otherwise allow, terrorist groups to organise and plan atrocities against them. Such acts are, after all, acts of aggression: one might even say, of war. If one is to hold to such a position, however, one needs to ask, ‘what comes first: the chicken or the egg?’. What, after all, are we to make of the long history of US-sponsored covert operations: in Latin America, South East Asia and throughout the entire globe? What, after all, are we to make of the logistical support of the CIA for the 1965-1966 coup and massacres in Indonesia, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives?
What are we to make of US covert operations and support for repressive and terroristic regimes throughout Latin America, including Gautemala, Nicaragua, and in Chile where the CIA helped to precipitate and then support the Pinochet coup, leading to massacres, ‘disappearances’ and a long and bloody reign of terror?
What are we to make of the deliberate destruction of basic Iraqi civilian infrastructure, including water purification plants, which led to rampant disease and the deaths of tens of thousands?

As Jason Mills, an Australian citizen, wrote in a letter to ‘The Australian’ newspaper,

“If Mr Howard is comfortable attacking those he considers a "threat" to Australian interests, on foreign territory, would he reciprocate and allow foreign powers to attack similar "threats" if detected in Australia?” (,5744,5596927%25)

The Australian Prime Minister himself has recognized that state terror exists as surely as does non-state terror. In a world aflame, therefore, it is sometimes difficult to tell ‘who is pre-empting who’. The underlying logic of Bush’s position, therefore, is less ‘self-defence’ than, say, ‘might is right’. The U.S will continue to pre-emptively crush resistance to its global hegemony through ongoing covert operations or otherwise through overwhelming military force. The doctrine of ‘pre-emption’ is, indeed, about defending US national security, including the actual physical security of its citizens, but it is also about establishing a blatant double standard to which, thanks to an ongoing campaign of disinformation, most Australian and US citizens remain blind.

In conclusion, it must be stated that the terrorist threat to Australian targets is real and imminent, as evidenced by the Bali atrocity. While Australia’s effective commitment to supporting global US hegemony, if necessary by military force, must be questioned, this does not annul in any way the responsibility of all sections of Australian government, including opposition forces, in protecting the actual physical security of their citizens. Even still, however, preventative measures must be measured against the very liberties they (theoretically) aim to preserve. And while the Australian government cannot bow before the threat of terror, it ought nevertheless also weigh its commitment to US hegemonic power against far ranging moral criteria, including the role of existing international law. While John Howard has bolstered attempts by the Bush administration to rationalize a doctrine of ‘pre-emption’, and opportunistically buoyed his domestic electoral fortunes, however, he may yet live to regret the seeds of resentment and distrust he has sown throughout the South East Asian region. In playing the role of ‘loyal deputy’ to US hegemonism, the Australian Prime Minister may well prove to have done more to undermine his country’s national security than any other Australian political leader in living memory.

Tristan Ewins,

Dec, 2002

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