Terrorism, Bali and Iraq

After the initial shock and numbness produced by the October 12 atrocity in Bali the response in the Australian community of outrage will develop into anger. This anger will be directed at terrorists wherever they are, and will inevitably affect both Australia's domestic and international policies. It certainly will not be a response of terror and timidity, nor will it lead to a huge movement to have Australia draw back from its support for the United States in its war against terrorism and the related pressure on Saddam Hussein to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Naturally there will be political fallout. Already we are seeing the initial response from the same kind of people who blamed the US itself for the attack on it last year, that Australians are receiving condign punishment for the Australian government's support of the US and its threat of war against Iraq. This is a totally contemptible approach, which implies that we should indeed cringe before threats of terrorism. As with the events of last year, the reaction of the majority of the Australian people will be quite different. John Howard is likely to emerge from the Bali bombing yet further enhanced in stature and public support. He will need all his political skills to manage the public anger at the deaths of so many innocent Australian tourists. It is unlikely that this will lead to further hostility to Muslims in Australia, although inevitably suspicions will be aired. Unless there is an atrocity at home such hostility can be kept in check. More difficult will be handling the probable emergence of a war party, both on his own side and in the electorate. His degree of support for the US has so far been carefully controlled, and must remain so  not because the Americans are wrong, but because it would be both useless and silly for Australia to become a marginal sabre-rattler.

Indonesia will have the greater problems. The first of these will be to handle the backlash in Bali. It has become almost a cliche for Australians to remark on the peacefulness of the Balinese. While there is great order and social control in daily life, this masks what is in fact a fairly bloodthirsty tradition. The most recent manifestation of this was in 1965, following the attempted communist coup, when hundreds of thousands of communists and dissidents were slaughtered in Indonesia. One of the bloodiest of these slaughters was by the "peaceful" Balinese  who, as is reflected in their theatrical performances and shadow plays, have a great interest in (and history of) violence. The Indonesians, including the Balinese, are a malay people who invented the concept of "running amok".

We may tend to forget that many Balinese were injured or died on October 12 or subsequently, and there will be great anger amongst them which will be directed not at the foreign tourists who suffered also, but at the perpetrators of the crime. In addition the Balinese will suffer enormous economic loss as a result of the damage and the blow to the tourist industry. So Indonesia may have to fear anti-Muslim violence in Bali. It will also have to deal with the extremist Muslims elsewhere, and managing the new situation may well be beyond the power of President Megawati. A new element of internal instability has now been introduced into an already unstable polity.

The ramifications of the atrocity, if as seems initially certain it was a matter of deliberate terrorism by fanatics allied to Al Qaeda, will be immense. The assault on the United States has now been globalised into an assault on innocent tourists and local populations anywhere in the world. This will have immediate alarming consequences for the tourist trade and therefore the airlines which were just starting to recover from last year's events. While Qantas will probably survive its profitability will be hit hard, and other major airlines may well succumb.

In the longer term, the central issue will become whether the advanced countries will submit to, or even accept living with, frequent terrorist attacks on their citizens at home and abroad. These are, as the Israelis have found, intolerable but not intimidating. The problem is to find an effective response which avoids yet further bloodshed. This may not be possible. Minimisation of unavoidable bloodshed is the best we can hope for. Inevitably, too, the terrorist campaign of Al Qaeda is related to the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the support received from other Arab countries.

All sensible people want to see the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, and indeed his complete removal from the world scene. The current debate is more about whether the United States should or will move against him on its own, and whether the United Nations should or will decide to act in concert with the US in its campaign against the Iraqi regime. It would be invalid to make close comparisons with the situation prior to World War Two, but there are similarities. There are the same kind of people demanding peace at any price, and many of the same kind of people who seem to be calling for war as the best possible option. Enlightened opinion is of course always against war, even when it subsequently proves that war was the better option, or at least was unavoidable. The neo-pacifists of today will of course be shocked if Saddam uses his weapons of mass destruction (it is unlikely that at present these include a usable nuclear device  but he certainly could contaminate large areas, including urban areas, with radioactive material), but somehow such people never subsequently accept the blame for having called the situation wrongly.

A typical effort of this nature has come from the moderator of the Uniting Church of Victoria and Tasmania, who of course opposes war and calls for governments to "step back from this dangerous brinkmanship and explore strong, effective but non-violent means for resolving this impasse." What these means might be is of course not specified. It only needs to be noted that there has never been a case in which non-violent means have proved effective against a determined and ruthless aggressor. (Gandhi's Satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, only ever worked because Britain was always a namby-pamby, civilised colonial power.) And brinkmanship may in fact be the best tactic to employ against Iraq  if Saddam can be convinced that there is a credible threat, he just might back down and allow effective sterilisation of his WMDs. Only if one believes that he would never employ such weapons to further his own ends (one of which may well be to destroy Israel) does it make any sense to simply sit back and hope and pray to a God who has never been known to prevent a war. As Napoleon said, God is on the side of the biggest battalions.

This is not to say that there is a good case for a pre-emptive strike, by the US alone or with the UN. The problem is not that we don't know that WMDs exist in Iraq, but whether a strike would be quick, clean and immediate in its effects or whether it would produce an indefinite and escalating commitment with the possibility of spreading elsewhere in the Middle East and further, through terrorism. Moreover, the prospects for any but a nominal regime change in Iraq are not at all clear. If Saddam were to be assassinated tomorrow, Iraq would not simply turn to democracy. And with some apparently democratic systems opting for a form of Islamic law even this might not be a solution. A more likely outcome would be the emergence, after a bloody internal struggle for power, of another Saddam.

The real issue is whether Iraq, if given time, will not only develop nuclear weapons but also use them. This at least seems very likely. However it is probable that the well-meaning pacifists will have sufficient influence to ensure that whatever action is taken will not occur until after that demonstration of reality. At that time, of course, they will begin to reproach governments for not having acted earlier, no doubt by "strong, non-violent" means. The strongest argument against a pre-emptive strike by the US is that it may very well not produce the desired result, while incurring huge costs in blood and treasure (to use the old form of words). The fact that the US has no moral right to be the world's policeman is pretty much irrelevant  the US after all is the main target of the enmity of dictatorships all over the world, as well as of the huge anti-American lobby which festers amongst the chattering classes worldwide. It is entitled to act in self-defence, even if other countries do not like it. The UN is clearly useless. All we can rationally hope and pray for is that the US government gets it right, and does not mount a pre-emptive strike without adequate reason.

...And the absurd

Here we go again. Once again there is grandiose talk of "drought proofing" Australian agriculture, of mounting huge projects to take water from one part of the continent to another, of turning back rivers and making them flow inland, of pumping sewage from the cities to the country, and of more and better irrigation. Not to mention vast amounts of relief to farmers who have been and will, most of them, be in the future better off than the recipients of welfare in the cities.

It is bizarre that while every galah in the pet shop has signed on to slogans about global warming and other simplistic environmental scares, it is possible for such nonsense to be talked at a time when large parts of Australia is in the grip of a drought which, while severe, is not exactly unusual or unprecedented. Even if it proves to be the worst for a century. Surely we have learned by now that the pattern of rainfall in our country is cyclical, affected by factors like the El Nino phenomenon, and drought is as much a fact of life every few years as flood and bushfires. That is what our native flora and fauna have evolved to deal with, as every explosion of life when eventually the rains come shows.

There is a basic underlying factor in the periodic convulsions of our agricultural and pastoral industries. This is the chronic under-capitalisation of most farms. There are plenty of farmers in the middle of the drought affected areas right now who are doing all right, not suffering at all, because they have sufficient capital to ride out the fluctuations of the weather, which are not annual but which come at irregular intervals and often last several years. These are the farmers who have gone into the business with their eyes open and aware of what our weather is like and act in anticipation of the duration of any period of drought.

The trouble is that many of our farmers are obsessed with their family history on the land but have never had a serious conversation with a financial adviser who understands the environment. Or they are like shearers on a spree when the weather is good  they live high and throw their money around rather than investing profits to build up their capacity to survive the next drought. They work hard but stupid. Then they put out their hands to their brethren in the cities to help them out and preserve their equity in the farm. In the longer term it would be kinder to give them a hand to sell their equity and move into another industry. It would also be fairer to the genuinely poor. The leading businessmen who have set up a fund for drought relief have their hearts in the right place  despite the usual run of ABC conspiracy theories. But it is a false kindness to feed farmers and water their stock unless they undertake to leave the industry, or the help is purely conditional and repayable when the good times come back, as they will. Of course it is easy to dramatise the situation  a good deal of our literature and art over the last two centuries has been devoted to portraying the hardships and often the desolation of the outback. But what is it persuades people that they can adapt the land and the climate to their desires, instead of working with what they have?

When will they ever learn? The nature of the Australian climatic cycle, the fragility of the soil, and the inappropriateness of European farming approaches in Australia are by now well known. There is also a long history of disastrous and wasteful irrigation projects, in this country and elsewhere. Carrying water long distances, whether by pipe or channel, is a very costly way of dealing with the problems of a particular area at the expense of other areas. California went through all this many years ago, and is still paying for it and trying to mend the damage its water diversion schemes have created. We have only recently seen an attempt to begin reversing the huge damage done by the Snowy irrigation/hydroelectric scheme.

The damage which would be done to our land and rivers by the grandiose diversion schemes is incalculable. Why is it that we listen credulously with gaping mouths to environmentalists when they talk apocalyptic science-fiction, and ignore them when they are demonstrably right?

Padraic McGuinness . Quadrant  editorial. November 2002

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