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Comment and Analysis | WAR ON TERRORISM

The View From Down Under

June 09, 2002|WILLIAM M. ARKIN | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion.

CANBERRA, Australia — When an American visitor here spoke recently about "the GWOT," his no-nonsense Aussie hosts were confused, not having heard the U.S. military acronym for the "Global War on Terrorism." Of course, Australian military leaders have their own alphabet soup. They talk about "the ICAT," the "International Coalition Against Terrorism."

GWOTs and ICATs might sound like the kinds of exotic animals Australia is famous for, but the two pieces of jargon highlight a potential problem in the worldwide struggle against terrorism. It's no accident that the Pentagon uses the word "war," while the Australian military uses the word "coalition." This piece of language trivia opens a window on little-recognized but serious tensions between Washington and the military leaders of one of its staunchest allies.

What accounts for the different acronyms is not that Australians shrink from the idea of war or take the threat less seriously than Washington does. In fact, the Aussies are up to their eyeballs in whatever you call the struggle against terror.

Their military is operating at its highest pitch since Vietnam. Australia's special-operations units, ships and planes are deeply involved in the war in Afghanistan; its Special Air Service Regiment was on the ground there from day one.

Moreover, geographically and in other ways, Australia may be closer than the U.S. to the sources of extremism and violence that make up the present-day terrorism threat. Although there has been no Sept. 11 here thus far, Australians see the danger to themselves as real.

It's just that the idea of coalition is important to Australia, especially where the U.S. is concerned. After all, this country has fought alongside the U.S. and Britain in every major conflict since World War I.

Today, however, many of Australia's senior military leaders believe that the Bush administration, in its rush to fight a war, has forgotten about the idea of partnership. Especially the notion that partnership involves listening.

Australian officials believe that their location and long years of close involvement with some of their predominantly Islamic neighbors give them valuable insight into the current problem of terrorism. They think Washington takes too little advantage of this insight. And they worry that President Bush is being sold a bill of goods by some other supposed allies in the region.

Indonesia and Malaysia have drawn praise from Washington for joining the war on terrorism, but Australian military officials say both countries have used the GWOT as a screen for domestic political crackdowns while doing little to combat global terrorism.

"Some of the 'evidence' from Malaysian and Indonesian security agencies gives every appearance of being manufactured for domestic political and diplomatic purposes," said Greg Fealy, a former Australian intelligence analyst, now a research fellow on Indonesia at the Australian National University.

"The emphatic anti-terrorism policy" pursued in Washington, Fealy wrote recently, is exploited by the security services "to justify Draconian steps against alleged 'terrorists,' [thereby running] the risk of alienating an already skeptical Islamic community."

"People being arrested in Malaysia are just part of the Islamic opposition," another analyst said.

Such insight may be lost on the Bush administration, many here believe, because the president--and American leaders in general--are in the habit of looking to Australia for troops and diplomatic support but not for analysis and advice.

That is true in the area of understanding the games being played in a place like Malaysia and in the larger realm of strategic thinking. In both respects, Australian military leaders believe their views are not being heard.

Paul Dibb, director of the Strategic and Defence Studies Center at Australian National University and the former head of the Australian Joint Intelligence Organization, flat out dismisses the central assumption behind Washington's response to Sept. 11. "We are not in a radical new strategic era," Dibb says. He decries the Australian reflex to scrap its established national security interests to retool for the war on terrorism.

With war looming between India and Pakistan and a real possibility of conflict not just between North and South Korea but between China and Taiwan as well, Dibb questions what he calls one of the great American and European myths about Asian defense: the obsolescence of major war.

Australia's military leaders are frustrated by the Bush administration's indifference to their insights and also by the fact that any kind of open break with the U.S. is unthinkable.

"There is no possibility for an ally like us not to stand next to the United States," a senior officer said. In a world with a single superpower, Australians also know that they have to pay an insurance premium for U.S. protection. Still, some things grate.

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