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SOUTH PACIFIC

Aussies Dream of Power

August 03, 2003|Ross Terrill | Ross Terrill's most recent book is "The New Chinese Empire." His "The Australians: The Way We Live Now" was published in 2000.

SYDNEY, Australia — Los Angeles to Sydney brings a 17-hour time change but little political change. Here, "Bush-Blair-Howard" is code for the Iraq war triumvirate. Although Australia's contribution of 2,000 troops to the war was modest, thrice-elected Prime Minister John Howard has been almost as staunch a supporter of President Bush as has British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

An Iraq-induced machismo marks Australian foreign policy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Solomon Islands, where Canberra is leading the biggest military operation in the South Pacific since World War II to prevent a further slide into disorder and rule by corrupt local warlords. The government attacks the fruitlessness of waiting on U.N. action and declares Australia's duty to "preempt," if necessary, in order to control the lawlessness bubbling among its neighbors.

Howard, like Bush and Blair, was elected principally for domestic reasons. Yet with 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, the three leaders have staked their reputations on security policy. "The times will suit me," Howard once said, presciently.

Howard was in Washington on 9/11, the day he was scheduled to give a speech to a joint session of Congress. "We have taken our place beside you in the war against terrorism," he told Congress nine months later, when his speech was eventually given, "knowing beyond all doubt that it was an attack upon ourselves and our way of life as surely as it was upon your own."

Many Australians did not feel that way; Howard was taking a risk. But four months later, when 88 Australians were blown to pieces in a Bali nightclub, Howard's support soared. Currently, he enjoys a huge lead over his Labor Party rival.

Alexander Downer, Howard's foreign minister, told me that Australia rejects a purely regional role. "Our interests are global," he declared. Added to Canberra's willingness to act unilaterally on occasion, his remarks signaled a newly ambitious foreign policy for Australia. "Sovereignty in our view is not absolute," Downer said in a recent speech. "Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important."

Like Blair, Australia's leaders think American power has seldom been more necessary or less understood. And like Blair, they believe ultimate security against terrorism will come from the spread of democracy and freedom. In the South Pacific, the challenge for the moment is modest, but the long-term agenda is formidable.

The South Pacific has "states" so racked with ethnic tension that disorder becomes a potential threat to the entire neighborhood. In the Solomon Islands, with its 400,000 Melanesians, problems are exacerbated by communal ownership of land and a debilitating dependence on foreign aid. In the long run, Australia may have a bigger role than it knows or wishes in these island states of natural splendor and political squalor, most smaller than the Solomons. These states need some kind of unity, whether a common currency zone or a federation. Enforceable property rights, open trade, pro-market economic strategies -- "nation-building" of daunting scope lies ahead. New Zealand is well attuned to local realities, but pacifist-minded Wellington lacks the political will and military muscle for bold solutions.

Australia's assertive post-Iraq stance has given it the initiative. Howard phoned New Zealand Labor Party Prime Minister Helen Clark, who hadn't supported the Iraq war, and won her quick agreement to join an expeditionary force of 2,000 troops and 300 police officers to the Solomons. All other leading players in the South Pacific -- Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, among others -- have signed on to Howard's plan. Canberra will pay the entire bill. The Solomon Islands parliament voted unanimously to invite Australia to come.

"We accept this intervention," said the Solomons prime minister, "because nobody wants to live under threat, under fear any more." Certainly, the disorder in the Solomons and other parts of the sub-region is an invitation to drug traffickers, people smugglers, money launderers and worse.

Australia seems to be combining preemption with multilateralism. "I think Australia should lead," Downer declared in a speech, "because our national interests demand no less."

Australia's role in overthrowing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein has boosted its confidence and influence. It enjoys the spectacle of not only New Zealand but also France backing its expedition in the Solomons. Furthermore, both Germany and France back the U.S.-planned Proliferation Security Initiative, aimed at stemming the flow of weapons of mass destruction, that was born in Poland and Spain -- both Bush allies -- and approved at a meeting in Brisbane, Australia, last month. How quickly wounds can heal when success beckons!

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