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Sorry George, can’t help with the Iran business
Behind John Howard’s Timor provocation

By Gavin Gatenby, Possum News Network
15 May 2006

On Friday 12 May, shortly before flying off to see George Bush, Australian Prime minister John Howard did two remarkable things. Firstly, he ruled out Australian involvement in any military action in Iran. “I’m not in favour of other than trying to achieve a diplomatic solution”, he told the media. Then he announced an unexpected and highly provocative military build-up for a possible new occupation of East Timor.

On the face of it, Howard’s Iran war stance is an extraordinary piece of evasion. Since US ground forces are completely engaged fighting the Resistance in Iraq, an attack on Iran could only take the form of an open-ended bombing campaign. All military analysts have pointed out that Iran's response would include a ground offensive in the south by pro-Iranian shia militias aided by regular Iranian forces. These will vastly outnumber and outgun the weak and scattered Coalition forces of which the Australian contingent is a symbolic part and US air power cannot be relied on to make up the imbalance. The Coalition troops in the south are effectively already hostages of Iran. If the US attacks Iran, Australian involvement is unavoidable.

Howard is not so stupid as to be unaware of this grim reality, so what’s his game? And what’s the connection with his deliberate and very provocative East Timor build-up?

The bewildered government of the tiny new nation did not request help from the Australian military and Howard’s move caught the mainstream media by surprise. A palpable sense of astonishment attended the first reports of troops, armour and naval units assembling in Darwin.

East Timor has recently been through a crisis involving the mass resignation of 600 soldiers (about a third of its army). The men are mostly former guerrillas from East Timor’s long struggle for independence from Indonesia. Before Howard’s move, indications were that the East Timor government had the crisis in hand, and was close to a settlement with the disaffected troops.It isn’t only East Timor that Howard has alarmed. The Indonesian government – which Australian foreign policy has under almost all circumstances striven to accommodate – will also see the move as precipitate and threatening, especially in the context of renewed demands for independence by the Melanesians of Indonesia’s province of West Papua.

In January this year, the Howard Government was caught off-guard by a demand for political asylum by 43 young Melanesian activists from West Papua who had landed on Australia’s north coast. In the circumstances Howard had little option but to reluctantly grant them asylum. The Indonesian government took the move badly, withdrawing its ambassador and seeking guarantees that Australia didn’t support Papuan independence and would, in future, reject asylum seekers. Indonesia got the necessary assurance in plenty.

(The episode occasioned a furious attack by the right-wing, pro-Howard commentariat on small left-wing groups and academics who support the West Papuan cause, accusing them of recklessly endangering relations with Indonesia. Barely has the ink dried on their editorials and columns when Howard’s unexpected bellicosity over the Timor troubles placed Indonesian relations in more danger than a handful of leftists ever could have!)

Only days ago, Iranian president Ahmadinejahad made a state visit to Indonesia, which is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The warm reception he received officially and from ordinary Indonesians was a measure of popular hatred of US foreign policy – especially the war in Iraq, and US bullying of Iran – and came despite the fact that Ahmadinejahad represents a majority Shiite nation whereas Indonesians are overwhelmingly moderate Sunnis.

It was in this highly-charged atmosphere that Howard deliberately threw his Timor bombshell. A logical explanation for his behaviour can be found in his long-standing ploy of keeping Australia’s commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan to the barest minimum consistent with remaining within the US alliance. Lately this embarrassing fact has become so obvious that even conservative commentators like Michael Duffy and the Sydney Morning Herald’s creepy right-wing populist, Paul Sheehan, have felt moved to remark on the tokenistic nature of Australia’s commitment.

By deliberately provoking a military crisis over East Timor, Howard was able to fly to Washington with a new excuse for his persistent failure to provide more than a token contribution to Bush’s existing adventures or throw any military resources at the forthcoming Iranian campaign.

And just to make the point totally clear to Bush, Howard, on arrival in the US, sent another message via the Australian media. The Sydney Morning Herald of 15 May quoted un-named “senior sources” (that would probably be the prime minister's press secretary speaking on condition of anonymity) as saying Howard, while in Washington, “did not expect to be asked by the Americans to increase Australia’s troop commitment” to Iraq or Afghanistan. Sorry, George, we're overstretched. Can’t help with the Iran business.

John Howard is no fool. He must, by now, deeply regret getting involved in Iraq and Arghanistan. He would understand clearly that Bush, Cheney, and the neo-conservatives were mad, bad and dangerous to know. His problem is that he followed them into the quagmire out of dumb loyalty to the American Alliance. That knee-jerk reaction has now placed Australian troops in danger of being overrun in a wider and more disastrous Middle East conflict – one which will place in jeopardy Australia’s lucrative trade relationship with China.

The Australian prime minister dare not admit his mistake and call a retreat, so he’s desperately trying to at least not step further into the swamp.