Barack Obama has been in the White House for almost a year. During this time he has substantially increased troop numbers in Afghanistan, sustained support for the democratically elected and UN-sanctioned government led by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and began talking about America being at war with terrorists.
Early in his administration, Americans were told their government was involved in what were euphemistically termed “overseas contingency operations”. Not any more. Following Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged failed attempt to bring down a flight over Detroit on Christmas Day, Obama has toughened his Administration’s language.
The President was unequivocal in declaring last week: “We are at war. We are at war against al-Qaeda … and we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.” He also spoke about al-Qaeda’s “murder of fellow Muslims”. Sounds a bit like George Bush, or perhaps even Dick Cheney.
Kevin Rudd has been Prime Minister for just over two years. He has increased the Australian Defence Force presence in Afghanistan and backed Obama’s troop surge there. Despite having withdrawn combat troops from southern Iraq, Australia still has about 80 personnel in Baghdad as part of a security detail to support the diplomatic mission Operation Kruger.
Moreover, Australia made the US General David Petraeus an officer in the military division of the Order of Australia for his service against terrorism as commander of allied forces in Iraq. Petraeus implemented Bush’s successful surge strategy in Iraq. The Rudd Government has also continued John Howard’s tough line on terrorism. To be fair, Howard’s wide-ranging 2005 legislation enjoyed bipartisan support when it was implemented.
In other words, the foreign policy and national security legacy of Bush, Howard and the British prime minister Tony Blair has lasted longer than some might have expected. There have been changes in detail, particularly involving Obama’s as-yet unfulfilled commitment to close Guantanamo Bay. But the move from conservative to social democratic government in the US and Australia has seen more continuity than differentiation in foreign policy and national security. Not surprisingly, in Britain, the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has continued Blair’s approach.
In democracies, governments move on but security scenarios tend to have a certain permanency. The change of administration has demonstrated that jihadists are as much opposed to an America led by Obama as to a US led by Bush.
First there were the mass killings at Fort Hood in Texas over which Nidal Malik Hasan has been charged. Then there was the attempted Christmas Day mass murders, allegedly planned by Abdulmutallab. Both men are said to have been in contact with the Yemini-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi who lives in Yemen.
It is much the same in Australia. The recent terrorism convictions in Melbourne and Sydney related to conspiracies fomented when the Coalition was in government. However, the charges laid in Melbourne last year relate to an alleged conspiracy planned to take place during Labor’s time in office.
Obama, Rudd and Brown know that their prime role as leaders is to protect the national security of the citizens they were elected to govern. That is why, even though they lead social democratic parties, they are unlikely to be troubled by increasing criticism by the left.
As in all democracies, the civil liberties lobby is vocal in Australia. This sometimes reflects the fact that some leftist journalists, producers and directors fail to understand the case for national security. This attitude is most prevalent on the taxpayer-subsidised public broadcasters. Some examples.
In November, outside of Victoria, SBS TV ran its co-production with 360 Degree Films, The Trial: Inside Australia’s Biggest Terrorism Trial. The documentary on the 2008 trial in Melbourne of Abdul Nacer Benbrika and others, was supported by the taxpayer-funded Screen Australia and Film Victoria.
And what did the taxpayers get for their investment? Essentially a rant by the civil liberties lobby starring lawyers Greg Barns and Rob Stary. The Trial ran the line that there is no problem with a few jihadists planning to explode bombs since they do not get around to doing so. In fact, a jury found this conspiracy was prevented by the combined actions of police and intelligence services. Stary was filmed saying there was little difference between an accused terrorist downloading a jihadist beheading and someone downloading a Howard speech. Really.
A similar lack of balance was evident on the ABC AM program last year. In July, Jim Kennan and Stary were invited to discuss the Rudd Government’s plan to strengthen the terrorism laws. Both are civil libertarian lawyers. No dissenting voice was heard. Then, in September, AM discussed the case of David Hicks, who pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism. At issue was whether the Obama administration should rescind the charges to which Hicks pleaded guilty. Again, only the civil liberties case was heard.
The continuing attacks on the West are likely to weaken the civil liberties lobby. National security laws are certain to remain tough – under conservative or social democratic governments. Moreover, there is the pressure to increase the profiling of suspects, since most jihadists are young, well-educated men who have been radicalised.
As Michael Burleigh points out in Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, most Muslims are law-abiding and it is possible “we may have a rather shorter long war” against the jihadists. But the war will not end in the immediate short term, as Obama clearly understands.