A Straussian detective story

I don’t know quite what to make of John Howard’s decision to almost double Australia’s commitment of troops to Iraq by sending 450 Darwin-based soldiers to protect Japanese engineers around Basra. Is it, as Tim Dunlop seems to imply, just another example of Howardian deceit and duplicity? Or is it, as Tim Blair aggressively asserts, a generous humanitarian gesture to assist the plucky Iraqis to build a new democratic nation in the face of murderous Islamo-fascist thuggery?

I don’t see any signs that Howard or Downer were lying when they protested repeatedly over the last two years that Australia had no intention of boosting military numbers in Iraq, and didn’t see a significant role for Australian troops in peacekeeping or nation-building. I think Howard fairly clearly changed his mind. But why? Michael Costello in The Australian speculates that Howard “may be starting to listen to the siren song of those who see a global military role for Australia“. But that doesn’t fit with Howard’s longstanding relentless pragmatism. I also don’t see any signs that Howard has suddenly developed a late-career Gareth Evans-ish desire to strut the world stage.

Howard’s conversion on the road to Damascus Baghdad may be in part a praiseworthy conviction that the current period in Iraq is an absolutely critical one, a ‘tipping point’ if you will, when in the wake of a successful exercise in democratic self-determination the country could either move towards stability and prosperity or descend into chaos and civil war. And Howard would be right in that conviction.

But, as Michael Costello also points out, why Australia? Iraq is on the other side of the world and not a part of Australia’s zone of strategic concern. Moreover, there are plenty of potential troublespots in our immediate region that might foreseeably require the urgent dispatch of Australian troops: the Solomons, East Timor and Papua New Guinea are just three examples, not to mention a conceivable (if unlikely in view of our neighbours’ sensibilities) need to use troops to combat Jemaah Islamiyah and other local Islamic terrorist outfits, as well as humanitarian interventions like the current Aceh involvement.

Given our proximity to Islamic-dominated potential troublespots in south-east Asia, and our role as sole credible western/first world guarantor of south Pacific stability, Australia should be the last nation expected to shoulder additional military burdens in Iraq. The US, Britain and European nations are all in a much better position to provide additional troops for Basra than is Australia.

Australia currently has a very modest military capability in terms of supporting foreign engagements of large numbers of troops on the ground for a prolonged period. I’m not an expert in the area, but I strongly suspect that our military forces will be stretched to the limit by Howard’s new Iraq commitment. And you’d have to assume Howard knows this.

So why has he made this decision? I reckon part of the reason may be a belief in a neoconservative Straussian conception explained by Shadia Drury, author of Leo Strauss and the American Right (extracted in this article from the Asia Times):

“You want a crowd that you can manipulate like putty,” according to Drury.

Strauss was also strongly influenced by Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, he thought the fundamental aggressiveness of human nature could be restrained only through a powerful state based on nationalism. “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” he once wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

“Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat,” Drury wrote in her book. “Following Machiavelli, he maintains that if no external threat exists, then one has to be manufactured. Had he lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, he would have been deeply troubled because the collapse of the ‘evil empire’ poses a threat to America’s inner stability.

“In Strauss’ view, you have to fight all the time [to survive],” said Drury. “In that respect, it’s very Spartan. Peace leads to decadence. Perpetual war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in.” Such views naturally lead to an “aggressive, belligerent foreign policy”, she added.

However, although you can make a powerful case for the Bush administration being strongly influenced by Straussian thinking via administration associates (including Jeb Bush) of the Project for a New American Century, the same can’t be said in relation to the Howard government. There’s no overt sign of any Coalition figure or apparatchik being a devotee of Straussian philosophy as such, and I can’t really imagine Howard himself poring over the works of Leo Strauss or Alan Bloom in the dark watches of the night at Kirribilli House. But it still may be an influence, partly via the zeitgeist and partly through Howard’s own pragmatic responses to his own recent political experience. The 1999 East Timor involvement led to a significant upsurge of patriotic pride in Australia, and it together with the somewhat confected Tampa/children overboard refugee crisis and the aftermath of September 11 palyed a powerful role in Howard’s 2001 election victory. Similarly, the Iraq involvement (contrasted with Latham’s idiotic “troops out by Christmas” stance) was important (if only arguably critical) to his 2004 win.

So if you’re John Howard, and you’ve become convinced that keeping the people “alert but not alarmed” with a perception of perpetual immediate external threat (if not perpetual warfare) is critical to your continuing electoral success (and therefore cementing your place in history), and you also don’t want to incur military casualties on a level that would provoke a Vietnam-style voter backlash, , how do you go about achieving it? Stationing troops in relatively peaceful Shiite southern Iraq, under a new Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, seems a fairly good bet (although it would only take one very lucky suicide bomber to place the strategy under a bit of pressure).

I’m not suggesting that you can equate Howard with the Bush neocons as such. As I said, Howard’s beliefs and policies seem to be rooted in a pragmatic response to 30 years of political experience rather than in an ideological/intellectual commitment to the arcane philosophies of Strauss and Bloom. The same is true, I think, of Howard’s evident commitment to the strategic virtues of wholesale lying (over the original intention to participate in the Iraq invasion; children overboard; the GST etc etc). This too is an aspect of Straussian philosophy, an ideological underpinning that may well go some considerable way towards explaining the even greater enthusiasm of the Bush administration for telling porkies on a grand scale:

“Strauss was neither a liberal nor a democrat,” [Shadia Drury] said in a telephone interview from her office at the University of Calgary in Canada. “Perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical [in Strauss’s view] because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them.

“The Weimar Republic [in Germany] was his model of liberal democracy for which he had huge contempt,” added Drury. Liberalism in Weimar, in Strauss’s view, led ultimately to the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

Like Plato, Strauss taught that within societies, “some are fit to lead, and others to be led”, according to Drury. But, unlike Plato, who believed that leaders had to be people with such high moral standards that they could resist the temptations of power, Strauss thought that “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior”.

Again, I suspect Howard has reached a not dissimilar conviction through a combination of the zeitgeist and his own political experiences. Howard was denied national leadership for most of his career by a combination of duplicity by members of his own party (Peacock, Kennett etc) and the glib lies of Hawke and Keating (“no Australian child will live in poverty …; L-A-W law …). He learnt the political lesson of the virtues of dissembling and duplicity, and then took them to a new and higher level by making dissembling central to his “small target” 1996 election victory.

Of course, we shouldn’t overstate the Straussian influence on the shape of modern conservative politics, even in the US let alone Australia. As Michael C. Desch argues in this recent article from The American Conservative magazine:

For Strauss, Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger were the two great philosophers of late modernity. The fact that both were directly or indirectly linked to National Socialism must have made him acutely aware that mixing philosophical radicalism and practical politics can lead to disaster. Not surprisingly, Strauss concluded that prudence dictates that one choose between the life of philosophy (his choice) and sustained political engagement.

In contrast, the political Straussians, who have now become largely indistinguishable from neoconservatives, are radicals, clearly lacking the prudence that Strauss advocated in practical politics. Political Straussians and their neoconservative allies argue that the spread of democracy is a panacea for many of America’s global problems. But the intellectual justification for such a policy could hardly have been Strauss, who was a critic of modern liberalism and democracy. Strauss maintained that political regimes encompass more than just their formal institutions but also depend upon the habits, mores, and customs of a society. It is hard to imagine that he would be sanguine about the prospects for the promotion of democracy in countries lacking these prerequisites. Indeed, Strauss’s view ought to lead to caution, rather than enthusiasm, for making regime-change the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. To find philosophical support for such a policy, one has to look to liberal thinkers such as Kant or Montesquieu. As Lilla argues, what has happened since 1973 was not a Straussian takeover of neoconservatism but rather a hijacking of Strauss’s thought or at least the kidnapping of some of his less astute students.

But one can also argue that Desch (wilfully?) misunderstand the nature of the influence of any given philosophy or intellectual movement on practical politics. Politicians are pragmatists by necessity, and a successful politician must subordinate coherent philosophy and “the vision thing” to the exigencies of retaining power. There’s probably never been a purist classical liberal democracy, just as there will probably never be a purist Straussian neocon polity. But that isn’t to say that the thinking of Mill or Bentham, or Hayek or Popper, have been irrelevant to practical politics.

Moreover, Desch also (wilfully?) ignores the possibility/probability that Bush administration professed intentions of fashioning a western liberal democratic nation state may in part be just a Straussian noble lie. Certainly there are at least some indicators that the Bushies only concurred reluctantly in a genuinely democratic exercise in Iraq after Sistani gave them no choice. American self-interest requires a regime that will deliver stability and prosperity, be reliably pro-American (or at least not anti-American) and that won’t threaten its neighbours like Saddam did. American self-interest doesn’t require a liberal democratic state in Iraq, and the fact that Straussian thought deprecates that possibility rather confirms the suggestion that fostering democracy actually wasn’t high on the list of priorities, and that pious protestations to the contrary are better explained in terms of Straussian lying.

As you may have noticed, I’ve strayed rather a long way from my starting point (why is Howard sending 450 additional troops to Iraq?). In fact, if this was a comment, rather than a primary post, I’d probably point out that it was off-topic. But the whole question of the extent of the influence of Straussian thought on the Bush and Howard governments is one I find fascinating. The similarities between the strategies of the Bush administration, which has manifestly been strongly influenced by Strauss and Bloom, and Howard’s Coalition, where no such immediate influence is evident, are quite remarkable, right down to the attempts to weave religious issues into the political cloth despite Ausralia’s culture being radically different from the US. Again Shadia Drury explains:

For Strauss, “religion is the glue that holds society together”, said Drury, who added that Irving Kristol, among other neoconservatives, has argued that separating church and state was the biggest mistake made by the founders of the US republic.

“Secular society in their view is the worst possible thing,” because it leads to individualism, liberalism and relativism, precisely those [are] traits that might encourage dissent, which in turn could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats. “You want a crowd that you can manipulate like putty,” according to Drury.

The extent and manner of Straussian influence on Howard and his strategic advisers (e.g. Arthur Sinodhinos, Lynton Crosby, Mark Textor) seems to me to be a relatively unexplored aspect of current Australian politics. Is it just the zeitgeist and pragmatic coincidence, or something more direct? For instance, I know that Mark Textor spent significant amounts of time in the US in the early 1990s (when he was just a young, up-and-coming NT CLP apparatchik) learning about Republican negative campaigning tactics. Did he also fall under the influence of Straussian thinking at that time? Can one trace similar influences in the backgrounds of other Howard advisers? Textor would have been a perfect candidate/sucker for Straussian conversion. After all, he’d grown up around the Country Liberal Party, which kept an iron electoral grip on the Northern Territory for 23 years through a combination of confected external threats (blackfellas and the evil federal government) and wholesale lying to support the popular “alert but not alarmed” public mindset.

PS – For any readers new to the dubious delights of neocon thinking, another good populist discussion of Straussian philosophy can be found in this 1997 article by Ronald Bailey in Reason magazine.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Rafe
2022 years ago

This is a nice conjunction of a deep theoretical probe, prompted by an intriguing practical/polical question. This is likely to be a fantastic thread and all I have time to say now is to suggest that John Howard is really playing with fire because as soon as any significant number of troops go into the field we are likely to take serious casualties, something that we have been miraculously spared up to date.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I think your instincts are spot on Ken. The last thing that Howard is going to be doing is pondering the oeuvres of Strauss, Nietzsche, Heidegger or any other woolly-woofter intellectual who might be big in the prescribed reading stakes on campus. He may however occasionally pop on a CD of the Greatest Hits of Herr Strauss’ brother. They don’t make music like that any more!

Howard probably made the decision because he senses that it’s the right thing to do strategically and geopolitically. He also probably thinks it’s the ‘right’ thing to do – protecting field engineers rebuilding infrastructure etc – at relatively little political cost, on balance. It’s Year One of the electoral cycle, we’ll be “pulling our weight” etc, etc. The huge risk factor is the casualties potential. It must have given him pause…..

I don’t buy the Uniquely Evil Dissembler meme – neither do most of the electorate. He’s a politician. Harping on about the continuing failure of the punters to “get” his purported singularity in this respect has become volume adjustable background noise.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Or it could simply be that although Howard essentially agreed with the BOL theory for Iraq(and initially the more immediate threat of WMD), he was mindful of another Vietnam. Get in and get out quick was probably a fairly pragmatic and cleverly negotiated option. However, as others(Dutch) have tired of their commitment or heavy lifting, it was only natural that the spotlight would turn back on Oz to provide some respite. After the success of Iraqi elections, Howard may well have decided that now was the opportune and pragamatic time to provide it. In other words, he has decided that Iraq is definitely a goer and he can no longer sustain the prior valid claim, that Oz is busy getting its own backyard in order (ET, Solomons and the like). If this is right then he’s done Australia proud in the tactical maneuvrings and political foresight game. However, we should not underplay the alternative risks he took in ET here.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rafe (and Geoff)

I don’t think the prospect of military casualties is necessarily a problem for Howard’s strategy seen in the terms I’ve hypothesised above. As long as casualties remain within the limits of public tolerance, their occurrence may actually assist and reinforce the desired outcome of creating a public perception of a real perpetual threat. I doubt that even one very successful suicide bomber (killing say 10 or 15 Australian troops) would exceed public tolerance. After all, the British have sustained steady casualties around Basra and it doesn’t seem to have done anything to harm Tony Blair’s re-election chances.

Geoff

I fully accept that the “Howard is a liar” meme doesn’t strike a chord with the punters, largely because they not unreasonably reckon ALL politicians lie. But that doesn’t deny the possibility that the argument has substance (as opposed to popular appeal). I still think the nature, extent and sheer brazenness of many of Howard’s lies are indeed singular. At least Howard’s lies are much greater in quantity than other recent regimes, and there’s a credible argument that they’re qualitatively different as well. But we’ve had this argument before on Troppo, and I don’t really want to divert the thread into yet another sterile “Howard’s a bigger liar than X …” pattern.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

I think Howard’s great advantage over his competitors (internal and external) is that he isn’t too smart, but more than smart enough. He’s lucky, and to his credit, disciplined enough to understand it and use it, as it’s not something that can be faked.

If I was wanting to get out of Iraq quicker than people thought I would I’d consider a small ramping up first to show good faith and effort to the USA etc and then start a considered deliberate downsizing in the next while.

On another note. It’s great thing to point out to the Japanese how big hearted and forgiving we are to be able to send our troops to guard unarmed Japanese soldiers / engineers building bridges.

On even more other notes. I reckon Honnor is right. Howard might put on a CD of the Brothers Strauss every now and then, but hardly Drury. The late great Ian that is.

He should. I can see him with “Reasons to be Cheerful” but perhaps not “Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll” or “Hit Me with Your Rythmn Stick”.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Francis

Ho ho. But note that I also stressed in my primary post (as Geoff Honnor acknowledged) that it’s fairly unlikely that Howard has read Strauss or Bloom (although he almost certainly reads the populist output of the Kristols and others). It’s equally unlikely that George W. Bush has a deep grasp of Straussian philosophy, but it’s also undeniable that many of his cabinet and close advisers ARE adherents.

One of the points my post raises is whether some of Howard’s advisers are covert adherents with a much more detailed grasp of Straussian theory than it is plausible to impute to Howard himself. Howard is just an instinctive Machiavelian, with those instincts honed by long experience. But I reckon it makes sense to explore the possibility of a closer connection at adviser level given the remarkable coincidence between the policy settings and strategies in the US and Australia. Crosby and Textor manifestly ARE deep intellectual thinkers even if Howard isn’t, and Textor was sent to the US in or about 1991-92 (whether funded by the CLP or the federal Liberal Party I’m not sure) to study Republican strategies and the theories behind them. He did so with extraordinary success, as his contribution to engineering of subsequent election victores by both Howard and the CLP demonstrates. Is it so difficult to credit that he may have absorbed Straussian theory as well as the nuts and bolts of negative campaigning?

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

ken – I think your last post is a vastly more articulate explanation of what I meant by saying Howard is not too smart, but more than smart enough. What you say is all possible.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

I wasn’t putting Howard down by saying he’s not too smart. I mean as in NOT ‘too smart for his own boots (or own good)”

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

This deployment strikes me as very carefully calculated (I suppose you’d have to hope it would be). It can be presented as material assistance to the rebuilding of Iraq, not just your actual war-fighting. It’s a relatively significant commitment in terms of numbers at a time when others are pulling out, but the troops have a protective rather than an aggressive role, while at the same time signalling a determination to resist the destabilising forces of extremism and terrorism that could still derail Iraq’s uncertain progress towards democracy, or something approximating it.

Why do it, as Ken remarked? I’d say it’s a further investment in the US-Oz alliance. In fact, the whole commitment to Iraq has been overwhelmingly for that reason, despite the threat of WMD being proffered as the ostensible reason. It does Australia an enormous amount of good in Washington and the Pentagon in particular to be seen to stand with the US in an ‘unpopular’ war. The amount of goodwill it generates is out of all proportion to the actual number of troops deployed. Since the end of the Cold War there have been a lot more national militaries hanging around the Pentagon and it’s become harder for Australia to insist on the uniqueness of its military alliance with the US as the Pentagon’s memories of Vietnam fade.

Howard is aiming for leverage with Washington and this relatively low-cost, low-risk deployment will deliver it – and probably with Tokyo as well.

Somewhere between the two Tims, then. Not precisely for the reasons stated, but not necessarily reprehensible for all that. Clever, as you’d expect from Hoard.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“At least Howard’s lies are much greater in quantity than other recent regimes.”

Where’s your evidence? The comparative analysis? Some data please before you go all Pilgerish on me. We simply don’t know how many “lies” are told politically, any more than we can reach a broad consensus on what a political “lie” actually is. What’s the difference between ‘lie’ ‘spin’ ‘loose with the truth’ etc, etc? When it comes to a spin and a polish, Bob Carr leaves Howard for dead. I don’t feel “degraded” or “betrayed” by Bob. I think he’s a consummate politician and admire him greatly.

More to the point, when was this much-vaunted age of political truth-telling, when politicians didn’t do all these things? This Golden Era against which Howard is continually benchmarked? My grandparents (God rest their souls) assured me that politicians couldn’t be trusted when I was very young. I’m sure that as children my great-great-great-great-great grandparents were given similar warnings about Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger – and what of the probity of Willam Charles Wentworth and Billy Hughes? Was Malcom Fraser the fount of veracity? Billy McMahon? What of Bob Hawke? Has Howard told more lies than PJK?( % adjusted for differing timeframes of course)

In this case I think the gut feel of the punters is the more accurate barometer. They know that the “Howard lies!” meme is histrionic and overblown. Of course Howard fudges it. Of course he leaves bits out. Of course he spins to his political advantage. Of course he emphasises the positive and downplays the negative (or vice versa as the political case may be). That’s what they do, these guys. If it gets out of control, if things go belly-up, if they play us for suckers, or have lip–up curling contempt for us – we chuck ’em. Howard has never had the slightest doubt about that.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Ken, In terms of casualties, I expect the electorate will simply split along the pro/anti war axis, with some accepting “as many as it takes” and the others taking a “zero tolerance” line. As to the electoral prospects of Tony Blair, he has the luxury of facing an opposition that is roughly on a par with the WA Liberals. The opposition to the war was probably stronger in the British Labor Party than outside it, but come the election I imagine the dissenters will be happy enough to see Blair lead them back to office.
Getting back to the more conceptually interesting point, the non-Labor parties have a long history of being almost entirely non-intellectual, apart from some input from the IPA. John Howard himself has never emulated his hero Margaret Thatcher by paying tribute to Hayek, and it is likely that Bob Carr has been seen sighted more often than the PM at the Centre for Independent Studies. Of course there is a pragmatic explanation for this, the admirers of Hayek simply don’t have the numbers to save Howard from a bath from the commentators if he does put his head up over the parapet as a Hayek admirer.
The situation will be even worse if Howard is found to be under the influence of Strausians because the Hayek people AND the left will take chop them up into very small pieces in any public debate.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Geoff raises a valid point that generally public figures are now fair game for a ruthless attack dog media and you have to be top dog or be eaten by it. In the Golden Era, the bedroom antics of Charles, Diana and Camilla, et al would only be tittered over in polite company, behind closed doors, instead of splattered all over Womans Day, etc by the paparazzi.

Howard ‘lies’? What about his point that the Opposition were caught ‘lying’ about his extra troop commitment. ie you can’t have it both ways that he deceived the electorate as to his intentions on this at election time, but in the next breath his sudden decision is hasty and ill-conceived. Another classic example is how opponents of the COW, continually accused them of ‘lying'(sexing up) about WMD, when Kaye finally put the kybosh on that, when he stated Brit intelligence still believed WMD would be found eventually, when US and AUS intelligence have abandoned this. As an aside here, you have to wonder about that Brit Int view now. In one respect you recall its incredible capacity to aid and abet the defeat of Fascism and wonder could they still be so astute, or are they now a totally useless bunch of Cambridge and Oxford Dons, a la Philby and Mclean?

Lies, damned lies and statistics or whatever. If Howard thinks Iraq is definitely a goer, what evidence do we have that his assessment is correct? For this we might need to analyse why the Dutch and Ukranians are pulling out, if you get my drift. ie Do they think their job is largely over?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

As I said previously, I don’t really want to revisit the “Howard lies” argument, because we’ve been there before (during the Scrafton saga at the beginning of the election campaign, and previously Christopher Sheil did a longer and more scholarly series of posts about political lies, based on summarising an article by Hannah Arendt). I think we CAN say that Howard is more prepared than the average to utlisie lies as a central part of a re-election strategy. His entire 1996 election strategy was based on dissembling, nt only about his intentions regarding GST but about just about everything else (core and non-core promises etc). So too was his 2001 election campaign (Tampa, children overboard etc). And the WMD pretet for the Iraq invasion, both here and in the US and Britain, was clearly based on a predetermined intention (despite continual denials) to invade, with intelligence agencies being pressured to provide the necessary claims to and beyond the limits of credibility. The career paths of public servants who were reluctant to provide the necessary propaganda were more than enough impetus for the intelligence agencies and public servants to get the message, without any more overt efforts at direct pressure to “sex up” dossiers. As I said, we’ve discussed all this before at nauseating length. Keating effectively stole the 1993 election with his “L-A-W law” tax cuts promise, but that’s the only comparable example I can recall in the modern era (let’s not get too silly and talk about Pitt the Younger or William charles Wentworth or The Litle Digger)that goes even close to matching Howard’s record, and Howard’s done it multiple times.

I DO agree with Geoff’s point about Bob Carr, however. Carr could certainly play Howard off an even break in the porkies stakes. I was thinking about NATIONAL leaders of the modern era (i.e. Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard). If you want to resort to state premiers, there is plenty of competition for Howard, not least Joh Bjelke-Peterson.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“generally public figures are now fair game for a ruthless attack dog media’

Indeed. Where was the media back in the Golden Days of Truthful Pollies past? Down the pub drinking with the pollies (and hoping they’d shout the next round) pretty much, interspersed with brief bash-outs on the typewriter for the paper and the wireless. No TV, no journo’s with Ph.D’s, no rigorous investigative analysis, no Four Corners, no Media Watch, no rigorous 24 hour scrutiny…..yet…somehow we’re supposed to believe that it was a democratic best practice exemplar of Washingtonian Cherry Tree quality up until the current evil genius slunk into view to corrupt and pervert the political process like no other has before.

I take Observa’s point about Latham on Iraq. Who can forget the snap debate tour-de-force he delivered? The towering, fury of his moral indignation at Howard’s lowlife dissembling? Howard had suggested that Latho might not have had Shadow Cabinet endorsement of troops out by Chrissie before Latho had made it up on the run and bignoted it to Mike Carlton on air. Howard was 100% right of course. He hadn’t. But for a thunderous and theatrical 10 minutes Latham did to truth what pancreatitis and the Tsunami subsequently did to his political career. He ended by shaking his finger at this “little man” who was going to be buried for all time for his lying duplicity. His entire Shadow Cabinet sat behind him, presumably hoping to hell he was right about the “buried” part because we all know that porkies on that scale can come back to haunt you.

The following day every press gallery pundit called it as a triumph for Latham.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Geoff

No-one with even half a brain would attempt to argue that all politicians don’t lie at least some of the time. But there is a quantitative and probably qualitative difference between the every day (and usually defensive) lies you highlight with your Latham example immediately above, and deliberate offensive strategic lies designed calculatedly to win an electoral mandate by false pretences.

As I said, Howard has perpetrated the latter multiple times, and the only comparable modern era example I can recall is Keating’s “L-A-W law” tax cuts promise (for which he quite justifiably suffered the ultimate political penalty at the succeeding 1996 election). The interesting thing from my viewpoint is how successfully Howard has managed to shift the terms of political debate to the point where so many people (including you) regard his conduct as so unremarkable as to be politically irrelevant, and anyone who suggests otherwise as either a political Pollyanna or a hopelessly biased lefty. I may well be quite deluded, but I don’t see myself as either of those things. I just think there are finite boundaries to the scale and type of lying that any political system can withstand without being seriously compromised and undermined, and I reckon Howard has well and truly exceeded them.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Parish while we are off topic I’d like to talk about the colour of my new dress and all the small piles of dirt that are building up around this house. Maybe they’re competing with the papers. I do wish you’d mentioned Derrida or something post-structuralist or post something, I can’t fathom anything on this blog that don’t have that sweet monika in’t.

And I’ll tell you something else my good man there will be no dinner, no dutiful slave, no fetcher and adoring carrier if I come back to find this comment gone.

And another thing. I don’t think this post is fair to little Johnny Howard. There you are Parish, sitting at the computer, over a long breakfast, having the temerity to bag the boy’s political success. Saying he lies, and wouldn’t mind killing off a few good Aussies for the sake of ‘alert but not alarmed’. Mean and horrid!

I as you know, I for one, don’t need a war to be in a constant state of secure insecurity. And I’m sure I speak for many of us in oz.
In addition, his lies are a wonderful source of entertainment. What, for example would Geoff Honnorbe doing this afternoon if JH didn’t let go with the odd porkie? Answer he like many of us would be BORED.

John Howard, I salute you. You exciting little fella you. Don’t mind Parish and his zeitgeist. All you are to him, you dear little power walking one, is a hook, into the land of the neo-coon.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Just to make it clear so people don;t get the wrong idea:

(a) that last post was by jen, but she forgot to change the name (I was going to call her a stupid cow, but I was threatened with unnamed but dire consequences); and

(b) she meant “con” not “coon”. At least that’s what she tells me anyway.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

hahha parish.slacker.chauvinist.non-snag re housework. no way you are on a promise tonight old boy.

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

Ken P: re ”finite boundaries to the scale and type of lying that any political system can withstand without being seriously compromised and undermined” –never truer words spoken, however, I think Joe public is so apathetic to the Iraqi issue and so fixated on her/his mortgage rate that the jury will be out until disaster creates a voter paradigm shift, when the Vietnam style bullshit invitation (ostensibly UK/Japanese request) to help the Japanese, surfaces in the public conscienceness.

While casualties are low to non-existent, it doesn’t matter, but with escalation (ie attacking Iran) the dynamics of Iranian rage will make a whole new ball game for which I very much doubt whether Howard has ever contemplated.

True to form, the US will never bother to inform Howard that they intend to attack Iraq, or turn a blind eye to the Israelis. Shades of Cambodia again and defeat and humiliation in the making. Ho hum!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Francis

I forgot to take off my shoes before sitting down at the computer to blog, and unknowingly deposited dirt under the desk. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. As dirt through the hourglass of time, so are the days of our lives.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“I also don’t see any signs that Howard has suddenly developed a late-career Gareth Evans-ish desire to strut the world stage.”

I disagree Ken. The tone of the interviews Howard gave last year – for instance the one with Paul Kelly that Scott blogged about – was that Howard saw himself as having achieved sufficient longevity in office to play a significant role in world affairs. Hawkie had a similar argument to make just before Keating blasted him out of office.

Hence he’s overseas running up massive hotel bills all the time. But strangely he never cops the flak that Whitlam and Keating did.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

Yes, the other clues (or at least hypotheses) in this political detective story are:

(a) Howard does indeed crave immortality on the international affairs stage;

(b) The Americans exerted some new and so far undisclosed pressure on Howard to persuade him to change his mind. Maybe they threatened not to ensure that the US Senate ratified the Free Trade Agreement unless Howard agreed to deliver more troops to Iraq (thus threatening the Howardian historical legacy)???

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Coming late to this increasingly fruity debate, so I’ll just echo some earlier comments here, to wit:

Yep, I doubt Howard ever picked Strauss up, and if he did, it was only to find what others were crapping on about. Then he would have put it down rapidly and gone back to Brice Courtney’s “Tommo and Hawk” and Winne’s “History of the English Speaking Peoples.”

I reckon Howard’s not a deep thinker or ponderer. Smart, oh yes. Like Nixon, he’s been through a politician’s hell, reviled, written off and mocked, and came out the other end, probably agreeing with Freddy N. that “that which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”, as one of the most cunning, shrewd and pragmatic politicians I’ve ever seen.

Fuck Strauss, he just wants us “relaxed and comfortable” (which I think is a brillant summation of the Australian ethos in many ways) yet “alert but not alarmed”.

As I think it was Tim g who pointed out, this makes him everything you’d want out of an Australian PM during genuine crisis like Port Arthur, East Timor (once it happened), the Bali Bombing or the Tsunami. In those cases he read the prevailing national mood right, acted decisively and did good and necessary stuff.

It’s when he manufactures or encourages faux crisis to keep in power and wedge the opposition (Tampa, interest rates, gay marriage, abortion, etc) that you wonder if he spent too much time staring into all our abysses/abscesses.

Also he’s a cricket tragic, obsessed by numbers as a record of achievement. And there really are some major issues we have start dealing with now which he has shown little inclination to make a move on.

I think he’s a classic reactionary in both the best and worse sense of the word. But it could be worse. If you look at the rest of the western world, Australia has actually had it pretty lucky with leadership over the past two decades.

What we really need now for the 21st century is the pragmatic big picture reform approach of the Hawke Government frontbench in 80s with Howard behind glass, to broken out in case of emergencies.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

And yes, as other comments made since I started writing the above, he’s reading his own press releases too much now and now wants some glory for posterity. It’s looks like he’s starting to lose touch with what it was him that got him this far – the ordinary little next neighbour that’ll do the hard yards in the crunch. I think Hyancith Bucket is calling in several decades of markers.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

That’s “Buckay” Nabs.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Hyacinth did you say? Now there’s a woman who makes the effort. Very similar to myself. It’s all very well for little johnny to have us happily mesmerised into relaxed and comnfortable (were Australians ever anything else?)
Luvluvs I hear you bleating, I know MANY suffer. Especially the poor and unemployed, the aged and disadvantaged, the cripples and the innocent victims of living in … a street, and of course the refugees. Becoming quite shrill here.

Back to the point which was made quite succintly but incorrectly by FX and then answered equally wrongly by his parishness. The situation around here FX is that Parish is in control of the sex – master of all he surveys you might say and to point is to pant. Now Parish, you darling fuckwit, the piles of dirt I was referring to did not include your paltry effort at gritting up the glossy softness of the floor beneath OUR desk. The piles of dirt to which I referred are a new habit I have adopted. Sweeping without the dustpan and broom. Result: many discreet and frankly, very unobtrusive piles of dirt (you didn’t notice them and I’d forgotten, until tonight, when I lovingly attended each and everyone with our very own blue, dustpan and broom) yes each one waiting patiently for a clean sweep. (irresistable and contrived) Oh po-mo, self-referential and all and back to the (my) topic. Now I must away, to enjoy the foot orgasm of pristine, polished pine.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Sorry Ken, but when supposedly intelligent blokes call a change of mind between elections on issues like a GST, lying, and that change of mind is put squarely before the electorate, some of us just can’t help ourselves. Try this scenario. After Hewson’s demise and Keating’s backdown, Howard is of the view that a GST is for the dustbin. During the next couple of years in office he gets all the same pleas and info that Keating got(and was convinced by until Hawkie said no way) about the need to reform the WST. Against some serious doubters as to his political sanity among his peers he takes the high road on this at the next election. Bloody liar is he Ken, or is that tag just like the one we should use against his opponents that he always had a secret agenda to dismantle Medicare, from his early parliamentary speeches. Do you think it’s just possible he might have changed his mind on that too in govt over the years Ken? What about the Beazer with his no way no how ever again stance on the leadership after the challenge with Latham? Big liar now Ken?

Ask yourself this question honestly Ken. Would you like to work in an environment, making day to day decisions, where your every written word or utterance is noted, parsed and nuanced by a whole bloody country, ready to pounce on every disagreement with colleagues, backtrack, lack of decisiveness or poor decision you are responsible for? Under such circumstances, how many ‘lies’ could we pin on you after 1yr, 5yrs, 10yrs of this? Also do you reckon old hands like Howard and Carr have something in common here? Why do you think we don’t remember certain falsehoods like we’re all right behind you Mark and Simon? As a wise man said recently, we all have to be careful we don’t drink our own bathwater.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Fuck Strauss, he just wants us “relaxed and comfortable”

And that we are. Because we are not a country in crisis. We have the comparitive luxury and education to sift multiple sources of information, and consciously or unconsciously hear and accept part-truths. We are a sophisticated audience, possibly the most disingenuous audience that the pollies and the media have ever played to. We take everything with a grain of salt even while we rant and demonstrate.
The Strauss theory is relevant because it underpins a strategy of dissembling in this contemporary environment of information overload. Questioning is knee-jerk and skepticism deeply embedded inour culture.
It has been said before, no-one seriously expects a politician to tell the truth. Is that even possible? (yes, I think it is, but then I think that D and the post- structuralists are mostly wankers)
I doubt, we as an audience, trained to assimilate and synthesise so many partial pieces of information, would even benefit greatly from a gargantuan attempt at integrity regarding a single issue or during a political campaign of any kind.

The truth is no longer accepted by anyone as a one source beast and so Howard is not fooling anyone. His strategy for maintaining power is to lie, and create interest piquing fear, and it is working. We are comfortable and relaxed and voting a Howard government into office.

It is more than pragmatism and savvy born of Nixonian humiliations and triumphs. It is a concerted and effective strategy.
And Nixon was caught out.
Howard has nothing to hide.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Actually when you read between the lines here, Howards critics are asking us to believe he’s the master of shrewd and Machiavellian politics. Also he’s starting to set himself up for a career strutting the world stage, presumably after he’s tired of toying with we mere underlings down under. Voila, this explains why he’s sending another 450 suckers to Iraq to further his long term ambitions.

Now what I don’t understand is why our shrewd Machiavellian here, who has to date, ably resisted sending these extra troops into the quicksands of a Vietnam style Iraq, is now throwing away his shot at international immortality, by suddenly shooting himself in the foot. Why not just manufacture another little managable tsunami, ET, Solomons, PNG crisis to make you look suitably statesmanlike, concerned and busy elsewhere as per usual? OTOH perhaps the critics are saying he’s only hopping into Iraq to grab all the glory, now that all the heavy lifting is over and the Iraq thingy is definitely a goer after elections there. Hmm…, sounds to me like the sort of logic that has advised Federal Labor so well for the past decade.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Actually when you read between the lines here, Howards critics are asking us to believe he’s the master of shrewd and Machiavellian politics. Also he’s starting to set himself up for a career strutting the world stage, presumably after he’s tired of toying with we mere underlings down under. Voila, this explains why he’s sending another 450 suckers to Iraq to further his long term ambitions.

Now what I don’t understand is why our shrewd Machiavellian here, who has to date, ably resisted sending these extra troops into the quicksands of a Vietnam style Iraq, is now throwing away his shot at international immortality, by suddenly shooting himself in the foot. Why not just manufacture another little managable tsunami, ET, Solomons, PNG crisis to make you look suitably statesmanlike, concerned and busy elsewhere as per usual? OTOH perhaps the critics are saying he’s only hopping into Iraq to grab all the glory, now that all the heavy lifting is over and the Iraq thingy is definitely a goer after elections there.

Hmm…, sounds to me like the sort of logic that has advised Federal Labor so well for the past decade. You know, a bob each way all the time. Oh that’s right, it isn’t their Bob any more. It’s their measley Beasley’s they’re putting up each way these days.

Mike Desch
Mike Desch
2022 years ago

Dear Mr. Parish —
Enjoyed your piece and appreciated the notice of my TAC piece.
Am puzzled, however, not about why you might think I am wrong about Strauss’s influence on American neoconservatives (surely a debatable issue), but why I might be “(willfully)” so?
Sincerely,
Mike Desch

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mike

I put “wilfully” in brackets with a question mark because I haven’t read your work before and therefore wasn’t sure. But I entertain the possibility because you seem to be very familiar with the work of Strauss and Bloom and their political devotees (and with philosophy in general). If you are indeed as familiar as it seemed from your article, you would surely have entertained the thought that maybe Bush administration claims to be seeking to export western democracy to the Middle East might be disingenuous Straussian lies, concealing a more “realpolitik” motive such as uniting the populus against a common enemy (whether real, invented or exaggerated), and a range of other possible motives not worth canvassing here.

BTW I approach the issue from the standpoint of a liberal democrat (in the British not American sense i.e. a believer in the liberalism of Locke, Mill, Bentham et al not a socialist) with occasional conservative instincts (our society is pretty good overall, so be cautious about change), and a moderate libertarian on social issues. For someone like me, the current bout of political Straussianism (whether or not it’s a perversion of Strauss’s work isn’t really to the point as far as I’m concerned) is a truly frightening, depressing and alien ideology.

Mike Desch
Mike Desch
2022 years ago

Dear Ken —
I think you give the Bush Administration too much credit for subtlety. They are dangerous not because they are crypto-nihilists (which is ultimately what Strauss was) but rather because they are true believers in a certain strand of Liberalism (e.g., the democratic peace).
I think that they truly believe that the global spread of democracy will solve many of the world’s problems (e.g., no war among democracies, free trade, and no terrorism). In this, by the way, there is much continuity with the Clinton Administration as well. The only difference is that Bush endorses a benign but unilateral American hegemony while Clinton was more enamored of multilateralism.
My bottom-line: I don’t fear the ruthless pursuit of self-interest because it is self-limiting. I worry deeply, however, about such idealism, which is truly limitless both in its ambitions and its self-righteousness.
Best,
Mike