Et tu, Noel?

A sense of gloom settled in as I ploughed through The Weekend Australian yesterday. It felt like February 2003 again, only worse. Then, an optimist could at least excuse the thumping of the drums of war as the triumph of hope over experience. In the light of the last four years, that excuse is no longer available.

In The World section on page thirteen, Gerard Baker (US preparing to beat Irans bomb) produced a paean to the wonders of high explosive and muscular diplomacy. All directed at Iran, of course. Were it not for Mr Bakers previous efforts, one might have been tempted to view the entire article as a mildly amusing parody. Consider, for example, how he finished the piece (emphasis added):

But it is starting to look as though, with not much more than a year left in his term, Bush has decided, as he surveys the unedifying global territory of ideological and state-backed terror, that he needs to clean house.

And a 13, 600kg MOP 1 might be just the job.

Immediately above this anti-exemplar of quality journalism, Martin Chulov and Abraham Rabinovich (Syria quick to clean up bombed facility) have a little go at Syria and its purported nuclear ambitions. Whatever the truth about these ambitions, and on balance international views (including those of the IAEA) appear very sceptical, this article was of the nudge, nudge, wink, wink school of journalism. You know . . . . implication, innuendo and mostly unnamed sources.

Then we have the editorial Naming the Enemy where the sad deaths of Sergeant Matthew Locke and Trooper David Pearce are used to launch a plea to up the anti against a barbaric enemy determined “to destroy us.” We’re told that their deaths are a “terrible reminder that there is rarely such a thing as war without casualties.” This certainly won’t be news to Iraqis or Afghanis and many readers may by now have begun to wonder if there is any platitude that will be left unplumbed. It goes on to claim that fear of offending Muslims has prevented us from even naming our enemy, a grave error promptly remedied. It is not terrorism as such we are fighting but Islamic terrorists. Was this editorial intended as satire, perhaps? I fear not, for the bombast is then turned on General Musharrafs disastrous policy of appeasing al-Qaida. And so on and so on ad nauseum. As a bracing contrast, consider this quote from a knowledgeable , seasoned observer, a previous Brigadier in the Pakistani army:

Compounding this initial blunder, the US administration is now trying to salvage US-NATO operations in Afghanistan by forcing the Pakistan government to undertake a war upon its own tribal people. It has no comprehension that in seeking this tactical gain it is risking a strategic catastrophe. In its blithe ignorance and wishful policy-making it pursues the chimeras of Benazir Bhuttos promises that, if the US helps her become prime minister, she will take care of everything and sort out all the problems. Ahmed Chalabi once sold them an identical bill of goods, and led them into the Iraq quagmire. Now they follow Benazir Bhuttos siren song into an even bigger disaster in the making. Some people never learn.

So, that was the first section. I then turned to the Inquirer. On p27 in Nuclear Showdown, Abraham Rabinovich reviews whether Israel is likely to go it alone in striking against Irans nuclear installations. This is a more serious effort than his earlier one with Chulov and takes the time to canvass many points of view. Regrettably, but perhaps understandably given the sheer pervasiveness of embedded perceptions, he doesnt question whether Ahmadinejads call to wip2 Israel off the map has been correctly translated and interpreted or whether it reflects Iranian policy. As he rightly notes, given the profoundly painful individual connection of many Israeli leaders with the holocaust, this sort of threat (whether correctly interpreted or not) is bound to find a particularly receptive ear. At any rate, in isolation this article would have been unobjectionable, a slightly partisan but nevertheless informative review of a serious foreign policy issue.

No, what really solidified the gloom was Noel Pearsons effort. In his piece this week, entitled United, well fight terrorism, he entirely abandoned his normal beat. Ive enjoyed Pearson’s commentary in the past, listened to and been impressed by some of his talks on the radio and, in so far as I felt qualified to have a view at all, thought his ideas on the solution to Indigenous problems seemed to make a lot of sense. I have been a bit puzzled by his enthusiastic support for the NT intervention but withheld judgement since he may be playing a longer and deeper game than I understand.

I feel no such compunction with this piece. My initial surprise that hed venture into these murky waters soon turned to disappointment and something very close to anger. His principal initial argument is that a single narrative of world history involving Western and Zionist global oppression of Muslims is now spreading among Muslim populations, that this paranoid Islamist narrative unavoidably links terror and weapons of mass destruction and that, together with the explosion of imagination that occurred on 9/11, these constitute an existential threat.

That there is such a narrative is surely uncontroversial. Indeed, given the history of western involvement in the Middle East, I’d have thought it was also entirely understandable. We do not have clean hands and our actions post 9/11 have merely served to strengthen these suspicions and fears. He cites Greg Sheridans description of this narrative of Western oppression as immensely powerful because “any grievance at all, real or imagined, whether based in fact or fantasy or in conspiracy, can be fitted into it”. Pearson goes on to say:

The battle for hearts and minds that is needed to undo it will be very difficult and protracted because almost everything Western powers do (except caving in to extremists) will be taken as confirmation of their oppressive activities.

This, whether intentional or not, is a logical and rhetorical sleight of hand. Not only are the many alternative responses to 9/11 defacto condemned as caving in, but on the same grounds conciliatory efforts now and in the future are implicitly ruled out.

He notes a little later: It must be admitted that, despite success in some areas, the Western worlds anti-terror campaign has achieved little progress of strategic significance since 2001 and goes on to claim that 3uick and decisive progress in influencing the behaviour of Islamists and their supporters was never going to be easy to achieve because of the irrational and viral nature of the ideology. The circular nature of this argument is sadly matched by the loaded choice of terminology.

Pearson then introduces his second major theme. The most unnecessary setback in the struggle against terror has been the divisions within and between Western nations. Just as the earlier sleight of hand sought to quarantine alternative approaches to dealing with the Muslim world, here he attempts to fend off closer examination of the underlying proposition through the use of the word unnecessary. The notion of inner conflict in the West was first introduced a little earlier in the piece when he suggested that our difficulties in understanding the dangers of the burgeoning Islamist narrative result from our own guilt at our racist past. A leftist perspective”, he added, which many Westerners dont share. While some in the West may indeed be prone to exaggerating our sins, I fear Pearson is using these arguments to build towards something quite different since much of the rest of the piece is devoted to making a case for redefining the balance between the rule of law and security.

Before proceeding further, I want to briefly look at the other two elements of his initial argument. The first was, if you recall, that the paranoid Islamist narrative unavoidably links terror and weapons of mass destruction. While I have no doubt many terrorists would dearly love to, indeed have always wanted to obtain WMDs, I fail to see how the paranoid narrative either strengthens or weakens their chances of doing so. Proliferation is a bad thing, certainly, but then I dont think many would argue otherwise and the determination to obtain nuclear weapons will only be strengthened if a country feels itself under threat of unprovoked attack. Few, after all, will have failed to note the difference in the way North Korea is being dealt with compared to Iran, its partner in the Axis of Evil. As for the likelihood of a government giving WMDs to terrorists, the profound existential risk inherent in such an action, together with a natural reluctance to relinquish control over such power, suggest it would only occur if all were perceived to be lost. In other words, if war or unilateral action on the part of the west precluded all hope for the future.

As for his explosion of imagination, Pearson says terrorism was taking a giant leap that fateful day, in terms of the scale of destruction and its ruthless fanaticism. This is at best a banal observation. What was new was the fact that they succeeded, in all likelihood beyond their wildest expectations, not the destructive dream itself. No doubt many terrorists have long yearned for even greater catastrophes than they managed on that day. The true giant leap was in the level of fear in the West. And, of course, in the destructive consequences that even now continue to flow directly from it. The most effective answer to these threats is surely still, as it always has been, international cooperation, intensive police and intelligence work and, wherever possible, the diminuition of those conditions that produce the fertile soil in which terrorism can take root and flourish. In short, all that was so manifestly on offer immediately after 9/11, before the US decided on its current disastrous course.

As a somewhat amusing aside, David Albright, the very authority Rabinovich and Chulov quote in their piece on Syria, had this to say in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations:

“But military options still arent any good, and their exercise would create a much more dangerous world and come back to haunt us just like the invasion or Iraq has. Perhaps even worse, because Iran isnt going to just disintegrate. It could become intensely nationalistic and in essence would go to war against us.”

Now, back to Pearsons desire to redefine the balance between the rule of law and security. Alas he writes, the political discussion about terror then turned into just another front in the culture wars between the Left and the Right. This has been a tragedy and we now find ourselves a country starkly divided, not over how the threat of terror should be dealt with but over the nature of the threat and the identity of the enemy. In the minds of too many, it is the US and Bush who are the threat, not radical Islamists.

Indeed, we might well say, to all of these laments. Unfortunately, he doesnt canvass the possibility that the determination of the Howard government to back the Iraqi invasion, and to push through unnecessarily draconian legislation is what lies at the very heart of this internal division. Or that the broader decision to invade, and the subsequent endless parade of poor decisions, has unleashed a whirlwind of resentment and anger throughout the world, some of which could without too much violence certainly be fitted into Pearsons paranoid Islamist narrative. None of these fundamental considerations see the light of day. Instead, his efforts in this direction are in the end devoted towards suggesting the legal profession butt out of matters it doesnt understand. Like the law and civil liberties, for example.

He makes much of a speech given by former High Court Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan in August this year and quotes him as saying that Incursions on the rule of law may be essential to combat the risk of terror and that lawyers generally do not know the true nature and extent of the threat posed by terrorism today. Controversial as some of his comments undoubtedly were, a bit of perspective is useful. In the same speech he said that lawyers should support the safeguards in the rule of law “unless it is tolerably clear that any proposed abrogation of the traditional laws, practices and procedures is necessary to protect the community, that the abrogation is proportionate to the apprehended harm and has a substantial prospect of achieving the desired protection”. He has made a point of voicing his concerns about these sorts of considerations in regard to aspects of the governments existing anti-terrorist legislation. A better indication of his views may have been the manner in which he ended a speech given only two months earlier:

We must never allow fear – that most malleable of political emotions – to transfer the protection of individual liberty from the judicial to the executive branch of government. Nor should our laws isolate and alienate peaceful citizens, robbing us of that solidarity and communal courage that has preserved us in past perils.

In any case, whatever Sir Gerards deeper views, there has indeed been, as Pearson puts it, a profound antagonism between Australias executive government and the legal establishment. Unprecedented, in fact, since the profession as a whole has repeatedly and strongly opposed the governments moves to restrict civil liberties and alter the balance between government and governed. Rather than responding to this quite remarkable and largely disinterested expression of concern by pausing and reflecting a little more deeply, Pearson stoops to ridicule. He distills the entire legal profession into the person of Julian Burnside QC and then says I would hate to live in a country where Burnside was in charge of national security. Its tempting to respond in kind to such bluster, to the deployment of such an obvious straw man. Suffice to say, this is far below the standard he has tended to set in the past and will hopefully rise to again in the future.

Pearson ends with a plea for transcendent leadership to emerge in the West, a wish sufficiently messianic to be slightly disturbing, and a warning that Cultural war is not the means to wage an effective war against terrorism. He didnt, it would seem, grasp the irony.

What more can one say? Simply that it was, for me, a deeply disappointing piece, the more so for coming from someone who Ive always been inclined to respect. Whatever his intent, the result was a shallow and divisive article, serving not only to entrench existing destructive stereotypes but to harden the cultural divide he professes to so dislike.

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Doctor Patient
Doctor Patient
16 years ago

It looks as if democracy still survives Johnboy’s vacuous biocidal reign. How do we know this? Noel Pearson is free to express his thoughts and ideas. Don’t get too upset because those who wish to express their thoughts and ideas will get their chance.

16 years ago

Maybe Noel wants to be the Hitchens of Australia.

Ken Lovell
16 years ago

Why should we pay any more heed to Noel Pearson’s analysis of international relations than to John Howard’s or Julian Burnside’s? As far as I know Pearson’s a lawyer who has spent most of his life representing the interests of indigenous people. If he has a background as a scholar in geopolitics, it’s been well-concealed to date.

Perhaps The Australian can run an op-ed on the topic next week by Anthony Mundine, if Aboriginality is supposed to confer some sort of expertise. I’m sure it would be every bit as enlightening.

In the mean time I’ll look for information to scholars who have actually studied in the field.

Tom Noonan
Tom Noonan
16 years ago

Go with the official 9-11 story, and have big war, eternal war. Can’t blame right leaning people with an agenda to run with it. There is an encounter with Bill Clinton by Minesota We Are Change, admittedly cheap politicing, which has gone somewhat viral: “911 inside job?”, “How dare you!”

I don’t see how the U.S.A. can afford to expand the war, but others differ, citing a double or nothing strategy – because the U.S. is losing more than money but that too.

By the way there is more to criticism of the official 9-11 story than rabid anti-semitism, although you guys seem to have left it at that. For example the conflation of the military war games, Vigilant Guardian, Northern Vigilance and perhaps Global Guardian, with the terrorist acts. I know it is a difficult story, and without much payback. Better the football and partying. (I came across your Margo threads, 2003 2004, – shameful comments.)

16 years ago

If, like me, you confront the expansive columns of the Weelend Australian in a public library on a Saturday morning that closes sharp at 12 noon….whatever anyone says in 1-2000 words gets short shrift if the opening par exceeds the sub-eds 26 words. So be it with Noel this time around. The presumed reality that the poor guy has to come up with a ‘piece’ by Friday deadline, every Friday, is inhumane and if he don’t measure up I don’t bother. Return to the status quo, we’ll both try again next Saturday.

Nicholas Gruen
16 years ago

Thanks very much for the post Ingolf. I’ve wondered about Pearson. As you may recall I raved about an essay of his on the left right culture wars and aboriginal affairs. I still think it’s a great piece. I also wondered how he will go down if Rudd wins the election. I expect the ALP leaders will be all over him so he needn’t worry too much.

But one of the things I was thinking as I wrote my praise of him is that his criticisms of ‘the left’ are well and good about quite a few on the left, but are not true of the leaders of the ALP who are a fairly hard headed bunch – who for instance didn’t try to turn us into Balmain basket weavers, but deregulated the economy and embraced the cold logic of competition – much more than their opponents had had a taste for.

So while Pearson’s culture war against the basket weavers might be all well and good, his unambiguous endorsement of something done with as little consultation as Howard’s NT intervention is poorly judged IMO.

And this looks worse. Then again, I’ve not read it yet.

Nicholas Gruen
16 years ago

Well, I’ve read it now and it isn’t a pretty sight. Have a look at these paragraphs and try to figure out what the guy is saying.

The Right blames this lack of consensus on the influence on public opinion of leftist relativism. Progressive analyses contend that power structures in the West are responsible for most of the world’s problems and conflicts. [They do?] However, the Right carries a large part of the blame for the West’s disunity. Internationally [I think he means – in many nations], there has been a change for the worse in the way political battles and campaigns are fought. At the turn of the millennium, an increasingly ascendant Right employed divisive tactics in their quest for domestic power.

This new style of political campaigning was pioneered in the US by strategists such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.

In the November 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Green’s profile captured the essence of Karl Rove’s ruthless political methodology: “(Rove) seems to understand – indeed, to count on – the media’s unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove’s skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media’s unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.”

In last month’s cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, on Rove’s (and thereby George W. Bush’s) fatal mistakes, Green identifies the Right’s terrible error: “Rove, forever in thrall to the mechanics of winning by dividing, consistently lacked the ability to transcend the campaign mind-set and see beyond the struggle nearest at hand. In a world made new by September 11, he put terrorism and war to work in an electoral rather than a historical context (my emphasis), and used them as wedge issues instead of as the unifying basis for the new political order he sought.”

The hyperbole and ruthlessness of the Right’s political philosophy and methodology, recognised in Green’s analysis of Rove, has created a situation in which the Right does not have a consensus behind the war on terror and the Left has turned mad with disorientation [who – names please?], so blinded by anger at the Right’s political tactics that terror suspect Jack Thomas and David Hicks are portrayed as latter-day Rosa Parkses and Nelson Mandelas in the struggle against rightist Western tyranny.

This is an attempt at balance by Pearson, but it’s a bunch of staccato assertions. Name one person of any political hue with any stature to speak of that associates David Hicks with Nelson Mandela. I mean for goodness sake. His bloody attorney said he was an idiot. Just an idiot who was lucky not to have been shot and who had the right to some basic (military) rule of law for chrissake.

16 years ago

This is typical of The Australian and its tactic of debate. Rather than arranging evidence into a coherent viewpoint (or narrative as Noel would have it), the entire process is an exercise in establishing one views’ authority above all others, and by any means necessary.

Basically the modus operandi of the what’s become a very circular “culture war”.

I think the Australian, under Paul Kelly, has become driving force behind this trend, which isn’t surprising because it’s as much of a media war as it is a culture war.

In the end it isn’t even about ideology (although its labels can be seen in some of the straw men proffered), but the battle for authority and it’s analogue POWER, in purest sense. In the Media business that also means money.

16 years ago

“The hyperbole and ruthlessness of the Rights political philosophy and methodology, recognised in Greens analysis of Rove, has created a situation in which the Right does not have a consensus behind the war on terror and the Left has turned mad with disorientation [who – names please?],”

Umm, try this lady here complete with Tim Blair head tilt-

Nicholas Gruen
16 years ago

One of the strongest impressions I had of the piece was that, in addition to his ideological line being ill-advised, Pearson was just out of his depth. It’s not only the odd melange readings from the OZ and The Atlantic Monthly, but the crude way in which he tries for a ‘balanced’ kind of perspective (which I think he did successfully in his ‘radical centre’ stuff on Aborigines) by quoting both sides but without any real penetration. Just one after another.

Like Mirko Bagaric in full stride.

The Happy Revolutionary

Good post.

Maybe Pearson should join his namesake as a permanent member of the GG, on this form.