DESPITE the biggest nation-wide peace demonstration in Australia’s history last week, John Howard is unmoved, unrelenting and determined to join the US-led coalition to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
His unwavering stance in the wake of an unprecedented turnout of up to 500,000 people at the “no war” rallies may be regarded as arrogance.
But his firm determination to pursue his aim is the reflection of a strong leader who believes that what he is doing, arguably, is in the interest of the nation. It is a quality that some people have expressed their admiration for in talkback radio programmes with him.
More to the point is that the Prime Minister has a powerful reason to behave the way he does. To him, the imminent war with Iraq with or without United Nations sanction is a crucial test.
Firstly, it is a test to stop Saddam Hussein from thumbing his nose at the UN that allows him to continue to play his “cat and mouse game of the past decade” over what is believed to be his hidden weapons of mass destruction.
Most of the member countries, including the Arab states, have agreed that Iraq has not complied with its UN obligations to destroy such weapons. They have urged Saddam to be more cooperative with the UN weapon inspectors to avert a war.
Secondly, if the UN Security Council fails to take action against Iraq, it would be humiliated, its credibility destroyed, its concept of global collective security undermined and, in short, it would become irrelevant to the disadvantage of many countries.
All the efforts to implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions would have been rendered ineffective and useless.
Australia has played a major role in the past 37 years to bring about these agreements to stop countries from developing such weapons.
In 1966, for example, Australia acted as “midwife” to the nuclear test ban treaty and in 1995 launched a vigorous campaign against President Chirac of France who lifted the moratorium on nuclear testing in the South Pacific islands.
In 1998, it imposed economic and other sanctions against India and Pakistan for carrying out nuclear tests in a rivalry to become nuclear powers.
Therefore, like all the previous Australian governments, Howard’s immediate concern is to ensure that the UN Security Council will enforce the will of the international community on maverick states attempting to deceive weapons inspectors.
The UN has not only to support established multilateral arms control and non-proliferation arrangements but also to strengthen export control regimes governing trade in materials and technology that might contribute to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
But of greater concern to Howard, it appears, is the problem of dealing with belligerent North Korea, which has defied the UN by shutting down the nuclear-monitoring equipment and withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Pyongyang has also announced it would consider as a declaration of war if the UN imposed economic sanctions against North Korea.
This is obviously a delicate situation and, to a large extent, depends very much on how well the UN or the US-led coalition deal with Iraq over its weapons of mass destruction.
The Howard government has acted quickly and quietly to find a diplomatic breakthrough in the current deadlock with North Korea.
In his speech to Australian and Korean businessmen in Sydney last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer points out that Australia’s concern about the threat posed by North Korea is three-fold:
First, Pyongyang’s actions, unnecessarily and without basis, are raising tensions on the Korean peninsula with the principal players in the region, especially South Korea, the US, Japan and China.
Second, such actions risk undermining a global consensus to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the regimes that are in place to uphold and enforce those norms.
Third, such actions are a form of blackmail to which the international community must respond firmly and unequivocally to dissuade such behaviour by North Korea and by other countries or groups.
Downer admits that North Korea’s isolation, repressive political system and barely-functioning economy have made it particularly difficult to deal with.
It is one of the last vestiges of the Cold War, left behind in an age when much of the world has undergone democratic transformation.
It has a history of eccentric and dangerous behaviour and has deployed hundreds of Scud and other ballistic missiles capable of striking targets throughout South Korea and almost all of Japan.
In 1998, North Korea test-fired a more powerful rocket, the Tae-po-dong 1, over northern Japan.
“We know that the North Koreans are developing a Tae-po-dong 2 inter-continental ballistic missiles that, at least theoretically, could reach the west coast of the United States,” Downer says.
“These are the developments that have considerably raised the stakes in ensuring North Korea gets no further with its weapons programmes.
“Despite the difficulties, deal with Kim Jong Il we must because, more than ever, North Korean actions threaten not just the stability of the Korean peninsula but also the wider East Asian region.”
This, in fact, is the crucial point of the nuclear issue outlined by the Howard government following the mass peace rallies in the nation’s capital cities.
The message is clear. Australians in large numbers have shown their abhorrence of a possible war with Iraq and of the fear that thousands of women and children would be killed in the bombings on Baghdad.
They are also concerned that their sons and daughters may come back from the war in plastic body bags.
The spontaneous turnout, which surprised even the organisers, is similar to the outcomes of peace rallies around the world where one estimate puts it at 10 million people.
But Howard has yet to convince mainstream Australians of the need to go to war without UN backing despite his repeated attempts since the pre-deployment of 2,000 troops to the Middle East four weeks ago.
The looming war with Iraq is an ongoing issue in Australia today. It is invariably talked about in social gatherings, heatedly debated in political forums and emotionally agonised by some people who are upset at the mere thought of a war and its consequences.
The possible reprisals from the al-Qaeda terrorist network could come in more suicide bombings against the US and its allies.
In this connection, Australia is at risk from such attacks, according to visiting American security analyst Norman A. Wilcox Jr, who was attending a conference of the Council of International Investigators in Perth.
He believes that the threat of suicide bombers walking into a small bar, even in regional or rural areas, is real. It is designed to strike fear into ordinary people that no one is safe from terrorism.
Wilcox’s warning is timely as the Howard government is consulting state governments to draw up a national counter-terrorist plan in addition to the recent second phase of public campaign to protect Australia from terrorist attacks.
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