Brown Study

Brown study

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

I wonder why international leaders make decisions that are clearly against their own interests. There have been two recent examples. The first was the release by Israel of another tranche of terrorists who are free to rejuvenate and refresh themselves and return to the cause of murdering Israeli citizens. This was done in the naive belief that it would be received with the same goodwill as it was granted and that, in return for the gesture, the Palestinian side would turn their swords into ploughshares and become real partners in the search for peace. It will, of course, have no such effect. In reality it will be seen as a sign of weakness and, like all such signs of weakness, as an incentive to use the same tactics to have more prisoners released next time. If you can get such a result from the tactics you have been using, you can do the same again, increasing the catch each time. So this was not a decision from which Israel will benefit.

The second example of this strange trend was the release by the government of Afghanistan of 65 Taleban prisoners who, likewise, have not undergone a change of heart but who will use their freedom to return to the battlefield after a decent interval and continue where they left off. This will lead to more deaths, and saps the Americans’ enthusiasm for keeping any militarily presence in Afghanistan, strengthens the arm of those in Washington who want complete and immediate withdrawal and increases the perils of daily life for the poor Afghans who want a peaceful life, free from the medieval horrors of another Taleban regime.

Moreover, what really annoys me is that when Mr Karzai releases these people, what sort of contemptuous gesture is it to countries like the US and Australia and particularly the mothers and fathers whose sons were killed or maimed in the war? The message sent by Afghanistan is: we do not appreciate the efforts you made to free us or the billions you spent; we are releasing these terrorists who killed your young men so they can kill a few more. It riles me as much as did Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence who, after the years of suffering and loss in Vietnam, thanked the parents whose sons were killed in the war by making up with ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda and announcing that, after mature reflection, the war was a big mistake. Both his and Karzai’s positions are utterly immoral.

None of this means that war should be a first resort, so here is my contribution to avoiding conflict. Australia should be at the forefront of setting up a permanent body for the mediation of international disputes. You have seen the on-again, off-again talks over Syria and what a shambles they have been; it has been the same on most of the other big disputes in my lifetime, the intractable ones like Palestine, Kashmir, Korea and the Falklands and now the new breed of disputes like the East and South China Seas, Abkhazia, Georgia and the racial and boundary fights of Africa. The difficulty is getting the parties to meet at all, then in which city and whether they will meet in the same room. There are arguments over the agenda, who can attend and, as with the Vietnam talks, even the shape of the conference table. The UN often fails in resolving disputes (it has been fiddling around with Kashmir since 1948) as it is not solely a permanent mediation body, cannot compel attendance and often cannot get the consent of the parties to talks; its adoption of an anti-Israel tone has clouded its impartiality and raises doubts that it can ever solve the issue of Palestine.

A new Australian-sponsored body would not have those problems; it would have all current disputes on its table and ready to go because it has put them there; it would be open to submissions from disputants and anyone else: Russia, for instance, on Syria and the US on Palestine. Submissions could be anonymous; when the disputants find a submission interesting, they reply themselves or by a proxy and propose a response. Eventually, as with all mediations, possible solutions will emerge. Talks would be without preconditions and without prejudice. Australia has the mediators to start with, the Kiwis also have a good reputation in commercial mediation and I could give you the names of many international mediators who would help. This proposal would also lift our profile and burnish our international credentials. I am going to pursue it and, I hope, garner support.

But domestic concerns drag us back. First, we should note that Craig Thomson has just been convicted of a raft of corruption offences and is awaiting sentence. It was a slow process, but it vindicates our system of justice, sort of. Then, the decline in manufacturing industry has been sad, but just as depressing has been the response of our business moguls; you could sum it up as ‘give us more money’. These days they dress it up as ‘co-investment’, just as the arts industry refers to doling out vast wads of money as ‘funding’, as it sounds more cuddly, but what they all mean is a handout. Never a word about incentive, about capitalism and what it can produce if you set it free, the work ethic and self-reliance or the notion that governments should just leave them alone; the only time any of them can talk about a tax is to say that the carbon tax did not affect their decision to close down. Well, what a unique tax it must be and what, then, is the point in having it at all? The only thing that gives me heart is that we now have a government that knows how to say ‘no’.

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