Tuesday, September 21, 2004

If only I could take pre-emptive action against a few politicians

Radio National this morning covered the pointless “debate” between Labor and Liberal parties on the “doctrine” of pre-emptive self-defence. On examination, both parties are only a whisker apart (a distance that becomes chasm-like after spin).

Okay, so Labor says it would not take action inside our neighbours’ borders without consultation and invitation – and that to adopt a policy of pre-emptive strikes is destabilising and sets us against neighbours like Indonesia who don’t like the idea, and whose co-operation is needed to fight terrorism.

Fine. But are the Liberals actually backing pre-emption?

Well, no. Or only in such limited circumstances as to make it unlikely ever to happen.

Downer says that Australia would never act uninvited inside the territory of regional partners with a viable counter-terrorism infrastructure, and pre-emption would only ever really be considered in failed states, unable or unwilling, to stamp out terrorist bases.

Politically, not unreasonable. But hardly consistent with Downer’s claim the Labour policy leaves Latham unable to state categorically he would do everything necessary under any circumstances to protect Australia. After all, the Liberals policy leaves them far from free-handed.

When a radio journalist asked about the terror camps the Phillipines government has been unable to suppress Downer managed to pshaw and claim there was no link between any such small, remaining bases and plots targeting Australia. He suggested it was inconceivable an Australian government would do nothing if it was aware of an imminent attack being planned from such a base.

So, suddenly the Liberal policy is consult and proceed only when invited in the case of all but failed states, where we would only proceed when faced with imminent attack?

If this is right, it is (somewhat reassuringly) not a doctrine of pre-emption at all. It is the nineteenth century doctrine of anticipatory self-defence which claims a right to take necessary and proportionate action in self-defence when there is the danger of an imminent attack.

The only problem with anticipation is that is conflicts with anything but the most strained reading of Article 51 of the UN Charter, reserving the right of self-defence to situations where there has been a prior armed attack or Security Council resolution. (Some English-speaking academics claim that anticipation is available under the Charter, but a lot of English-speakers and almost every nation in the world disagrees with them.)

At least - though in my view illegal - a doctrine of anticipation articulates a concept of last resort action to forestall an attack and curbs its exercise with criteria that have some meaning in military law.

What is really needed is substantive debate about regional arrangements capable of looking after security issues in our collective backyard.

But that kind of detail isn’t going to sell to the voter only interested in a Tom Clancy level of foreign policy analysis. Meanwhile the term “pre-emption” just makes us sound like a Pacific-region Deputy of Bush’s Texas Ranger foreign policy.

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