David Lange Speech on Tolerance: Otago University Thursday 5 August 2004

22 Aug

It is healthy to turn to this speech last year by the late David Lange, former PM of New Zealand (Sirdan met him, by the way), especially in the light of John Howard’s announced receipt of the Woodrow Wilson award, and Peter Costello’s comments on anti-American teachers.

Although I was asked here to talk about peace, I am not what could be called a pacifist. I think that, like individuals, societies and nations have the right to defend themselves from attack. I think for example that the government of Kuwait was entitled to call for military assistance when it was invaded by Iraq in 1990. I think that this country, New Zealand, was right to identify itself with the victims of aggression as it did in 1939 when it declared war on Germany.

I am just as sure that there must be limits on the use of force. The use of force can only be justified if it is in proportion to the threat which is offered. Tomorrow is the anniversary of an attack which in my mind cannot be justified, and that is the bombing of Hiroshima. Like the bombing of Nagasaki, it was done to make a point, and the harm done was out of all proportion to the threat.

I see no justification for the terrorist attacks of September 2001. They are a crime against humanity. The Bali bombing was no less an outrage. There is no justification for the murder of the innocent.

The government of the United States, and the government of Indonesia, had a duty to pursue the people who were responsible for these terrorist crimes. The Indonesian government has had some success in bringing the murderers to account. The Americans had a harder task.

It is the American response I am going to talk about tonight.

What the United States has done in response to the terrorist attacks is so remarkable and radical that it amounts to a revolution in international affairs. It is a revolution which has made the world a much more dangerous place.

When it invaded Iraq, the United States set aside its military doctrines of containment and deterrence and adopted a radical new doctrine of preventive war. It acted unilaterally, and made it plain that multilateral processes were worth very little to it. It set aside all respect for national sovereignty and attempted to reconstruct Iraqi society by the use of military force. It showed contempt for the rules of international law and from its position of overwhelming military might it poured scorn on anyone who dared to object to the damage it has done to international institutions.

Let me put it like this. From the outset, President George W Bush adopted an overbearing approach to America’s role in the world, relying upon military might and righteousness, insensitive to the concerns of traditional friends and allies, and disdainful of the United Nations. Instead of building upon America’s great economic and moral strength to lead other nations in a co-ordinated campaign to address the causes of terrorism and stifle its resources, the administration, motivated more by ideology than by reasoned analysis, struck out on its own. It led the United States into an ill-planned and costly war from which exit is uncertain.

Those are not my words. They are taken from a statement made less than two months ago by a group of retired American diplomats and senior military commanders.

There is a certain wistfulness about some American criticism of the Bush administration s foreign policy. Americans of all political opinions are used to seeing the United States as a benign influence in world affairs. The United States was in this view a nation which was distinguished by its idealism. It respected the rule of law. It helped build the international institutions which have been trampled over by the Bush administration. Among American critics of the Iraqi adventure, there is deep dismay that the foreign policy of the United States is now so widely seen as reckless and unprincipled.

There is no simple explanation of the Bush administration’s actions.

The administration told the American public that the invasion was part of what the president called the war on terror.

It is not surprising that the Bush administration should respond to the terrorist attacks by getting ready for war. Just after the attacks, public opinion in the United States might not have settled for less. The cruelty of the attacks called out for a decisive response. The problem, of course, is that the enemy is not obvious. The enemy is not a government which has declared war on the United States. The enemy is hidden. Its numbers can’t be counted. Because its numbers can’t be counted, its numbers are limitless. The war on terror can be won only when the United States believes that the invisible army of its enemies is no longer a threat.

The war on terror is a war without end.

Anyone who has travelled to the United States or done business with the United States will know the remarkable security measures which have been put in place. I have friends who live on a pleasant street in Washington which runs down to the Potomac river. Not long after the terror attacks, the river bank became a building site. Very soon the end of the street was home to a gun emplacement. Security measures like this may be necessary, but they also add to uncertainty. By placing the country on a war footing, they give weight to the view that war is inevitable.

A continuing state of readiness for war does not in itself explain the invasion of Iraq.

The invasion was not an attempt to bring to justice the people responsible for the terrorist attacks. Nobody in the United States administration could seriously claim that the regime in Iraq had any direct involvement in the attacks. As we know now, there was never any evidence of Iraqi involvement. One American critic of the war compares the invasion of Iraq to the behaviour of the drunk who dropped his keys on one side of the street. He looked for them on the other side, because there was more light on that side. Iraq became a target, but not because the Iraqi regime had given comfort to the people who attacked the United States.

In fact, the Bush administration had to work hard to find a justification for its invasion of Iraq. That is hardly surprising. The administration asked a lot when it asked the world to believe that a superpower like the United States was in any way threatened by a country like Iraq.

The administration could not persuade the United Nations to give it a mandate for military action. According to the UN s weapons inspectors, the Iraqi regime made a reasonable effort to comply with Security Council resolutions. That made no difference. The world continued to hear from the United States about the regime’s weapons of mass destruction and the threat they posed to vital American interests.

We know now that when the United States and its allies invaded, the Iraqi regime had no weapons which were capable of doing serious harm to any vital American interest. We also know, as a result of inquiries held in Great Britain and the United States, that the intelligence services of both countries told their governments that the weapons existed

The evidence was not conclusive. I don’t suppose it ever is. Voters in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia are entitled to be interested in the credibility of the evidence, and in the credibility of the politicians who acted on the evidence. In terms of international law and international institutions, the existence of the weapons is not the critical point.

Real or imagined, the weapons were used to justify what the Bush administration calls preventive war. It’s a phrase which goes beyond rationality and well into absurdity. You cannot prevent a war by starting one. If the authors of the doctrine actually believe in it, they are in the grip of an extraordinary delusion. If they don’t, they have made a cynical attempt to provide some tattered justification for the unilateral exercise of military force.

The new doctrine of preventive war has no standing in international law as it used to be understood. When it was put into practice in Iraq, there was no hiding what it was. It was, simply, unprovoked aggression.

Now we have to ask ourse
lves why the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, three countries which publicly pride themselves on their democratic traditions and humanitarian values, should start a war in such a doubtful cause…

It was the first president Bush who chose to leave the Iraqi regime in office. He gave a number of reasons for his choice. He did not want to see the Iraqi state broken up. The human and political costs of conquering Iraq would be too great. American occupation of Iraq would alienate governments in the region. An occupation would have gone beyond the UN mandate. It would make a multilateral response to aggression less likely in the future. According to the first Bush administration, the best that could be hoped for in Iraq was a popular uprising which would topple the regime.

President George W Bush has rejected his father’s reasoning. There is extensive and convincing evidence that his administration saw Iraq as a potential target well before the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Members of the administration wished to follow a more assertive policy in the region and make greater use of America’s military power as a means of promoting American interests.

The terrorist attacks created a climate in which the use of force became possible. They may in fact have created a climate in which the use of force became inevitable.

Americans responded to the attacks with heartfelt patriotism. The country united behind the president. President Bush became the object of extraordinary popular enthusiasm. There was little tolerance for opinion which did not support the president and little room for critical examination of American policy, at home or abroad. The demands of security were allowed at times, and are still allowed, to override civil liberties. Some elements of the news media were hardly more than cheerleaders for the administration. Political opposition was subdued. No leading Democrat spoke out against the invasion of Iraq until Howard Dean, whose chance of the Democratic nomination was snuffed out early in the primaries, dared to make it an issue.

Much of what the world admires about America vanished in the fire and smoke of the war on terror.

There was enormous sympathy for the United States after the attacks. It melted away in face of the arrogance and overbearing righteousness of the response…

The new crusaders carry, not a cross, but a ballot box. Democracy is the name they give to their faith, and their battle cry is freedom. Opponents of the invasion who questioned the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were brushed off with the argument that the regime was evil and should be replaced by a democratic government. Now that the weapons are known not to exist, the replacement of the regime, and the establishment of democracy in Iraq, have been claimed as justification for the whole adventure.

This argument is as spurious as any other justification for the invasion…

I think that this country is wise to tread carefully while the Bush administration is in office, but I don’t see any advantage for us in trying to appease the United States. We have a group of army engineers in Iraq. They are there in the name of a dubious mandate from the United Nations which was cobbled together to give the UN some appearance of relevance while letting the United States do exactly what it wanted. No good can come of the engineers being there. They’re targets. Their presence can’t help but identify us with Iraq’s military occupiers. We have limited resources and they should not be used for such a doubtful purpose.

It is better for a country like New Zealand to seek the company of the like-minded and make agreements which balance our interests with those of our chosen partners…

Terrorism and the response to terrorism have inevitably coloured our ideas of religious belief. Because of the religious affiliation of the terrorists, their religion itself is seen as a threat. The response to terrorism in turn is seen as an affront to religious belief. Against the background of war and terror, religious belief becomes a marker for intolerance and prejudice

I do not see faith itself as the issue. My view is that society shapes the form of religious belief, and not the other way around. For all their religious colouring, I do not see what has happened in Iraq, or what happens every day in Israel and Palestine, or what happens in the minds of terrorists who kill the innocent in the name of their faith, as matters of religion. I see them as political problems which need political solutions

At their heart is a contest for resources. It is a contest carried on by the most extreme methods. It is a contest which is made all the more dangerous if the participants are seized by a belief in the justice of their cause, and a belief in the error, or indeed the evil, of their opponents. The issues behind the contest will never be settled as long as the parties are consumed by righteousness…

That is a large enough slice from Lange’s speech, but there is a lot more he said. You could see it as Lange’s last will and testament, his dying deposition. I urge Australians, indeed Americans, to study this magnificent speech carefully.

I mourn the passing of Lange in New Zealand. I mourn even more the directions the current Australian government has been leading us in for almost a decade now.

And no, I am not anti-American, but I am not pro-Bush. I also find it quite ironic that John Howard gets a prestigious US award for “a special commitment to seeking out informed opinions and thoughtful views” when his style for the past ten years has been to seek out the views that support his own, or come from like-minded ideologues; an award for dedicated pursuit of an ideological mission, for driving forward the destruction of the ideas of compassion (though I do think Amanda Vanstone does try compared to her chilling predecessor), community and collectivity, that would be more like it.

…his triumphs are the fulfilment of New Right ideology that began with the H. R. Nicholls Society and Geoffrey Blainey’s pamphleteering…

The industrial relations legislation is more than Howard’s dream – it is the New Right’s dream. Control of both houses is more than a parliamentary triumph; it is final victory in the culture wars. That’s the stunning part, and the worst thing for Labor to swallow: the completeness of the ideological victory…

The glory of Howard’s position is beyond measure: unlike his avatar, Margaret Thatcher, he is working with a population that’s at least half persuaded he’s right. She went for the jugular of a union movement whose power was intact. Howard’s going for unions already on their knees. Not that this will make him go easy: the horrid part for the labour movement is that the nearer they get to a full-blown showdown the more likely he will indulge his Thatcher fantasies and the nastier he will get. Resistance is just what he needs to enlarge the moment and galvanise him.

Don Watson SMH June 30, 2005.

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Posted by on August 22, 2005 in culture wars, current affairs, events, human rights, Iraq, Oceania, peace, Political, Sirdan, terrorism


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