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Foreign Minister discusses speculation on US going to war with Iraq.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

TRANSCRIPT

DATE: 12 August 2002

INTERVIEW: Southern Cross Radio syndication John Laws Show 9.40am

TOPIC: speculation about America going to war with Iraq.

JOHN LAWS - PRESENTER: Well, the head of the Grains Council is concerned that over-the-top rhetoric by the Federal Government is costing Australian wheat sales to Iraq. The council claims Australia is leading the world in its condemnation of Iraq at the expense of our cane growers and, in particular, they’ve singled out the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Alexander Downer is on the line. Good morning Mr Downer.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Good morning John.

LAWS: Do you think you’ve been a bit too eager to stand by George Bush and the sabre-rattling?

DOWNER: No I don’t. Look, I think it’s important that we understand what the issue at stake here is and that is that for the international community. It doesn’t matter whether we’re Americans or Australians, it’s vitally important that Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons, which were supposed to have been destroyed at the end of the Gulf War, are actually destroyed, otherwise we will just have a very highly unstable and dangerous regime slap, bang there in the middle of the Middle East which already is a very unstable region.

So, I think we’re reaching a stage now when the international community is maximising its pressure on Iraq to try to get them to comply with the United Nations Security Council, allow in inspectors and get rid of those weapons of mass destruction.

LAWS: Yeah, well, I’m not sure if you would have seen the television over the weekend but George Bush was interviewed a number of times and he always seemed to be on a golf course, but he seemed to be backing away from the strong rhetoric in relation to Iraq.

DOWNER: Look, I don’t think … I think the media interprets and re-interprets, perhaps understandably, things that the President says. I think the Americans’ position is exactly the same as it’s been for many months, I don’t think anyone’s really changed their position over the last few months as a matter of fact. And the American position is that they haven’t made any

decisions about going to war against Iraq, whereas it’s often reported and argued that the Americans are on the threshold of launching a war.

What the Americans are doing, as well as other countries - and that includes us - are maximising the pressure as best we can to try to get Iraq to comply with international law and to start doing something about these weapons of mass destruction. And I don’t think the American position is shifting at this stage.

LAWS: Yeah, well, I rather felt … it might have simply been the way he was talking because he can be flippant on occasions, but I rather felt that he’d softened the line a little and I …

DOWNER: There’s a headline in a paper today that says he’s hardened his line so, I mean, I can just say to you that reading the cable traffic coming out of Washington, I think their position has remained exactly the same for quite some months now.

LAWS: Well, if it has remained the same, and if ours has, and obviously it has, it’s hardly going to be a surprise attack, is it? I mean, the world’s talking about it.

DOWNER: Well, I don’t think any decision … I mean, I think the important thing to understand here is that there has been no decision to - by the Americans let alone anyone else - to launch an attack against Iraq. And it’ll obviously depend what happens over the next few months whether that will happen or not.

And obviously we’re very concerned that it could end up with war, but there’s an opportunity now for Saddam Hussein to adhere to the demands of the UN and the international community and allow in the inspectors and disband his weapons of mass destruction. Obviously that would be a very good outcome but …

LAWS: We don’t have any indication that he’s expanded his weapons of mass destruction.

DOWNER: We have some indications that in the last four years he has expanded his chemical and biological weapons and there are some signs that he’s developing an embryonic nuclear weapons capacity as well. So, I mean, I don’t think - and I’m sure nobody does - that people shouldn’t underestimate what a very serious threat Saddam Hussein is.

LAWS: Oh yes, I don’t think anybody doubts that for a moment. But you say there’s an indication that he has expanded his weaponry but there aren’t any hard facts, are there?

DOWNER: Well, obviously this is information that … he’s not putting out press releases about it. This is information that’s collected through intelligence agencies and the intelligence reports are persuasive, I have to say, that he maintains and has expanded his chemical and biological

weapons capabilities. And there are intelligence reports suggesting that he may be developing an embryonic nuclear weapons capability as well.

Although, you know, (inaudible) not on the threshold of being able to use nuclear weapons That could take some time and there’s some debate in the intelligence community about that.

LAWS: During your trip to Washington recently you talked about the fools who allegedly appease Iraq, is anybody who urges caution a fool?

DOWNER: I think everyone should urge … I mean there’s a difference between appeasement and caution. I mean, I’m a cautious person myself and I certainly would urge caution, but I wouldn’t urge weakness. I think there’s a balance that’s got to be found here.

When I say appeasement, what I mean is there’s no point in taking a view that nothing should be done about this issue, that shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, well, if Saddam Hussein says no, well, you know, that’s just too bad. We should, you know, continue to place pressure on him.

I mean, I think we’ve reached a point internationally when we have to maximise the pressure on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis to comply with their obligations. And the concern … well, I mean, I had then and I still maintain, actually, a month or so later, but the concern that I have is that so far the Iraqi regime hasn’t been allowing in the UN weapons inspectors, the people who are going to look at this chemical and biological weapons capability and then ensure that it’s destroyed.

LAWS: Are you concerned that the tough talk, and there’s plenty of it around, is really damaging our grain growers?

DOWNER: Look, let me make a couple of points about that. First of all, I noticed that Mr Crean, I thought, very foolishly, picked up the language of the Iraqi Chargé d’Affaires. Now, the Iraqi Chargé d’Affaires, who’s like the acting ambassador, of course, he’s on Iraq’s side. He’s going to push Saddam Hussein’s line and given half an opportunity, they’re going to place as much pressure on the Australian Government to get us to take a weak position on this issue.

I mean, obviously, Iraq wants to be able to continue with its chemical and biological weapons programs and the more they can persuade the international community not to do anything about it, the better. I don’t think our Opposition is wise to be taking up the line of the Iraqi acting ambassador.

The second thing I’d say is I notice Mr Hawke and Mr Crean claiming that under Labor they were able to sell wheat to Iraq even during the Gulf War. That actually is untrue. We are still owed around one billion dollars for wheat exports delivered to Iraq but never paid for. So, during that period, the Hawke Government was giving wheat to Iraq, not selling it. I think it would have been better to have got some money for the wheat they delivered.

Look, the third thing I’d say is the Iraqis started making these threats to us on 24 June, the Iraqi Trade Minister told the Australian Wheat Board on 24 June that they were planning to cut our wheat exports by half and, of course, they’ve repeated those threats on a number of occasions.

My view is that it’s important, in the first place, not to buckle to threats of that kind but, on the other hand, to allow the Wheat Board to work itself privately and cautiously with the Wheat Board and we could probably do with a bit less public political debate about this than we’re getting. I don’t think that’s actually very helpful.

LAWS: It’s … but it’s very hard not to debate it when we’ve got the wheat growers on the telephone to us constantly. Now they’re saying that … the Iraqis are threatening they’re going to axe the whole lot. They won’t buy any.

DOWNER: Well, of course, the more we respond to threats by the Iraqis, and they’ve started making threats to us on 24 June, the more we risk … start responding to threats by Iraq … the Iraqis and showing that, well, you know, this is a time to put pressure on the Australian Government to try to get it to change its position on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the more the Iraqis will ramp up their threats.

I mean, I’m afraid that’s just a fact of life. That’s human nature, why wouldn’t they do that? And so, I would call on people to … look, to sort of calm down a bit here, not to engage so much in a debate. I have to say the last few days I’ve tried to avoid myself getting involved in this debate but I’ve been terribly disappointed.

And I don’t make this as a party political point, because we’re a long way out from an election, I make this as a sincere point. I’ve been terribly disappointed that Mr Crean and the Opposition have politicised this issue. The Wheat Board asked them last week not to and they’ve just continued to do so and it leaves us in a position, as the Government, of having to defend ourselves. We try to do so in a patient way.

LAWS: Yeah. But you do realise we’ve got four shipments held up in Iraqi ports at the minute, don’t you?

DOWNER: I know there are ships held up, it’s happened often in the past though. This isn’t a completely new phenomenon and the Iraqis are making some claims about the wheat being contaminated and an independent assessor is going to have a look at those claims and see if those claims are credible.

But, you know, to draw a link, as some are trying to do, between statements that I’ve made, or the Prime Minister’s made, or Senator Hill has made, and saying, oh, well, look, it’s all your fault. This, of course, is just encouraging the Iraqis to take more and more strident action against Australia. I mean, you’re not dealing here with an easy regime. You’re not dealing here with, you know, a liberal democracy. This is...

LAWS:

No, you’re not, but...

DOWNER: (indistinct) regime, and we shouldn’t be played as suckers

LAWS: But ... no, that’s quite true. But under the circumstances, given the environment, I’m sure that you understand that the wheat growers, the grain growers, feel they’re entitled to blame somebody. They’ve done their job, they’ve grown the grain, they’ve got it off the ground.

DOWNER: Look, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, I’m not myself a wheat grower. But if I were a wheat grower, obviously I’d want the best imaginable price for my wheat. The wheat growers have, for the last two years, done very well in the Iraqi market not with…

LAWS: So, what do you say to them now?

DOWNER: Well, I say to them we’re obviously ... look, inevitably because ... you know, you only have to read the papers to see this, going to go through a difficult period with Iraq, there’s no walking away from that. The whole of the international community, including Australia, is going through a difficult period with Iraq. We hope that that can be resolved as quickly as possible.

We will obviously be continuing to push for an effective diplomatic solution as quickly as possible. Once these issues are resolved, then our wheat trade will be able indefinitely to go ahead. I mean, our wheat trade has been very up and down with Iraq over the last 10 or 12 years. As I said, we’re still owed a billion dollars by the Iraqis ... or around a billion dollars by the Iraqis for wheat that we gave to them, as it turned out, in the early ‘90s.

So, it’s not been an easy trade. Some years during the ‘90s, we sold almost no wheat, some years we’ve done very well. It’s been very up and down. But we’ll get a much more stable market there, once the political issues are resolved.

LAWS: Okay. So really, all you can say to the farmers is sorry?

DOWNER: Well, obviously, it is a difficult situation for the farmers. I’m not unsympathetic ... you can imagine, I’m not unsympathetic to the farmers...

LAWS: No. I know you’re not, but what can you tell them... apart from sorry? Nothing?

DOWNER: Well ... I mean ...the onus here is not on the Iraqi wheat importing authorities and ... you know, our experience of those people is they’re perfectly decent people and they’ve been good to deal with. But with the Iraqi Government, with the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and his immediate officials ... I mean, for as long as there’s going to be an international confrontation and hopefully a diplomatic one ... but even if it ultimately and

regrettably comes to a military confrontation, that’s not an environment that makes trade easy, and it’s not the only country with which we have difficulties in trade because of political problems. I mean, it does happen from time to time.

LAWS: It does. You’ve been very generous with your time, because I know you’re very busy this morning and I appreciate talking to you. Alexander Downer, thank you so much.

DOWNER: A pleasure, John.

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