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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 122

Senator BRANDIS (5:27 PM) —This afternoon, I want to say a few words about what will, I believe, come to be seen as one of the transforming events of the early 21st century. I speak of the elections for the Iraqi national assembly and for 18 provincial councils, which were held on 30 January. I want to speak in particular of the courage of the millions of Iraqi citizens who, braving dire threats of intimidation by the enemies of democracy, made those elections such a triumphant vindication of those whose sacrifice brought democracy to Iraq, and I want to pose the question: while the struggle to create a democratic state in Iraq was at its fiercest, where was the Left?

Have you ever noticed how much the rhetoric and symbolism of the political Left is dominated by the language of war and struggle? Those on the Left speak of the class war and the class struggle; radicals, particularly in universities, delight in being described as militants; terrorists are commonly called freedom fighters; Third World populations are constantly being urged to wage war against their oppressors, usually the United States and other democracies; and postcolonial civil wars are invariably described as wars of national liberation. From Marx to Marcuse, the central concept of their political universe is revolution. In fact, one of the most enduring items of late 20th century kitsch is the image of the bereted and bandoliered guerrilla Che Guevara in the pose of iconic freedom fighter. Yet, notwithstanding the Left’s romanticisation of violence and idealisation of the revolutionary warrior, their victories are almost all rhetorical. Those of the Left are curiously absent when it comes to fighting the real wars of national liberation.

Nobody captured the mismatch between the heroic rhetoric of the Left and its moral cowardice better than did George Orwell, who, having himself fought and been grievously injured in the Spanish Civil War, knew a thing or two about what wars look like from the point of view of the people actually fighting them. In one of the greatest political essays ever written, ‘Inside the Whale’, Orwell quoted from the then fashionable Leftist posturing of WH Auden in his poem about that war:

... Today the struggle.

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;

Today the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

Orwell wrote of that stanza that it was:

... intended as a sort of thumbnail sketch of a day in the life of ‘a good party man’. In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder’. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.... Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is being pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.

Orwell, the soldier who actually fought in the Spanish Civil War, never glamorized violence; Auden, the Leftist poet reclining comfortably in Hampstead, could afford to write cheaply of armed struggle, secure in the knowledge it would always be other people who did the fighting.

Fast-forward 65 years, and we see the same thing in our own day. Once again, when a real war of national liberation was being fought, in Iraq, where were the Left? They were nowhere to be found. Forget the heroic rhetoric about liberation, fighting for freedom, the struggle against oppression. When it came to actually fighting a war of national liberation, a war to free an oppressed people, a war to instate democratic rights, where was the Left? At worst, they were howling denunciations against those who sought to liberate Iraq—the United States, Britain and Australia. At best, they were sitting on the sidelines, loud in their criticism of errors in policy but remarkably muted in their celebration of the great act of democracy which occurred in Iraq last week.

Whatever shortcomings there may have been in intelligence gathering before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, whatever errors have occurred in planning since the liberation of Baghdad, whatever criticism might legitimately be levelled at American policy makers and strategists for failing to anticipate the extent of the insurgency, one thing is crystal clear and cannot be denied: but for the liberation of Iraq by coalition forces in 2003, there would have been no Iraqi election last week. If the Australian Labor Party, the Greens and the Australian Democrats had had their way, the war would never have been fought, Saddam Hussein would never have been toppled and the election which took place last week could never have happened.

Australia is blessed by the fact that democracy came easily for us. Our democratic institutions were created by an act of democracy itself: by a referendum. For us, democracy has always been a given, and perhaps we take it too much for granted. But there are very few democratic nations in our happy position. Many of the great democracies—America, Britain, France, Italy, India—had as their birthright wars of independence, civil wars or revolutions. For others, for instance Japan, democratic institutions were established following armed occupation. Merely because it was Australia’s historic good fortune that our democracy came to us by peaceful means, we must never lose sight of the fact that for most people democracy was created by war, and wars are won by fighting. And so it was with Iraq.

Even before it had happened, the usual apologists—the John Pilgers, the Noam Chomskys, the Gore Vidals—along with our own pallid local imitators of the great Leftist sages, denounced the Iraqi election. They denounced the imposition of ‘Western’, or even ‘American’, cultural values on an Islamic nation—as if democratic government was a right vouchsafed only to the peoples of the West. These were, if my memory serves me correctly, among the very same people who welcomed the introduction of democracy in South Africa—yet South Africans are hardly Westerners.

In one form or another, democratic forms of government now exist in nations of all cultures and all races: in India, in Indonesia, in Japan and Taiwan, in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, in Afghanistan, in Russia, in the Ukraine, in East Timor. Many of the very people who were swiftest in their denunciation of the military action which made democracy possible in Iraq were eager to invoke the authority of the United Nations. Yet the core document of the United Nations, the political testament which is its whole raison d’etre, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration, by article 21, proclaims:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

                  …         …           …

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

And, by its preamble, the declaration provides that it is the duty of member states to work to achieve ‘the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms’ which it proclaims.

How is this so different from what President Bush said in his address to this parliament the year before last:

Some are sceptical about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East and wonder if its culture can support free institutions. In fact, freedom has always had its sceptics. Some doubted that Japan and other Asian countries could ever adopt the ways of self-government. The same doubts have been heard at various times about Germans and Africans. At the time of the Magna Carta, the English were not considered the most promising recruits for democracy. To be honest, sophisticated observers had serious reservations about the scruffy travellers who founded our two countries.

Every milestone of liberty was considered impossible before it was achieved. In our time we must decide our own belief: either freedom is the privilege of an elite few or it is the right and capacity of all humanity.

In the 16 months since President Bush spoke those words in October 2003, democratic elections have been held not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian Authority. In the first two of those instances, but for the use of external military force, led by the United States and supported by Australia, to displace appalling dictatorships—the Taliban in Afghanistan; Hussein in Iraq—the elections would never have happened.

What President Bush said in October 2003—and on many other occasions before and since—did not place him outside the mainstream of American foreign policy, as many have suggested. It was not in substance different from the noble sentiment which animated President Wilson when he proclaimed his famous Fourteen Points and told congress in January 1918 that the United States was ‘willing to fight and to continue to fight for the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak’; or the famous words of President Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961; or President Reagan’s history-changing speech at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987, when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

But the final arbiters of the rightness of the military action to topple Saddam Hussein must be the Iraqi people themselves. In the days before 30 January, the world held its breath for fear that insurgents and terrorists would destroy the election. The most notorious of them, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, announced ‘a bitter war against democracy and those who seek to enact it’. Iraqi citizens were repeatedly warned that, if they participated, they would put their lives at risk. On 10 January, for instance, one insurgent group, the Secret Republican Army, announced that 32 snipers would be emplaced at polling places in the province of Wasit, south of Baghdad. Another threatened that it would ‘wash the streets with voters’ blood’ if they dared to participate. Similar threats of the same nature were made throughout Iraq by a variety of insurgent militias.

There can surely never have been a time, in any nation on the earth, that participation in an election was accompanied by such grave peril. If the Iraqi people did not want a democracy, they certainly had no incentive to participate in one. And what happened? The people of Iraq took their lives into their hands and voted in their millions, in numbers which far exceeded anybody’s expectations. Of a total eligible voting population of about 14.2 million, turnout was initially estimated at 72 per cent. That was subsequently revised downwards to 57 per cent. The latest estimate of turnout is 60 per cent. Understandably, the turnout was much higher in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south than in the Sunni centre but, even there, Sunni Muslims voted in surprisingly large numbers against the wishes of their religious leaders and the threats of terrorists.

That, by exercising for the first time the right to vote, Iraqis placed themselves in mortal peril is beyond doubt. Early estimates suggest that at least 44 were murdered at polling places or shortly after voting. The danger of attack was made even greater by the practice of dyeing the forefingers of voters in ink to prevent double voting, which made those who had exercised the right readily identifiable to terrorists. In Baghdad, for instance, according to CNN reports four voters identified by their ink-stained fingers were kidnapped by terrorists and murdered with grenades.

But the Iraqis were undeterred. There could be no more emphatic answer to the cynics who ridiculed the election even before it had happened, no more persuasive vindication of the use of military force to liberate Iraq and no greater vote of confidence in the sustainability of a democratic future for Iraq than the fact that, in a voluntary ballot, on even the most conservative estimate, more than half of the adults of that nation put their lives on the line, took themselves to their local polling place and cast their vote.

How does that compare with the more mature democracies? At last year’s American presidential election, the turnout was actually lower—56.2 per cent. In the 2001 British elections, it was about the same—59.4 per cent—as was also the case in France, where in the final round of the 2002 elections for the Assemblee Nationale the turnout was 60.7 per cent. And indeed, at the most recent elections for the European Parliament, the turnout of the French was just 42.7 per cent, and that of the Germans was 43 per cent. How ironic that the European nations which did more to oppose the liberation of Iraq than any other—the French and Germans—should care less about their own democracy than the newly freed people of Iraq care about theirs.

And where was the Left when the battle for democracy in Iraq was being fought and won? Where were the balladeers of struggle, the gladiators of the printed page and the warriors of the spoken word, the moral bankrupts who endlessly talk about democracy and evoke the dignity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but never do anything about bringing them to accomplishment, the Che Guevara T-shirt wearers, the spineless bourgeois Leftists who affect the language of struggle and national liberation as a fashion statement—who, just like Auden during the Spanish Civil War, thrill to the frisson of the tough-guy rhetoric but are always somewhere else when the shooting starts?

For the Left, the romance goes out of wars of national liberation when they are being fought by democracies and, even more shockingly, if the democracies are led by conservative leaders such as George Bush and John Howard. The Left’s enthusiasm for national liberation can never withstand its appetite for self-loathing, particularly of its own country and its own democracy. The truth is that, when the struggle to liberate Iraq and to create a democracy in Iraq was being fought and won, the parties of the Left were nowhere to be found. In fact, it was worse: they were as swift in their denunciation of the liberation of Iraq as they were slow to welcome the success of its election or to applaud the courage of those who stared down the terrorists, put their lives on the line and voted in their millions.

Historians of future generations will, in my view, come to see 30 January 2005 as a milestone in the long story of democracy and a turning point in the modern history of the Middle East. Although the war of liberation which made it possible was denounced by fashionable opinion in all of the older democracies, including ours, but for that war there would have been no popular election last week. The people of Iraq would still be denied that which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares to be the universal right of every person.

We should all be humbled by the courage of the Iraqi people. I, for one, am overwhelmed by the emphatic vindication of democracy we saw last week and, like everyone on this side of the chamber, very proud of the role Australia played in making Iraqi democracy possible.