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East Timor: Defeat or victory for the left?
Green Left Weekly - November 17, 1999
Allen Myers – "John Passant's Requiem for the Left" is the title of a peculiar article in the November issue of Workers Online, the internet magazine of the NSW Labor Council.
Passant, who describes himself as an "antiwar socialist", writes that the left has "capitulated" on the question of East Timor:
"It has ditched generations of principled opposition to Australian militarism in an instant. It has embraced US imperialism overnight. It has supported more arms spending. And in the stampede to the right the left has embraced the league of robber nations, the UN."
The first question that arises regarding this impassioned oratory is: who does Passant think he's writing about? And why is he incapable of sharing that information with his readers?
Which leftists, for example, have embraced US imperialism for even a few minutes, let alone overnight? Perhaps by "left" he means the left of the ALP? But no, the ALP is in the permanent embrace of US imperialism, and one could not credit it with generations of principled opposition to Australian militarism.
Similarly, what left organisation has supported more military spending? Who has embraced the UN along with the US?
The vagueness appears to be deliberate. If Passant named names, it would be possible for readers to compare reality with his accusations and thus discover how thin the latter are.
This sort of bad faith is evident also in statements like, "Not one leftist of any authority has queried the official line that we are in East Timor to save the people". What's the bet that when you point out leftists who have not merely queried the line but actively debunked it, Passant will reply that they aren't "of any authority" (whatever that means)?
However, something more seems to be at work here as well. It's as if Passant has convinced himself that "the left" must have done all these things, because they are a logical corollary of having "capitulated" by calling for military intervention to stop the massacre of the East Timorese. Unfortunately, he never considers this the other way around: if the left isn't really calling for increased military spending or acting as charged, perhaps it's because calling for intervention was not a capitulation.
Instead, he launches into a series of questions which he evidently considers purely rhetorical, since he doesn't try to answer them. This is a pity, because in some cases the answer is instructive. For example:
"Where are the voices querying the figures on the slaughter in East Timor, suggesting that the Australian media and Government may have exaggerated the numbers to create a pro-intervention climate in Australia?"
The answer to that is obvious to anyone who has followed the events in East Timor: those voices are in the Indonesian military and government, and the media controlled by them.
More important than where "the voices" are is whether what they say is true or false. The notion that the Howard government sought pretexts to intervene doesn't become any less ludicrous when it's repeated by an " antiwar socialist".
Australian governments, Liberal and Labor, for 25 years have sought pretexts to treat East Timor as an "Indonesian internal affair" and to maintain their alliance with the Indonesian military. Far from seeking "to create a pro-intervention climate", Howard tried to resist the demands for intervention, saying that it would cause a "war" with Indonesia. It was not until September 10, six days after Indonesian troops and militias dramatically escalated the slaughter, that the government made even a token gesture of disapproval, by cancelling three joint military exercises.
Even after the B.J. Habibie government agreed to an international force, Howard delayed as long as possible. In the week following September 4, Defence Department spokespeople were quoted in the media as saying that Australian forces could be in East Timor on "24 hours' notice". After the agreement on intervention, it took eight days for the first Australian troops to arrive.
In short, both the evidence and political logic show that the intervention was a defeat for Howard. It was forced on him by the mass support for East Timor and the huge protests in Australian cities. But Passant again turns reality upside down:
"Clearly East Timor has been a domestic political success for John Howard. By allowing this, and supporting it, the pro-war left has demonstrated its bankruptcy."
Again, the exaggerated language is designed to mask the weakness of the argument. There has been no "pro-war left" on this issue. Before Passant, the only people who claimed to have discerned one were members of the Howard government. It might also be noted that if Howard, the left or anyone else was in favour of a war in East Timor involving Western troops, they have done rather badly: there hasn't been one.
Passant, despite himself, is forced to acknowledge a tiny corner of reality. Immediately after the above passage about Howard's "political success", he continues:
"And yet something else is happening in Australia. Despite Howard's supremacy on the East Timor issue, the polls haven't shown a major swing to the Coalition."
This admission of course debunks Passant's earlier claim of a "stampede to the right". The lack of a swing to the Coalition is no great mystery. By and large, the public has been made aware - thanks to the left that Passant disparages - of the Howard government's real attitude and record on East Timor. The intervention is seen, correctly, as something Howard was forced to do, and he is therefore given little credit for it.
It would be nice to think that Howard might experience many more such " successes". But it is not likely if the left follows the political prescriptions of John Passant.