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Scribblings: With the Grain

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With the Grain

Revelations that the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) was allegedly complicit in the UN Oil-for-Food scandal should not come as too much of a shock to anyone who knows the history of AWB behaviour before and during the first Gulf War in 1990-91.

Australia became Iraq’s biggest grain exporter to Iraq in the late 80s, largely because the AWB (which was then a government body, but is now privatised) used government credit to finance massive trade that the banks were saying was a bad risk. The result was that Australia lost $600 million after Iraq invaded Kuwait and defaulted on all its foreign debt. The Australian government had to bail out the AWB to the tune of almost half a billion dollars. There were additional losses in the area of $100 million in the form of credit given by the AWB to Egypt and later forgiven by the government after the war as a reward for Egypt’s participation.

Furthermore, even after being burned in this way, the AWB rushed back into Baghdad the day UN sanctions were lifted on food in May 1991, and began signing new deals with Saddam within days. The AWB claimed that by signing new deals, Australia would be in a stronger position to recover the A$600 million owed, which proved to be a vain hope. (The new Iraqi government recently agreed to begin paying off this debt in 2011). There was certainly an unseemly eagerness there, and a readiness to ignore the possibility of trying to get Iraq to agree to pay its debt before it bought more.

Furthermore, some people associated with the AWB were vocal opponents of Australian participation in the efforts to remove Saddam from Kuwait.

More recently, in 2002, the AWB made its displeasure publicly known after Foreign Minister Alexander Downer made strong statements opposing "appeasement" of Iraq during the standoff over UN inspections.

The current investigation will hopefully reveal more about what happened with respect to the latest scandal. In particular, it should uncover whether the AWB was simply duped, as it claims, or whether individuals there knowingly participated in corrupt behaviour when they lined Saddam’s pockets by paying $290 million in extravagant "distribution fees" to front company. In the latter instance, the acse for criminal prosecutions seems compelling. But even in the former case, it is clear that the organisation needs much greater oversight, and a change of culture. Selling Australia’s wheat is a laudable goal. However, when that goal leads to blindness, lack of due diligence and shortsighted political interference, it is time to remind the responsible parties that selling wheat, whatever it takes, is detrimental to both our values and our interests.

Un-diplomatic Language

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was not on his most diplomatic behaviour when he responded to a question in parliament from Liberal backbencher Petro Georgiou about Syria on Nov. 3. He said, "I completely condemn the outrageous performance by the Syrian Foreign Minister at the United Nations Security Council where he made what I thought was a grotesque and insensitive comparison between Syria’s relationship to the Hariri assassination and the British government’s to the 7 July bombings…It is time for Syria to stop all equivocations and for it to recognise that it constitutes a real danger to peace in the region and that its support for terrorism is completely unacceptable. As for the democracy that is now flourishing in both Iraq and Lebanon on either side of Syria, those democracies will not be intimidated."

I suspect Downer will have upset his DFAT minders and advisers by being so forthright. However, my response was "Amen to that." Unrestrained forthrightness in diplomacy is often a bad idea, and the concept of "diplomatic language" did evolve for a reason. But when it comes to the totalitarian, terror-supporting regimes of the Middle East, the peoples of the region are now talking about democracy more than ever before. Oppressed and silenced Middle East liberals need to hear unequivocally, over and over, that we are their side and not on the side of the dictators. Ex-Soviet dissident have made it clear how important statements to this effect were to them, helping them to stay the course in the face of overwhelming odds. Middle East democrats need to know that they are not alone, and that ultimately, there must be extensive regime change across the Middle East. Forthrightness when it comes to totalitarian terror-supporting states like Syria can only be a good thing.

Quiet Diplomacy

On the other hand, Downer’s boss, Prime Minister John Howard, also did very much the right thing when he was reasonably subdued and sensitive in urging on Pakistan a return to full democracy during his trip there. Howard also reportedly quietly and privately praised Pakistani President Musharaf for moves to open a dialogue with Israel following the withdrawal from Gaza (Australian Financial Review, Nov. 23).

Pakistan is of course not a democracy at present, and has a history of supporting anti-Indian terror groups, as well as allowing its out-of-control intelligence services to assist the Taliban and possibly al-Qaeda. So what is the difference with Syria? Very simple – where the road to democratisation and an end to terror lies. It is unthinkable that Syria’s totalitarian Assad regime, rooted in extreme Arab nationalism and the Alawite religious minority, can ever democratise voluntarily. Moreover, support for terror, such as Hezbollah and Palestinian rejectionist groups, is ongoing.

It is quite reasonable, on the other hand, to postulate that Musharaf will lead authoritarian Pakistan back to democracy – he is certainly committed verbally to do so. Moreover, he is actively doing what he can against terror, even if his efforts have so far been imperfect. Democracy and an end to support for terror should be goals for both Syria and Pakistan. Diplomacy is the art of knowing how best to get there in each specific case.

TZVI FLEISCHER

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