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28 December 2002

Confronted by the prospect of war in the Hindu battle epic The Mahabharata, the hero Arjuna seeks wise counsel from Krishna, the God of Love.

The enemy, a rival family called the Kauravas, are blood relations. Surely there must be a more sensible way of resolving disputes than bloody conflict, Arjuna asks, hoping the blue boy deity will provide a reprieve.

But Krishna surprises and dismays Arjuna, delivering instead the grim lecture known as the Bhaghavad Gita, the moral foundation of Hindu scripture for 2000 years.

"Those who have joined the forces against justice and righteousness have to perish," he lectures him. "The good must be protected ... arise and do your duty."

Today, in these stumbling early years of the 21st century, the ancient dilemma of war and peace confronts us again with its ageless relevance. Dictatorships and democracies, superpowers and basket-cases all confront the same challenge.Violently provoked by Muslim rebels and iconoclasts, our leaders urge us to war.

When the barbarian is at the gates, citizens of Western, liberal democracies can be relied upon to rally to the defence of the things they hold dear. We enjoy the fruits of collective membership of an empire greater than Rome or Britain ever knew in terms of its power to create and destroy. We may be a mere outstation office of US imperial hegemony, but our national mission statement is to serve American objectives, which generally we share as our own.

But when the threat is amorphous or unclear as in Iraq we are as hesitant as Arjuna before the battle of Kurukshetra, or to choose an example closer to home, the camel driver in David Williamson's screenplay for Peter Weir's Gallipoli.

At the time of Federation, Australians possessed a naive enthusiasm for war which today seems quite shocking. But a native streak of cynicism has always alloyed the "blood and fire" school of nationalism. Crossing the desert on their way to enlist for what became World War I, Williamson's callow diggers Archy and Frank Dunne meet a camel driver, who is surprised to learn that Australia and Germany are at war:

Camel driver: The Australians fightin' already?

Archy: In Turkey.

CD: Turkey? Why's that?

Archy: Because Turkey's a German ally.

CD: Can't see what it's got to do with us.

Archy: If we can't stop them there, they could end up here.

Unmoved by this appeal to his patriotism, the camel driver surveys the vast, useless desert all around them, and replies, "And they're welcome to it!"'

The war on terrorism has always been a difficult sell to sceptical Australians. Even in the US, where September 11 has provoked understandable wrath and insecurity, opposition remains significant as the "war" moves rapidly on from Afghanistan towards Iraq.

Citizens of the democracies observe with alarm a seamless dovetailing of language and strategy as their elected leaders, with remarkable alacrity, calibrate the political process to facilitate the use of force. They suspect a deliberate obfuscation by their leaders and their propagandists of the real motivations for pursuing national objectives by waging war, when other means are available.

Wars are often fought on dubious moral foundations, a fact leaders justify on the grounds of national interest. In the privacy of the cabinet or national security council, the national interest is calculated in hard-headed, hard-hearted terms. The global environment is perceived as inherently threatening, a zero-sum game in which only one nation or alliance can win. Money equals power and resources are scarce. The foundation of foreign policy is the determination never to allow "others" to determine our destiny. To control our environment, we inevitably must control others. In the jargon of foreign policy this is called "realism".

"The defining characteristic of realism," wrote foreign affairs commentator Robert Kaplan, "is that international relations are governed by different moral principles than domestic politics." Or as George Kennan, architect of American Cold War policy, put it, in matters of diplomacy "other criteria, sadder, more limited, more practical, must be allowed to prevail".

To cynics, such as the late Stanley Kubrick, that's just so much window-dressing in the department store of power. "The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes," Kubrick said.

Sometimes as in the war against fascism moral purity and national interest coincide. But even when they don't, when shades of hypocrisy or double-dealing taint our "interests", our approach will be couched in moral terms. Dictatorships and absolute monarchies can articulate grand ambitions based on conquest, but democracies must be sensitive to the delicacies of public opinion. By its very nature this is divided, but tending towards conservatism in all but exceptional circumstances.

When most of a democracy's citizens are Christians, pacifism can pose a serious threat to the national interest. Taking Christ's "turn the other cheek" idea literally, the early Christians refused until the 4th century to do military service. But when the Roman emperor Constantine converted, Christian soldiers bolstered his legions.

To overcome the dangers of rampant, mindless pacifism in Christian societies, theologians such as St Augustine, and, later, St Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius evolved an elaborate philosophy allowing for "just" wars. Just warriors fight only when attacked, or when their enemies are on the offensive and immune to negotiation. Sanctioned by a legitimate authority a king or prime minister will do they use the minimum force needed to vanquish the aggressor, and are satisfied to restore the status quo (minus threat), rather than exploit victory for territorial gain.

Like all theories, however, ideas of the "just war" are malleable. On the face of it, regime change doesn't pass muster as an element of a just war. Freeing Iraq from home-grown despotism is supposed to be a job for the Iraqis. Yet if Saddam's regime is judged to be an irredeemable threat, then removing him is "just".

St Thomas Aquinas would not have approved duplicitous motives, such as controlling oil reserves, "for it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention". But contemporary theorists argue that ulterior motives are irrelevant, so long as the threat is real and the response remains proportionate to it. Even pre-emptive strikes, like Israel's 1967 Six-Day War, are considered legitimate, if an aggressor's intentions are unmistakeable. As Bertolt Brecht put it, "War always finds a way."

Yet formulating a general theory for how democracies go to war is complicated by the fact that every war is unique, to be fought or avoided against a set of circumstances that is changing continually and, often, rapidly. Bill Clinton never took off the gloves in his dealings with Saddam or Osama bin Laden. Memories of Mogadishu were too fresh in the minds of voters to risk American lives in ground combat.

Add September 11 and a Republican president, and America's response to anyone who defies its power has become markedly more aggressive. The US Administration backed by an angry public is not only responding in kind to terrorism, but is exploiting the opportunities it has created to reshape the world in America's image.

It is often said that democracies produce great leaders only when they need them Churchill's emergence during World War II and defeat at the polls when the war was won being a prime example. In times of peace and prosperity, voters elect the political equivalent of glorified accountants and bailiffs to manage the economy and crack down on crime.

America's founding fathers sensed that, in war and peace, democratic leaders were likely to be long on expediency and short on vision. They recognised the temptation presidents might face to distract attention from domestic problems by embarking on endless military adventures abroad. The constitution they framed spreads the risk by giving the final say on declarations of war to the Congress. George Bush snr only narrowly obtained the approval of both houses of Congress for the 1991 Gulf War.

Without a powerful, elected president, Australia faces less danger of being hurled into war on the say-so of an individual. Executive decisions are the prerogative of the group of elected members of Parliament who form the cabinet. Yet as a group, the executive enjoys greater leeway to declare war than its American counterpart. It does not require parliamentary approval or even debate to do so.

The Hawke government sent Australian navy frigates to the Gulf in 1990 without parliamentary discussions, and John Howard has signalled he will do the same if push comes to shove with Iraq this time. Howard has promised there will be a parliamentary debate, but only after cabinet has decided on its course. With Australian forces on their way, room for political discussion about the merits of the cause is severely restricted, as Howard well knows.

Also, media strategists plan the timing, volume and intensity of their leaders' statements to ensure that war, when it comes, seems inevitable, rather than shocking, and that we all know who our enemies are.

The media, of course, provides a parallel discourse in which competing voices are able to argue the pros and cons of war. But the debate there is dominated by media gurus and defence and foreign policy wonks. It is a no-man's land for pacifists, who are relentlessly marginalised as bleeding hearts, or in extreme cases, as traitors. As insiders increasingly dismiss voices other than those that agree with them, the public's sense of impotence grows.

"It is hardly surprising that the electorate is turning its back on conventional politics, even in countries that proclaim democracy as one of their greatest achievements," wrote American academic Noreena Hertz in The Silent Takeover.

And it's not just the character and course of war debates that has become as predictable as an Ashes Test match. The outcome of wars seems increasingly pre-determined, imbued with about as much suspense as a turkey shoot, and raising the disturbing question, "Has war become too easy?"

"If military action is cost-free," asks Michael Ignatieff, professor of human rights practice at Harvard University, "what democratic restraints will remain on the resort to force?"

In the face of George W. Bush's rage towards Iraq, the sole effective restraint on military action has been the United Nations system. With their own interests threatened by untrammelled American power, Russia, France and China exercised their power to counterbalance America's wishes in the UN Security Council. Frustrated, but far from beaten, the US Administration submitted to a new round of weapons inspections in Iraq.

A secondary factor is that, in the 21st century, literate Western voters have access to almost as much information as their leaders. The demand that Washington produce evidence that Saddam is lying about his weapons capabilities before any invasion reflects the increasingly mature nature of the public discourse. "Trust me" is no longer a politically viable reply.

But the "realist" paradigm continues to drive foreign policy, the same concept that created the scourge of terrorism we now confront. The US Administration chose to secretly arm and train an international force of Muslim extremists in Afghanistan in the '80s, and kept supporting them even after the Soviet invaders had retreated. "Realist" foreign policy without a sincere commitment to defending democracy at home and advancing justice abroad promises only more and deadlier conflicts.

"The lesson we have to learn from September 11 is that morality has to play a larger role in international relations," wrote George Soros after the twin towers crumbled. "We have global markets but we do not have global society. And we cannot build a global society without taking into account moral considerations."

Or, as Napoleon I put it, "There is no authority without justice."

On the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, Soros notes the Bush Administration's lack of interest in the multilateral approach embodied by international conventions on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

"Yet it is the only [approach] that has a chance of success," he says.

Opinion polls have suggested that not even the Bali atrocity has persuaded Australians of the need for war in Iraq. Yet government ministers say privately there is no possibility of Australia rejecting any US request for military help in the Persian Gulf, whether or not the plan is backed by the UN, or the Australian public. According to some observers, this corporatisation of the West's global strategy and a reduced role for democratic opposition will be a feature of future wars.

"Such conflict will feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, military officers, and technocrats on the other, motivated, one hopes, by ancient virtue," wrote Kaplan in Warrior Politics.

Aristocracy was ever the enemy of democracy, and as the The New York Times veteran journalist Brooks Atkinson observed in Once Around the Sun, after each war there is a little less democracy to save.

-- Spectrum, The Sydney Morning Herald


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