Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd's phone call with US President George Bush on November 25, the day after the election, was a reminder about the incoming Labor government's commitment to the Australia-US military alliance. The government may have changed, but Canberra's commitment to Australia's participation in foreign wars and occupations hasn't.
The anti-war movement can, and should, take some credit for having played a part in the downfall of John Howard's Coalition government. One million people, across Australia, marched against the pending invasion of Iraq in February 2003 and in September this year, despite a massive security presence, some 15,000 people marched against Howard and Bush during the APEC meeting in Sydney.
Despite the anti-war movement's limitations, we cannot afford to relax now. The Rudd Labor government will have to be pressured to keep its promise to withdraw the troops from Iraq — we should demand that they return by Christmas.
Labor's leaders have a record of backsliding on this and other issues. Former ALP leader Mark Latham's pledge to bring them home by Christmas 2004 gave way to Rudd's more qualified promise to withdraw 550 combat troops subject to negotiation with the US while leaving another 1000-plus in the Middle East. After talks with the Bush administration, even the timetable for the limited withdrawal of the troops from Iraq may be shifted back.
During the drawn-out election campaign the major parties blacked out discussion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They managed to do this, assisted by a compliant media, despite three Australian special forces officers being killed in Afghanistan during October and November.
Howard and Rudd made calculated appearances at two funerals during the election campaign. They declined to say more about their bipartisan position of sending more troops to that devastated country, aware it would not be a vote winner.
The Western occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have proved disastrous, and opposition to these occupations was a significant moral factor in the turn against the Coalition on November 24.
The US occupation force is planning to stay in Iraq for some time to come. The latest formal acknowledgment of this came on November 26, when the Iraqi puppet government of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki and the White House signed a "declaration of principles". An Associated Press article reported that the agreement offers the US "a long-term troop presence in Iraq and preferential treatment for American investments in return for an American guarantee of long-term security including defense against internal coups".
The beleaguered Iraqi PM has no option if he wants to stay in power. The AP article reported that Iraqi officials told the wire service "that under the proposed formula, Iraq would get full responsibility for internal security and American troops would relocate to bases outside the cities. Iraqi officials foresee a long-term presence of about 50,000 US troops, down from the current figure of over 160,000." The new deal will make it easier for US corporations to grab the lion's share of the country's vast oil resources and consequent profits.
Although recent anti-war demonstrations in Australia have not been massive, opinion polls have consistently shown that opposition to Australian participation in the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remains high. Many anti-war minded people were hoping to bring the troops home by voting out the Howard government. But although John Howard is history, the anti-war movement cannot leave it to Rudd to keep his promise to bring the troops home from Iraq, especially given his support for the US-Australia alliance. Moreover Rudd has made his commitment to the occupation of Afghanistan clear. We have to keep the pressure on — we should demand the incoming government brings the troops back by Christmas and we need to start organising for big nationwide protests to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq next March.
[Pip Hinman is an activist in the Sydney Stop the War Coalition. A December 9 rally in Sydney will call on the Rudd government to pull the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. See the calendar on page 23.]