Labor tightens ties between Australian and US imperialism

The federal Labor Party government formally agreed in early November  to create an even tighter linking of Australian foreign policy and military forces with the policy and forces of the US government. This was the main announcement of the Australia-United States ministerial (AUSMIN) military and foreign policy talks involving delegations headed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US war secretary Robert Gates and Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, and war minister Stephen Smith.

Described by weasel words like “inter-operability”, “closer ties” and “security cooperation”, the agreement will allow the US military access to and joint control of Australian military bases. As well as further integrating the Australian Defence Force into the US war machine, these joint bases will enable the US to house troops, maintain ships and aircraft for extended periods and store equipment in Australia for faster, easier assaults on the peoples of the Asia-Pacific region.

On November 6 the Australian reported: “Increased numbers of US personnel in Australian facilities are expected within months, and the tempo of military exercises will be stepped up as that happens”. “Likely early sites are Townsville, as the primary base for army operations, the port of Darwin, the Bradshaw Field Training Area in the Northern Territory and HMAS Stirling naval base in Western Australia.”

Waltzing all the way with the USA

Up until World War II, the Australian ruling class saw its interests tied primarily to the British Empire and its global trade and military strength. However, Britain could not defend the Australian capitalists’ interests from the rapidly advancing Japanese imperial forces. Canberra turned decisively toward an alliance with Washington to protect Australian corporate interests in Asia and the Pacific. The US capitalist rulers needed a willing strategic and logistic base for war against their Japanese imperialist rivals. The inability of ravaged European colonial powers to hold on to their colonies after the war opened the door for an upsurge of national liberation struggles, particularly in Asia. The close relationship between US and Australian ruling classes was forged in their common struggle to crush worker-peasant anti-imperialist revolutions throughout Asia.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies gave voice to this new relationship in 1952 when he said, “The benevolent commands of a great empire are good for mankind. If that is American imperialism, let us have more of it.” Menzies’ minister of the interior, Wilfrid S. Kent Hughes, went even further, declaring, “Australia must become the 49th state of America”.

This sentiment that what is good for the US is good for Australia has been expressed by every Australian government since, and has been backed by military and foreign policy commitments favourable to the US government. Harold Holt, as prime minister, visited Washington in late June 1966, where he gave a speech in the presence of President Lyndon Johnson. Reported in the Australian on July 1, 1966, Holt’s speech concluded with a remark that has come to be seen as encapsulating his unquestioning support for Johnson and for the US war against Vietnam: “And so, sir, in the lonelier and perhaps even more disheartening moments which come to any national leader, I hope there will be a corner of your mind and heart which takes cheer from the fact that you have an admiring friend, a staunch friend that will be all the way with LBJ”.

Prime Minister John Gorton in 1969 advised a White House dinner and a confused Richard Nixon, unfamiliar with Australian colloquialisms, that “we will go waltzing Matilda with you”. Soon after, William McMahon told Nixon that the relationship between the two countries could best be summarised with reference to the song “Moon River” - that wherever the US was going, Australia was going its way. Malcolm Fraser told Ronald Reagan on June 30, 1981, “We’d like to say all strength to your arm, Mr. President, because an economically strong United States is important to the entire free world”. On January 2, 1992, Paul Keating stressed to President George Bush (senior), “the importance that Australia places on having the United States engaged in a political and economic framework in the Asia-Pacific”. Keating’s comment touches on why the US-Australian relationship is so close: the wealthy elite of both countries share a common interest in economically dominating and exploiting the workers and resources of the Asia-Pacific.

These same wealthy elites promote the nationalist illusion, through their media and parliamentary mouthpieces, that workers’ interests are the same as those of their capitalist bosses simply because they live in the same country and speak the same language. The reality is that the capitalist classes in Australia and the US have much more in common with each other - generating obscene wealth from the labour of others - than they do with their own exploited workers.

Opposition to US military overseas

The expanded use of Australian bases comes at a convenient time for the Pentagon, because there is increasing opposition to US bases in other countries. Even if local populations are not fully aware of the role these bases play in imperialism’s war with the rest of the human race, the by-products of the US military presence generally include many problems.

In Australia, for example, visits by large numbers of US military personnel are not new, and the people of garrison towns like Townsville and Darwin know all too well the social ills these visits bring. The Darwin Centre Against Rape (Ruby Gaea) has found increased incidents of sexual assault during the visit of US Navy vessels to Darwin. Even after being charged with sexual assault, US military personnel have been free to leave the country. The US military has a long history of making its overseas personnel immune from local and international law, one of the reasons that the places where they concentrate become hotspots of violent and drug-related crime, as well as massive toxic waste and pollution.

People on the island of Vieques, in US-colonised Puerto Rico, successfully resisted the US military presence on their island. For years, most of Vieques was used as a bombing range for the US Navy, causing massive pollution and health problems for islanders. These protests came to a head in 1999, when a Vieques civilian employee of the United States Navy was killed by a bomb dropped during target practice. A campaign of civil disobedience began. The locals took to the ocean in their small fishing boats and stopped the US Navy’s military exercises. Local protesters were joined by solidarity groups in the US, and their protests forced the US Navy to end exercises on Vieques in March 2003.

Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US troops based in Japan. Okinawans have protested the US military presence for decades. Between 1972 and 2003, 5269 crimes allegedly committed by military and related personnel were recorded. This number included 977 cases of assault and 540 other serious crimes. The BBC website on May 5 quoted Kazue Nakamura-Huber, an English language teacher from Okinawa: “It’s a prison for us. Violence still exists here and although there are fewer news-making incidents, we don’t have any rights because of the Japanese-US agreement, under which Japanese jurisdiction is not valid for US citizens.”

The political pressure from this opposition has forced the US to agree to move the majority of its Navy, Marine and Air Force personnel and equipment out of Okinawa, but the planned move has hit a few snags. Initially the US wanted to move the personnel and equipment from Okinawa to occupied Guam in the Western Pacific, already a huge US military base. Suffering the same ills as their Puerto Rican and Japanese brothers and sisters, the indigenous Chamoru people of Guam have also resisted the US bases and occupation of their land. The big blow to the Guam move, though, came from the US Congress trying to save money. On July 21 the Wall Street Journal reported: “At the beginning of the year, the Obama administration requested $452 million in the current budget to pay for the relocation by building new facilities in Guam. But the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Appropriation Committee voted to cut $320 million from that request. This week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut a smaller amount, $273 million, from the funding for the Guam move.”

In the wake of the AUSMIN talks, it seems that the US Congress in July had already found a cheaper (and more southerly) base for the thousands of troops and tonnes of equipment forced to move from Okinawa. Since World War II, US imperialism has always been able to count on an over-eager partner in the Australia government.

On October 19 a sham parliamentary debate on the Australian military commitment to the war in Afghanistan began, primarily as an exercise for the two major parties to showcase their lies and rhetoric about the brutal occupation in order to try to shift majority public opposition to the war. There wasn’t anything really new in the speeches of either Prime Minister Julia Gillard or opposition leader Tony Abbott. Both contained the same tired lies that the brutal occupation 1) somehow makes people in Australia safer and 2)  is improving the lives of the people of Afghanistan.

The falsity of those two claims has increasingly penetrated public consciousness, forcing both major parties to rely on the mystification of war and the “cult of sacrifice”, a theme that ran through both Gillard’s and Abbott’s speeches. Probably the worst of this was Gillard’s statement: “I know the professional soldiers of the Australian Defence Force are proud people. They offer their lives for us. They embrace wartime sacrifice as their highest duty.” As a soldier, you’d have to be concerned that the leader of the government whose orders you have to carry out thinks that the greatest thing you can do in the military is to die. This recalls the bungling and bloodthirsty commander of British military forces during World War I, Lord Kitchener, who judged a battalion commander’s ability higher, the higher number of casualties the battalion suffered. Perhaps the ADF should consider renaming the Australian forces in Afghanistan as the Kitchener Battalion.

Not to be outdone in nonsense, Abbott added: “We shouldn’t forget that the military expedition to East Timor was to stop defenceless people from being brutalised. It’s hard to see the moral difference between our military campaign there and the campaign in Afghanistan just because the latter is yet to come to a more-or-less-satisfactory conclusion.” No difference, except that the people of East Timor, occupied by a foreign country, asked for military intervention, while the people of Afghanistan, not occupied until US-led forces invaded, did not. No difference, except that a mass protest movement in Australia demanding intervention for East Timor forced the Howard government to send troops it did not want to send and that Washington did not want the Howard government to send. Abbott also ignored the fact the forces brutalising the most defenceless people in Afghanistan today are those of the US-led coalition and the puppet Karzai government of corrupt warlords and opium barons.

The only reason that both Gillard and Abbott gave as justification for Australian troops being in Afghanistan that had any basis in reality was unwavering commitment to the US alliance. “We must stand firmly by our ally, the United States”, demanded Gillard. “Australia will stand firm in our commitment to our alliance with the United States. The international community understands this, our friends and allies understand this, our enemies understand this too.” Abbott joined the chorus with: “A premature end to our involvement would tell the Americans and the British that Australia is an unreliable ally and fair weather friend”. Neither this commitment to Afghanistan’s occupation nor the AUSMIN agreement to place Australian military forces and resources at the disposal of the US government should come as a surprise. This just formalises and intensifies something that has been Australian ruling-class policy for more than half a century.

Internationalist resistance

The reaction to the parliamentary debate on Afghanistan and the AUSMIN talks by some in the peace movement has been nationalistic and counter-productive to getting troops out of Afghanistan and ending the Australia-US alliance. Either looking for shortcuts to popular appeal or because of their own political short-sightedness, they come forward as advocates of “our sovereignty”, “our nation” and “our defence force”. But this fuels the nationalist ideology that makes the war in Afghanistan and the Australia-US alliance possible.

Some have held up newly elected Greens MP Adam Bandt and his party as the saviour of the antiwar movement because agreement by Gillard to a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan was part of the deal to help form a Labor government after a hung parliament was elected. Bandt’s October 20 debate speech exposed many of the lies used by Abbott and Gillard to justify their involvement in the occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, however, he resorted to nationalism and pledged his party’s support for the US alliance with statements like: “Although it is important to remain an ally of the United States, this does not mean that we have to be involved in all American military excursions”.

For the working class majority in this country the Australian military has never been there for our interests. It has never been “our” defence force; it has always been their defence force: at the disposal of the interests of the capitalist class, the same bosses who risk workers’ safety to make more money, the same bosses who let people die waiting for medical treatment because they can’t pay up front. Nationalist language perpetuates the false idea that the interests of workers are the same as those of the capitalist class and their government. By using these nationalist arguments, the antiwar movement risks defeating itself in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, and setting the stage for further wars in Iran, Somalia or wherever the US ruling class and its Australian partners decide to go next.

To get the troops out of Afghanistan, to stop similar deployments and to break the Australia-US alliance, we need to campaign on an internationalist and class-conscious basis. We have more in common with the working people and subsistence farmers of Afghanistan than we do with Australian politicians and the billionaires they serve. We should be just as outraged at the senseless slaughter of Afghan civilians, of US working-class soldiers and of other allies in uniform as we are at the senseless deaths of working-class Australians sent to fight in the interests of big business.

Our common interests, not fighting fellow workers for the profits of a few, should be the basis of our arguments and tactics for building a movement to end the occupation of Afghanistan and break the alliance. Resistance to the joint bases should be based on their role in defending Australian and US imperialism and their threat to fellow workers in the region, not on some ceding of an imaginary  “sovereignty" - the Australian ruling class has decided to do this as part of its sovereignty; while the capitalists rule, working people don’t have any sovereignty.

Such an internationalist approach will enable the antiwar movement to forge links with the resistance inside the US military and help spread that resistance into the Australian military. We also need to forge stronger links with the antiwar movement internationally, especially in the US,  participating in a global movement breaks down nationalist shibboleths and strengthens localised movements.

The greatest enemy of working people in Australia is the Australian capitalist class. We are many times more likely to be killed or injured by some capitalist cutting corners to increase profits than by any terrorist or foreign army.