Downer tells AIJAC US policy on Afghanistan “pretty alarming”

September 5, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) was honoured to have as its webinar guest Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister,  Alexander Downer, who spoke on “Australia’s Performance in a Challenging and Changing World”.

Alexander Downer (Screenshot)

He said in Europe there is astonishment that Australia and New Zealand are trying to eliminate COVID-19 through lockdowns. While of course greatly saddened by all the tragic deaths, he is also worried about the long term economic fallout from the massive debts many governments are accumulating, especially when economies recover and interest rates rise, which will place a lot of strain on the financial system.

He said relations with China, our leading trading partner, have substantially changed, because of China, not Australia. President Xi Jinping’s rise has brought strident nationalism, bellicose rhetoric from the Chinese Foreign Office, continual transgression of international law at sea, the mistreatment of the Uighurs, the breach of the agreement about Hong Kong and much more. Australia has done nothing wrong but rightly made clear we won’t accept Chinese interference in our politics and our critical national infrastructure. Australia was right to try to find out how COVID started, Downer said.

The Chinese leadership, he added, tried to set an example to the rest of the world by punishing Australia, as a substantial regional country it thought could be bullied into compliance because of the integration of our economies. We should stick to our policies and principles and make sure China knows we’re not trying to contain it, but we won’t be subjugated or become a client state.

China, he said, has learnt that Australia “can be pretty robust” and has strong alliances, especially with the USA. Both under Trump and Biden, the US, and other countries, have come to our support – other countries realise it could happen to them too – and the trilateral strategic dialogue with Australia, the US and Japan has grown to include India. So China’s behaviour has been counter-productive for it, and had a huge negative impact on China’s standing.

Downer noted that, in its 70 years, the ANZUS treaty has served us well in many ways, including incredibly valuable intelligence sharing, as a force multiplier, giving us technological advantages from working with the US military, and enhanced status in the Indo-Pacific region. We shouldn’t underestimate our influence on Washington regarding the Indo-Pacific, he said, but added that our influence regarding the Middle East is marginal.

He stated that US values and power have underpinned global stability, with the US a beacon to many, but that has changed due to internal American dynamics. The US has become very divided, and seen partisanship seemingly develop without limits alongside the evolution of identity politics, weakening America’s standing in the world.

He said that many people didn’t like Donald Trump’s rhetoric, but what Joe Biden is actually doing is “pretty alarming”, and the way the US left Afghanistan “astonishing”. While there comes a time to leave, it must be done with an element of stability, but what the US did was “cut and run” according to a political timetable, leaving people behind. It should have first insisted on a power-sharing agreement. Instead, this was a huge victory for jihadists everywhere and makes US allies wonder how much willpower the US has to lead the world.

He added that this raises real questions for Israel, such as what the Biden Administration is thinking it will get out of negotiating with the new hard-line Iranian regime. He asked, sarcastically, if it would be “a guarantee from a regime like that… they’ll never go down the nuclear path –  let’s abandon all of our sanctions and allow billions and billions of dollars to be accessible to a regime which is trying to project its power throughout the Middle East in a very hostile sort of a way, hostile of course to Israel but hostile also to the Sunni Arab states.”

He added that Trump “was right to abandon the agreement with Iran because I could only see upside from that agreement for the Iranians really. It just gave them huge access to resources and to continue to pursue the policies that they were pursuing. They didn’t pull back on their support for Hamas or Hezbollah or their activities in Iraq or support for… the Houthis in Yemen and other activities over and above that.”

 


He said Trump was right to focus instead on the Abraham Accords, which hugely changed the political balance of power in the Middle East and are good for the member countries and also for the West, including the US.

He wonders whether China is now thinking that the US won’t defend Taiwan, but he thinks the US will prove reliable enough to support the balance of power in the Indo-pacific. We need to also have active diplomacy, like the very comprehensive Lombok security treaty we signed with Indonesia – it’s important to uphold the US alliance, but also do things on our own like consolidating relations with ASEAN countries.

The Australian Government, he said, can “hit the phones” to US Administration officials to say that the Afghan fiasco damaged the standing of the Western alliance, so the US should get the leaders of all key democracies together and all sign up to a democratic charter. This could send the message that the liberal democracies are coming closer in terms of collaboration on joint issues to protect our values and a rules-based international order.

He described Lebanon’s situation as “horrendous”, saying it is becoming a failed state with massive corruption and an economic meltdown. Powers including the US need to invest more energy to try to establish a liberal democracy with power-sharing , instead of control by Hezbollah, which has done huge damage.

He noted that when he had visited Israel in 2019 and asked the PA prime minister what his plan was for peace, the PM just abused Israel without offering a way forward. Downer said the Palestinians should sit down unconditionally with Israel and negotiate, together with other Arab states that are building good relations with Israel. Australia, he added, could never be a big player in this, but “should be absolutely black and white in its condemnation of trying to change and achieve a settlement in the Middle East based on violence.”

“Israel,” he said, “is a liberal democracy and it is therefore a country which has great legitimacy,” while the Palestinians “have real problems of democratic legitimacy.” He added that Israel was established by the United Nations and therefore its “existence is part of the international rule of law and it is entitled to defend itself and… they are most impressive in their determination to defend themselves.”

He said that for Australia to recognise a Palestinian state now would just deal ourselves out of any role in seeking Middle East peace, and he would be strongly opposed to doing so.

He reiterated he does not support the nuclear deal with Iran, especially with Iran’s new hard line president. It doesn’t stop Iran building a nuclear weapon, he said. He added that Israel should be confident that “in extremis”, the Americans will be okay. He’s not sure Israel can convince the US Administration that the deal is a bad idea, but neither is he sure that the US will be able to reach a viable agreement.

Finally, asked whether Australia should proscribe the whole of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, he said simply, “They are terrorist groups, so of course.” He predicted that the West will be revisited with terrorism after the Taliban victory, and said we should be strong on these issues and “toughen up”.

AIJAC

 

Comments

One Response to “Downer tells AIJAC US policy on Afghanistan “pretty alarming””
  1. Dr. Rodney Gouttman says:

    Israel was not established by the United Nations. It was called into being by Ben Gurion and then fought for its existence against invading Arab states armies. No UN force came to its defense.

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