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Greg Sheridan – “Carr’s Modern Classic” (The Australian, April 11, 2014)

April 11, 2014

Bob Carr has written a minor classic of Australian foreign affairs. But perhaps the word “minor” is unfair.

His diaries are full of substance and revelation, a high-octane internal dialogue on several key issues. Like all good political diaries, they are spiced with telling reflections on many colleagues. But there is also the characteristic Carr wit and, at times, self-deprecation.

No official should write a book like Carr’s, which is full of revelations of private conversations. But I can’t get too fussed about a minister doing so.

Recently retired American cabinet secretaries write this sort of stuff all the time: witness the many startling revelations in the superb recent memoirs of Bob Gates, defence secretary under US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Carr agonises throughout his diaries over the balance in Australian policy between the US and China; he and his government disagree sharply with Washington and London over Sri Lanka; he pioneers the closest engagement with Myanmar, including ending sanctions against that benighted country; tries to put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the centre of Australian regional diplomacy; pursues the closest relationship he can with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa; leads a frantic and ultimately successful campaign to win a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council; and leads a successful revolt against then prime minister Julia Gillard on elevating Palestinian representation at the UN.

Now, I don’t agree with Carr on every aspect of each of these issues, but it is a huge agenda of substance. Carr was impatient with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paperwork; he hated the tedium of the speeches and often the briefing notes they prepared for him. But the diaries reveal a minister grappling with enormous policy issues.

They are laced with humour, irony, caricature and self-parody. These are dangerous commodities to trade in, here in Australia.

But inevitably some of his reflections and reports about his colleagues will command attention. Two of the strangest concern Kevin Rudd. One has Carr arguing about the Middle East with Gillard. She tells him Rudd “had kept going to Israel, driving (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu mad proposing a batty peace plan and promising to commit Australian troops to patrolling borders”.

Carr’s comment: “I quickly agreed this was nuts.’’

This all demands serious elucidation.

It reminds me of the account in Stephen Mills’s book The Hawke Years, never really contradicted, of Bob Hawke coming up with an equally batty peace plan for Saddam Hussein and Iraq and persecuting the first president Bush with many telephone calls about it. These things never make their way into prime ministerial memoirs.

Carr recounts the No 2 official at the commonwealth secretariat complaining of Rudd’s rudeness, with Rudd telling him: “If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.’’

He also details a number of Australian officials describing extremely aggressive body language from Rudd in encounters with Japanese and Singaporean foreign ministers. These are all quite devastating revelations for Rudd.

On Gillard, Carr is less damning at the level of personal style but makes it clear that he believed that in foreign policy, as generally, she just could not embody or project sufficient authority for the job of prime minister.

Partly because it records so many conversations at the top of international affairs, Carr’s diary is full of substance. But the workings of his own mind on Australian foreign policy are also profoundly absorbing and insightful.

Carr has a dialogue with himself, all the way through the book, about the proper balance of Australian policy between the US and China. He accepts the nearly universal Australian support for the US alliance. He accepts its contribution to Australian security. He believes in the future of the alliance, as well as its past.

But he is partly susceptible to the idea that Canberra has got a bit too close to Washington, and has perhaps needlessly distanced itself from Beijing. This is a theme handled, in my view, with great honesty and intelligence by Carr throughout the book. He has a Socratic dialogue with himself on this. Indeed, I am reminded irresistibly about a line on George Orwell in a recent biography, that he left behind not so much a body of work as a mind caught in words.

I think at times Carr is a little too sensitive about Beijing’s allegedly hurt feelings. And he takes up the foreign minister’s role having absorbed a certain amount of the pro-China, anti-American zeitgeist promoted in different ways by Paul Keating, Malcolm Fraser and academic Hugh White.

But reality keeps intruding and Carr is far too smart to ignore reality. He sends an email to Kim Beazley, our ambassador in Washington, retailing an argument that Australia has got too close to the US. One of the best things in the book is Beazley’s cable in reply, printed in full.

Beazley points out not only that the US is getting more deeply engaged in Asia, partly as a response to the persuasive arguments put to it by Labor governments, but also that Australian governments have shrewdly used the alliance to leverage Australia’s distinctive interests and policy objectives across the board.

Carr also reports a deep DFAT analysis that says China does not place Australia very high in its estimation of nations, and the one thing that makes us more important to the Chinese is our closeness to the Americans.

It is worth quoting Carr at length on this. He writes: “Keating launches Hugh White’s book on the US and China. He’s half right — but to talk about us giving China strategic space? What does that mean, strategic space?

“Does he endorse White’s view, for example, that Japan should move out of its alliance with the US? And South Korea as well? That Vietnam should accept Chinese dominance? Well, that’s strategic space.

“Beijing would relish this discussion in Australia. After all, the Chinese want to see us disoriented over our bilateral relationship.

“I form the view that we should not react. The basics are good, we trade, we talk: the metrics are healthy, as our Ambassador put it to me. The pro-China lobby are over-egging the pudding.

“They want to make us fidgety and defensive about our China policy. Make us anxious. That’s not the way to respond. In this phase of the relationship, with them making us uncomfortable, a bit of benign neglect is needed, not letting the Chinese think we care too much. Until things settle. I resolve on this.’’

This is eminent common sense from Carr.

Elsewhere, recounting the effort, which was ultimately successful, to get the Chinese to commit to a strategic dialogue at leaders’ level, Carr determines to be relaxed about the timing, and to say that he’s relaxed about the timing. To be unruffled. To be constructive with the Chinese, and certainly not looking for arguments, but not to shy away from defending Australia’s interests, and not to give the Chinese the impression that we are desperate for their approval.

All this is the sound workings of a good mind on Australian policy. I sincerely hope Carr follows Beazley’s advice not to change these sober, sensible but inherently unsexy views when he is out of office and freed from the responsibilities of power.

Carr champions engagement with Myanmar and definitively lifting, not suspending, sanctions on the nation, and helping it with the EU and the UN. Again, this is good policy judgment.

He tries to put ASEAN high in our diplomatic priorities.

He pursues Australian interests with Sri Lanka and shares with Alexander Downer the simple insight that it is good that the Tamil Tigers terrorist outfit was defeated in the Sri Lankan civil war and that positive engagement and encouragement for Sri Lanka is good policy in itself, as well as allowing Australia to pursue its own interests with Colombo.

I disagree with Carr’s decision to abstain rather than oppose the move at the UN to upgrade the Palestinian representation to nearer that of a state. I don’t think it helps the peace process.

But Carr’s book also contains many positive things about Israel. He tells a Palestinian delegation he will not criticise the separation wall the Israelis have built, that if bombs had been raining down on Sydney while he was NSW premier he too would have built a separation wall.

I think Carr overestimates the power of the Melbourne-based pro-Israel lobby and writes about it in a way that is needlessly hurtful, but I also believe he holds his positions in good faith and with goodwill.

He makes the right strategic call about switching to a much more robust position to deter illegal immigrants coming by boat.

There are things I disagree with in the book, but overall Carr made a very strong contribution to a very weak government.

He had a genius for presentation and a zest for argument and explanation that is a kind of zest for life.

This is evident in marvellous passages giving thanks for the good fortune of having this splendid job of foreign minister, and in one beautiful passage about his wife, Helena.

Overall, this is an important and highly entertaining contribution to a rare popular foreign policy literature in Australia.

Stages of Hillary as a star player wins over rivals

March 24, 2014

My review of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes published in The Australian on March 22:

Hillary Clinton deftly steps down from the plane, her blonde hair pulled back, her face behind outsize sunglasses. Beaming star power, she declares it’s wonderful to be in Perth.

Wonderful? It has been 35 hours with three stops to get to Australia for annual talks, part of her 1.5 million kilometres notched up as US secretary of state, visiting 112 out of 193 nations. Later she tells me she sleeps on planes and, yes, she believes in vitamins. At our dinner she shows no fatigue, handles all with breezy grace.

When we last saw her in the pages of a book it was in Game Change (2010) by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. They captured her in June 2008 in her Senate office after her defeat in the Democratic primaries. She declared: “We had the entire press corps against us, which usually Bill and I could care less, but this was above and beyond anything that had ever happened.” She seemed punch drunk, dazed.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s HRC, which covers Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, takes up the story at this point, with her staff putting together a list of traitors who had to be punished for swinging to Barack Obama. Later, a Clinton aide would see divine justice in the downfall — one after the other — of these miscreants, as the authors record: “ ‘Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down … Ted Kennedy,’ the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, ‘dead’.”

Despite the sulphur in the air, it was impossible for her to say no to the job offer from the President. And Obama handled her adroitly, overruling his staff to let her have her loyalists on the payroll, including as chief of protocol, a position usually chosen by the president.

Early manoeuvres between Obama and Clinton were as delicate as a merger of two corporations, recalls one adviser. Obama’s deference allowed this team of rivals to fall into place. When Clinton suffered concussion in 2012 he was to say of her: “I love her, love her … I love my friend.” He’s expected to support her over Vice-President Joe Biden if (or when) she announces for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

In this career shift she displayed the adaptability she had shown in inventing herself as a Senate candidate from New York in 2000 and, after her win, as a member of the Senate club. It’s “stages of Hillary”, one insider says. You start by dreading working with her, then begrudgingly start to respect her; then outright respect her because of her ferocious work ethic. Then, you actually come to like her “and she’s charming and she’s funny and she’s interesting and she’s inquisitive and she’s engaging”.

Secretaries of state can be overshadowed by the national security staff in the White House. One Clinton response, however, was to build strong alliances with defence secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus. It was this alliance with the Pentagon that in December 2009 persuaded the President to favour a surge of troop numbers in Afghanistan, a policy battle captured in yet another of Bob Woodward’s lugubrious books, Obama’s Wars (2010).

Nobody can audit Clinton’s four years as secretary of state without reference to the recklessness of the preceding Bush years. Today, George W. seems locked up in what looks like house arrest in Preston Hollow in Dallas, and his swivel-eyed advisers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are held accountable for two trillion-dollar wars that only demonstrated US weakness and enlarged its enemies.

The first Obama administration had to absorb the cost of these adventures. It was plain as day America could not shape events in the Middle East. The US has no more influence in what happens in the Crimea than it had over Russian invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively.

In an era calling for policy proportionate and measured, it was right to lead from behind on Libya, right — after agonising — to decline support for Syrian rebels. It was right to ­accede a Russian role on Syrian chemical weapons and to talk to Iran. It is what the war-weary US public wants anyway.

I record in my diaries how an Australian businessman suggested I needed to pick more arguments with the US to demonstrate our independence to China. I said apart from any other objection this would be hard when it came to the Obama administration and secretary of state Clinton. When they seek to conserve and not squander the US’s smart power, to engage with the Islamic world, or to elevate the rights of women and girls in developing countries, their stance reflects what most Australians would want to see in their American partner.

The authors argue Clinton had no spectacular “marquee achievements” such as a heraldic peace agreement. They might have added, no new architecture for global consultations. But in a book devoted to beltway gossip, they are at least wise enough to see Clinton’s success should not be measured in these terms anyway. She was a success in nurturing relationships, handling crises such as Gaza, and saying no to the draining adventurism of the previous administration.

There is a view in Southeast Asia that the American commitment to our region — the rebalance to Asia — is not something anyone can rely on. I have heard this from foreign ministers, diplomats, think tankers. They could argue this book supports their case. Its 440 pages include two chapters on Benghazi but no mention of the pivot to Asia, of Clinton’s hard work in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the deep feel for Asia of her assistant, Kurt Campbell. If a pair of Washington insiders can entirely overlook US commitments to our part of the world, then a future administration can easily forget they were ever made.

For the record

February 14, 2014

Richard Ackland is incorrect when he says I was a supporter of mandatory sentences (”In a sentence, mandatory terms mean muddles”, February 7). In fact, I stared down and defeated Liberal opponents who in three state elections were advocating mandatory minimum sentences: in 1995 when John Fahey campaigned on Californian-style ”three strikes” sentencing; in 1999 when Kerry Chikarovski campaigned for mandatory minimum sentencing; and in 2003 when John Brogden campaigned for compulsory minimum sentencing. The reason we are having a debate now is that I blocked its introduction, that I defeated Liberals who on three occasions were pushing it.

And for the record, I was never talked out of mandatory sentencing by Chief Justice Jim Spigelman because I never believed in it.

West Bank settlements always illegal

February 14, 2014

The Australian, February 12 2014:

ANY confusion about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank can be easily resolved. There is a file in the office of the Israeli Prime Minister that will do it.

The file would be handy for John Kerry as he attempts to broker a peace. It would help Julie Bishop, who told The Times of Israel on January 15 she’d like to see advice that says settlements are illegal.

It was this advice that an Israeli prime minister asked for in 1967. Israel had just conquered what is now the West Bank. Prime minister Levi Eshkol asked Israel’s top authority on international law, Theodor Meron, whether Israel could settle civilians there.

Meron was a child survivor of the Holocaust and has since become one of the world’s leading authorities on the laws of war and a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

His advice was unequivocal, and today he sticks to it. He said: “Civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

When General Moshe Dayan in 1968 proposed building Israeli towns on the West Bank he blithely conceded: “Settling Israelis in administered territories, as is known, contravenes international conventions … “

Indeed, the Fourth Geneva Convention would appear to leave no room for argument. It states: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Apologists for settlements try to argue that Article 49 bars the occupier only from “forced transfer” (my emphasis) of its civilians. This is not the interpretation accepted by the International Court of Justice or anyone else. The adjective “forced” does not appear in the convention.

I think I recognise a killer argument when I see one. The killer argument here is that Israel’s own legal authority, at the very start, told its government that settlements were illegal under international law.

It’s curious that supporters of Israel would choose to fight on this ground – their weakest.

When I was foreign minister the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council directed a furious effort at trying to block even routine criticism of settlements, as if this were more vital than advocating a two-state solution or opposing boycotts of Israel. Settlers themselves shatter all sympathy, as on the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday when Daniella Weiss stated they deliberately had occupied land to block the creation of a Palestinian state because “this land was promised to the Jewish nation by God”.

In Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary The Ultra Zionists, religious settlers declared Palestinians an inferior race. “This is the Jewish homeland and there’s never been a Palestinian people,” declared one, standing on a property formerly occupied by Palestinians. In one blast they defied centuries of priceless Jewish liberal and humanitarian instinct.

No one from the centre-Left of European politics is going to do anything other than repudiate this ultra-religious vision. “The kibbutz used to be the symbol of Israel,” a British Labour MP told me. “Now it’s the settlement bloc.” American Jewry is increasingly detaching itself from what it sees as a chauvinist, illiberal strain in Israeli politics.

Kerry warned Israel last month of the danger of delegitimisation, especially after the EU announced any economic treaties with Israel would carefully exclude – one may say boycott – business activity in Israeli settlements.

I know some supporters of Israel would want to point out that there are a range of settlement categories. My response is to quote Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who once said: “If you’ve got to explain, you’ve lost already.”

In any case, there is available a far more intelligent defence of Israel. Concede that the settlement mission is controversial within Israel. Point out many Israelis are opposed to the settler vision of a greater Israel indefinitely governing a majority Arab population. Give up any argument that settlements are legal under international law and move on to more fruitful territory.

Insist that liberal democracy and shining economic success – even with constant threat of war – are the chief virtues of Israel, a state where six former heads of its security agency, Shin Bet, can appear in a documentary (The Gatekeepers) and criticise Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, a state where its own Supreme Court can overrule its government on use of torture or the direction of a wall opposed by Palestinian villagers, where historians freely challenge their country’s own foundation myth. Where, as Four Corners showed, its military personnel can speak out against the occupation.

In all these respects, Israel presents a benchmark of pluralism and democracy – a formidable one – for a future Palestinian entity. If Palestinians achieved it, they would set off a challenge to Arab dictatorship and theocracy everywhere and realise their own greatness.

Indonesians won’t tolerate coming off second best

September 30, 2013

Op-ed published in The Sydney Morning Herald today, September 30:

Australia’s national interest lies in having 10 resilient, prosperous and interconnected neighbours, lying across our northern approaches. This is unarguable. And it’s the context for our relationship with the largest ASEAN member, Indonesia.

Yet Australia’s relations with Indonesia are threatened by the political slogan “Turn back the boats”. It would be nice to know that when the shadow cabinet settled on the slogan, Julie Bishop had argued against it and for the imperatives of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

Either way, the Abbott Government must recognise that within Indonesia public opinion creates foreign policy pressures, as it does in Australia.

Earlier this year on a visit to Jakarta I raised our concern that irregular migrants from Iran arrived in Jakarta, paid 25 dollars for a visa at the airport and then travelled to Indonesian ports and pay money to people smugglers to get into Australian waters.

In the context of our excellent working relationship with Indonesia, two of their ministers said they understood our concern. As a result, in August they were to end the visa-on-arrival system for Iranians. But the Indonesians made it clear they would be implementing this reform to meet their own domestic dynamics, to tidy up their own immigration system. In other words, they could not and would not be seen to be doing this as a favour to another nation.

This reflects a view in the Indonesian parliament and media that Indonesia always comes out second-best in dealing with foreigners. For example, last year President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reduced Schapelle Corby’s sentence by five years. This was in response to representations by Australia that had been made in private and not transmitted through public diplomacy.

The President, however, faced loud criticism from members of the Indonesian parliament whose members are strongly opposed to illegal drug use.

The Indonesian foreign ministry, in an unprecedented move, last week released minutes of previously confidential discussions with Foreign Minister Bishop. That can be read in only one way. Their government was managing domestic opinion, which wants to know their leaders aren’t caving in to intrusions on Indonesian sovereignty, especially by a brash new bunch of Aussie politicians.

Alexander Downer dismissed Indonesian sensibilities as “pious rhetoric”. Not helpful. Indonesian sensibilities have to be seriously weighed.

Two months ago the Indonesian Government was alarmed and offended by news that a so-called “Freedom Flotilla” of protesting Australians was headed for its Papuan provinces. This was a small and isolated protest, but an element of Indonesian opinion saw it as reflecting dark Australian designs to ultimately carve out their two Papuan provinces from the Republic.

We took the Indonesian concerns seriously. In that spirit I said that if protesters knowingly and after due warning violated Indonesian immigration laws they should not expect a million dollars of Australian consular attention to be expended on their case. And a DFAT officer on Thursday Island quietly persuaded them to return.

When I gave this news to Minister Marty Natalegawa at the G20 in St Petersburg he expressed satisfaction with the outcome and with Australia’s understanding of Indonesian sensitivities. What might have been to Indonesian public opinion a provocative Australian action never proceeded. We remain in agreement with the Indonesians that their two Papuan provinces present human rights concerns but no argument about sovereignty.

Taking a similar approach, Prime Minister Tony Abbott should drop his somewhat nutty policy of buying Indonesian fishing boats. Indonesia has an estimated 726,000 boats along its coastline. By the way, imagine how Australian public opinion, inflamed by talkback demagogues, would greet a comparable Indonesian incursion into our domestic policy?

Australian Representation at G20 Summit

September 2, 2013

Foreign Minister Bob Carr will represent the Prime Minister at the G20 Summit in St Petersburg this week.

The G20 brings together advanced and emerging economies representing 85 per cent of the world economy, over 75 per cent of global trade, and two-thirds of the world’s population.

This annual meeting of G20 leaders, from 19 countries plus the European Union, will discuss:

• strengthening the global economy;
• reforming international financial institutions;
• improving financial regulation; and
• promoting development growth and employment.

Australia has worked closely with 2013 host Russia throughout the year, as a member of the G20 troika of past, present and future hosts.

Australia will assume the Presidency of the G20 on December 1, 2013.

59 Australians in Syria warned to leave immediately

August 30, 2013

Foreign Minister Bob Carr today warned the 59 Australians registered as being in Syria to leave the country immediately, ahead of any international response to last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack in Damascus.

“Our message to these 59 Australians, including up to 6 children, is to leave Syria by road or air while it is still possible to do so,” Senator Carr said.

“Exit options are already limited and may be further reduced as airports and border crossings are closed.

“The risk of further violence is very high and there is no margin for safety in Damascus, Aleppo or any other city in Syria.

“There are also no effective means of providing consular assistance, particularly outside Damascus.

“Australians, particularly families with children, should exit Syria as soon as possible.”

Senator Carr said he was advised some commercial flights were still available from Damascus and it remained possible to depart via the main road crossing into Jordan.

However, Australians should avoid the Syria-Jordan crossing near the city of Der’a, the Tal Kalakh crossing into Lebanon, or any crossing into Iraq.

Australians still in Syria have also been urged to make immediate contact with either the Romanian embassy in Damascus, which represents Australian interests in the country, or the Australian Embassy in Cairo.

Australians concerned about friends or relatives in Syria should contact the Consular Emergency Centre on 1300 555 135.

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