Our West Wing moment

So, I’ll admit it. I got just as carried away as everybody else on the occasion of United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Australia. I was looking forward to the chance to see him up close and to get a sense of the rhetorical power that first caught the attention of the world at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

In that regard, he didn’t disappoint. His speech to the Australian Parliament was beautifully crafted, holding 226 Australian parliamentarians and a packed public gallery spellbound. After the oration he worked the room with ease, flashing his smile and taking his own time to meet the MPs who had just given him a long standing ovation. He seems like a genuinely warm and charismatic human being.

Listening to the speech, the five hundred year arc of history, the drive to a more perfect Union, and the liberating power of democratic ideals fought through the second half of the 20th century hung in the air with tangible force.

And a few minutes in, it became apparent firstly that this hypnotic invocation of shared sacrifice and global democratisation was intended for a much larger audience (listening in from the US, and Beijing, respectively), and secondly that it was being delivered from a parallel universe.

In this universe, winding down two successful forced injections of democracy into Iraq and Afghanistan frees up nuclear-armed military assets for further peace-building in the Asia Pacific region.

In this universe, the democratic process in America hasn’t been crippled by massive, parasitic corporate interests which have brought the country to the brink of financial and social collapse.

In this universe, all Australians will automatically accept the newest in a line of many hundreds of US military bases scattered across the globe, despite the unfortunate lapse in democratic due process that saw not a single Australian voter asked if they thought it would be a good idea.

In this universe, while whistleblowers and journalists at the WikiLeaks organisation can be pronounced summarily guilty by the highest office-bearers in the country and threatened with extrajudicial killing, the President can riff beautifully on “the rule of law, transparent institutions and the equal administration of justice”.

And in this universe, above all, amnesia must prevail. In order for the United States to take its place as the guardian of democracy, a few details are required to be quite aggressively forgotten.

To just consider the post-war period, the US has actively supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments including but not limited to administrations in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Ghana (1966), Chile (1973), Argentina (1976), Guatemala again (1993) and allegedly Haiti (2004). There have been well documented, overt and frequently harmful US interventions in Iraq (on multiple occasions since 1963), Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Angola, Somalia and probably Venezuela.

In addition, sustained financial, political and military support has been provided to dictatorships in places like the Philippines, Nicaragua, Panama, Chile and medieval fiefdoms like Saudi Arabia, for decades.

Odd, in a speech largely focused on the power of democracy, that the President barely mentioned the Arab Spring that has rocked North Africa and the Middle East this year with a grass-roots pro-democracy tide. Odd until you recall that almost to the bitter end the US Government was a key backer of the very regimes in Tunisia and Egypt that were toppled by ordinary people putting their lives on the line.

This is not to say that the US hasn’t been a force for positive change in many places – the US Government’s sanctions against the vile dictatorship in Burma are stronger than Australia’s, and the president’s acknowledgement of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle will help remind pro-democracy campaigners there that they are not forgotten.

But no such complexity or nuance seemed possible in the address on Thursday. President Obama, in asking us to accept the United States as a unilateral force for good deeds in the world, has offered Australians a more poetically crafted version of President Bush’s admonition that ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

With this simple logic accepted uncritically by the Government and with nauseating submission by Tony Abbott, of course the next step in the Asian century is for a permanent US military presence in Australia.

Forget this concept of a marine base hosting 2500 US Marines on a rotating basis. That’s just the label on the box. Once established, the facility will take whatever shape the US Government requires, as has happened at literally hundreds of installations from Subic Bay in the Philippines to the sprawling complexes in Germany, Japan, the UK, and dotted across the Pacific.

Without a whisper of consultation, the Australian Government has taken us into uncharted territory.

There are more than a thousand US bases around the world.

With so little known about what form these bases will take in reality, a couple of questions are in order before we sign up to a new one.

Firstly, why are the people of Okinawa so desperate to get rid of the massive US facilities there? Their campaign succeeded in changing the Government in Japan in 2009, and forcing the US, with great reluctance, to begin casting around for alternate hosts. (Hint: it has to do with noise impacts of living in a practice war zone, widespread chemical contamination, periodic rapes and sexual assaults, unexploded munitions, drug abuse, prostitution and the appalling financial cost to the Japanese Government.)

Secondly, what control will Australia have over activities conducted on the base? It appears cluster munitions, which Australia was until recently part of the campaign to abolish, will be allowed to be stored there, for example. What about nuclear weapons? Depleted uranium munitions?

Thirdly, what happens in the event that the US Government uses the base for a military intervention that – heaven forbid – the Australian Government or Australian public might not support?

Finally, what control do we have over the future scope of the base, given that its announcement was presented as a fait accompli? What does this tell us about half-glimpsed negotiations over other facilities, such as a naval base in Perth?

There are many other questions. The principle one is, in the suffocating spirit of bipartisan Obama-worship that fell across Canberra like a fever last week, will the debate even happen?

Mr Obama, I wish you well in confronting the daunting challenges that surround you at home, and I wish you wisdom and foresight in planning America’s responses to the security challenges of the 21st century. But as an Australian citizen, with greatest respect, you are not my President.