Thursday, May 25, 2006

Aussie-Kiwi split over deployment to East Timor?

Helen Clark's Cabinet met today and seems to have to decided not to send troops to East Timor until it has more information on the situation there. This will come as an unpleasant surprise to Alexander Downer, Howard's Foreign Minister, who was virtually pre-empting New Zealand's decision earlier today (of course he virtually pre-empted East Timor's decision to call for troops, as well).

It looks, then, like a breach could be opening between the Anzac partners over this issue. One possible reason for Clark's caution is the very strong showing the rebels are making in the fighting that is raging in and around the East Timor capital Dili. There's an account of this fighting here, and its shows the professionalism of the rebels - they are no ragtag band of thugs, like the militia active in 1999 were.

The rebels could create real problems, particularly if the East Timorese government has insisted that foreign troops are not to be used as frontline fighters, but just as 'advisers' to the remainder of the East Timorese army and de facto cops on the streets of Dili. Recent reports suggest that Dili's airport is now cut off the from the rest of the city. Are Australian 'peacekeepers' going to have fight their way from their planes to their barracks? The photo at the top of this post shows Alfredo Reinhaldo, a senior military policeman who deserted to the rebel side after seeing the massacre of April the 28th. Reinhaldo knows how to fight - he was trained by the Australian army.

Aussie socialist Tom O'Lincoln has written a powerful analysis of the way that the 1999 intervention in East Timor prepared the way for the current mission. O'Lincoln sees the 1999 adventure as a turning point in Aussie military and diplomatic policy in the Asia Pacific region. Military spending did jump after 1999 and the strategy employed by Australia in the region changed dramatically. O'Lincoln points to the White Paper on Defence of 2000 as a sign of Australia's new thinking. The difference between the pre-1999 intervention in Bougainville - which, though still directed against the interests of the local people, was done through the Commonwealth, and involved mediation rather than ultimatium - and the aggressive unilateralism or 'join us or face the consequences' pseudo-multilateralism of recent years is obvious, and East Timor is part of the explanation for this change, along with 9/11 and the development of a super-aggressive US foreign policy.


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