Sauce for the goose

In today’s Oz Janet Albrechtsen attacks taxpayer-funded groups who support Australian intervention to secure independence for West Papua. Coincidentally or otherwise, there’s an almost identical piece in the Fin from Don D’Cruz of the Institute for Public Affairs. But what’s really striking about Albrechtsen’s piece is this observation

Maybe they miss the irony. They argue regime change in Iraq, a country enslaved by an oppressive dictator, will inflame hatred across the Muslim world, especially Indonesia. Yet their support for regime change in West Papua threatens to do exactly that. They demand we be sensitive to Indonesian concerns over Iraq yet they advocate a destruction of Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua.

I know irony isn’t Janet’s strong point, but I’m sure at least some readers will recognise the irony in an accusation of hypocrisy that works just as well in reverse. The arguments on regime change regarding West Papua are very similar to those on Iraq. If we choose to disregard both the principles of international law and the likelihood of adverse long-term consequences, and make optimistic military assumptions it’s possible to make a very strong case for an Australian invasion to throw the Indonesians out and institute a democratic government. Assuming that an invasion of Iraq succeeds, and that it is undertaken despite the opposition of the UNSC, considerations of international law will cease to be relevant, and arguments based on prudential concerns and military caution will be discredited to a significant extent. So why doesn’t Albrechtsen, along with other supporters of unilateral war, favour the liberation of West Papua?

Update Both Bargarz and Scott Wickstein have responded, suggesting I’ve mistakenly assumed they are opposed to the liberation of West Papua. Both give information on the evils of Indonesian rule and the dubious processes that led to its international recognition. I agree with all of this, as with the moral case against Saddam Hussein – as I said, “it’s possible to make a very strong case for an Australian invasion to throw the Indonesians out and institute a democratic government”.

But when I asked about support for “the liberation of West Papua”, I meant it literally. I’m asking why supporters of war with Iraq don’t advocate an effort by the Australian government, backed by the threat of military force, to secure independence for West Papua. As I read Scott and Bargarz, they back off at this point, for precisely the same kinds of reasons as millions of people who have nothing but contempt for Saddam Hussein back off from the idea of a war to overthrow him.

To offer my substantive views on West Papua and Aceh, I believe the best hope lies in a combination of some form of regional autonomy and the removal of the corrupt military elements that controlled both areas under Suharto and continue to have far too much power today. Good progress is being made in Aceh, and this is the most promising path for West Papua also.

Finally, I will pre-emptively withdraw the suggestion of inconsistency in relation to anyone who supports war with both Iraq and Indonesia.

Wiranto indicted!

According to UPI

U.N. prosecutors in Timor-Leste have indicted a former Indonesian defense minister for his alleged role in violence in which some 1,000 people died after the region voted to break from Indonesia.

General Wiranto, along with one civilian and six senior military officials, has been charged with crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation and persecution of people who supported the East Timor independence movement.

After winning independence in 1999, people in the region renamed their country Timor-Leste.

I assume “Timor-Leste” is just Portuguese for East Timor. Apart from this oddity, the report (which I found first on Google News) seems clear-cut. I had no idea that such serious charges were even being contemplated. This ought to have significant implications for the current crisis in Iraq, and for our relations with Indonesia, but I’ll leave them to others to work out, at least until tomorrow.

The decline of the US dollar

While the fact that the $A is now worth 60 US cents is newsworthy,this report, like most others, has the analysis the wrong way around. It starts by talking about the Australian economy and only later gets on to the real story, the depreciation of the $US against all major currencies. The same problem arises in discussions about the price of oil, gold etc – much of the price rise we have seen simply reflects the fact that the price is standardly expressed in terms of US dollars.

The US dollar was massively overvalued for most of the 1990s, causing great harm to the traded goods sector, particularly manufacturing. Manufacturing employment fell steadily during the last years of the boom, crashed during the recession and has continued to decline during the subsequent recovery. A striking manifestation of overvaluation is the fact that the US now spends twice as much on manufacturing imports as it earns for manufacturing exports (the disparity is probably greater for Australia, but we’ve never been a significant exporter of manufactures, unlike the US).

As I argue here, a depreciation of the US dollar is both inevitable and desirable. That doesn’t mean it will be painless, though. In particular, it raises the question of why anyone outside the US would want to hold US bonds, particularly with the 10-year bond rate below 4 per cent. Given a likely further depreciation of 15 per cent against the euro, and maybe more, this seems silly.

In part of course, the explanation may be the magical power of a dominant currency, reflected in the fact that for most commentators the $US/$A exchange rate is the exchange rate, even though the US is not our most important trading partner. When and if this spell is broken, long-term interest rates in the US are likely to rise to levels that reflect the underlying economic realities of chronic deficits on all accounts rather than the supposed ‘safe haven’ appeal of a reserve currency.

The moral asymmetry of war and peace

Alan Wood in today’s Oz has a piece that begins by mentioning a TV interview in which Costello showed himself totally unaware of Iraq’s population etc. He goes on to say

I doubt that any of Costello’s cabinet colleagues could have answered the question, or Martin until somebody looked it up for him. I would certainly like a dollar for all the anti-war marchers who couldn’t answer it.*

There’s an assumption of symmetry here which does not stand up to scrutiny. I don’t need to know the population of Kazakhstan, its political history, or even whether I’ve spelt it correctly, to know that I don’t support a war with that country. The fact that Australians in general, including Costello and Martin, know very little about Iraq is a good reason why we should not be fighting a war there.

The assumption that arguments for and against war should be assessed more or less symmetrically underlies a lot of blog discussion and is fundamentally unsound. Both international law and the experience of history provide a strong presumption against war, and in favor of seeking an early peace if war breaks out. Most wars turn out badly for all countries that choose to engage in them, and even in the case of defensive wars, most decisions to forgo the chance of a compromise peace based on the status quo ante have proved mistaken (Korea and Iran-Iraq are recent examples).

In these circumstances, the onus should be on the advocates of war to prove their case, as against the best available alternative which, in this case is the continuation of inspections.

As far as I can see the strongest case for war is that the current state of mobilisation is too costly to maintain, exactly the argument of the Austro-Hungarian empire when it launched its ‘war against terrorism’ in 1914.

* Wood doesn’t give a margin of error, so I’m not sure if he would have my dollar. The population estimate he gives is 24 million.

After the war, part 2

Addressing Iraqi Americans, Wolfowitz has stated that the US will introduce a democratic government in Iraq. There’s a report here. In relation to the Post article cited in an earlier post, Wolfowitz is reported as saying “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers” (this is in the AFR report in today’s print edition, but I don’t have a web source). In a comments thread below, Jack Strocchi has pointed to a similar report from January of a meeting Bush held with Iraqi exiles in which he promised democracy. Unfortunately, most wars in history have been preceded by the making of incompatible promises to a variety of potential supporters, and this looks like no exception.

My question on this is simple. If Bush supports democratic elections in a postwar Iraq, and intends to hold them after dealing with Saddam, why not say so now, unequivocally and publicly, at the same time as proposing his UN resolution ?

The other side of double jeopardy

There’s recently been some debate, notably on Ken Parish’s blog, about proposals to modify the principle of double jeopardy, under which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, even if new evidence emerges after an original acquittal. The other side of this coin is that, in the absence of some procedural flaw, a conviction cannot be overturned even if new evidence proves that the person convicted was innocent. This is particularly problematic in the US where the death penalty is involved. The NYT reports this exchange between a judge and prosecutor

Judge Stith, of the Missouri Supreme Court, was getting exasperated. “Are you suggesting,” she asked the prosecutor, that “even if we find Mr. Amrine is actually innocent, he should be executed?”
Frank A. Jung, an assistant state attorney general, replied, “That’s correct, your honor.”

I haven’t thought through all the consequences but it seems to me that, at least in the case of murder, the public interest in finality of criminal proceedings is outweighed by the need to have justice done. One possible solution would be to have some independent body that could evaluate claims from either prosecutors or those convicted of murders that cases should be reopened in the light of new evidence.

Questions of legal costs are also important. In the case of a second prosecution, costs should automatically be borne by the prosecution, regardless of the outcome of the case. This would provide a check on the abuse of process potentially involved in retrying someone who has previously been acquitted.

Just what we need

Coming right at this time, I can’t imagine news much worse than a new Israeli coalition combining Sharon with the main settlerist party.

Update For any supporters of war who doubt that an invasion of Iraq would embolden Sharon in his pursuit of Greater Israel, with all its disastrous consequences for both Israel and the world, it’s worth reading the anticipatory triumphalism of the leading US spokesman for Likud, William Safire or you can read a news report here.

Monday Message Board

Comments seem to be working again, except that the counter is a bit slow to update. So it’s time for the regular Monday free-for-all, where you get to comment on whatever takes your fancy.

Suggested discussion starter: What issues are being overlooked in the obsessive focus on Iraq (OK, I plead guilty!)? Are clever politicians managing to sneak stuff through under the radar? As always, please keep the discussion clean and civilised.

After the war

Assuming there is to be a war in Iraq, it is, as the Administration is fond of saying, a matter of weeks not months. So the lack of any clear statement of what is to happen afterwards is more troubling than ever.

I’ll start with a basic question of legality. Let’s suppose that there is a second UNSC resolution on Iraqi weapons* and a group of UN members led by the US acts to enforce it, destroying Saddam’s weapons and overthrowing him in the process. At that point, as far as I can see, any legal basis for a continued US armed presence ceases. The US could simply withdraw (the option that the Pentagon would prefer, I’m sure). Alternatively, the UNSC could pass a new resolution establishing some sort of UN mandate.

But, as far as I can see, neither course of action is being contemplated. The option that seems to be uppermost in Bush’s mind, that of installing a US-controlled government, would convert an enforcement action based on a UN mandate to a war of aggression – explicitly forbidden under the UN charter.** I’m not an international lawyer, but it seems to me that an action of this kind would wipe out any claim to legality for the original intervention.

I had a look at the precedents of Germany and Japan after WWII. In both cases, the occupation government was nominally one established by the Allies (who were also, in some sense, the UN). In Germany this was also the reality on the ground, while in Japan the government was effectively controlled by the Americans. The most recent war, in Afghanistan, wasn’t problematic at all in this sense. No-one recognised the Taliban, and the new government was established under the auspices of the UN. Similarly in Kosovo, although NATO intervened without an explicit UN resolution to stop attacks on civilians, the subsequent occupation was UN-authorised.

* Actually, this isn’t critical. The same arguments apply if the invasion is justified by reference to 1441 and past resolutions. A real difference would arise only if the US explicitly repudiated the UNSC.

* *This was the line taken by the US government in relation to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which was justified both as self-defence and by the horrific nature of the Pol Pot regime. In fact, the US government took an even harder line since it continued to recognise Pol Pot rather than taking the more defensible position that neither Pol Pot nor Hun Sen represented a legal government.

Update Several commentators suggest that the proposed US controlled government is an interim step towards a democratic Iraq. In fact, according to the Washington Post, democracy has been explicitly ruled out (Blair refused to commit to democracy a week ago, and presumably this is why)

officials emphasized that they would not expect to “democratize” Iraq along the lines of the U.S. governing system. Instead, they speak of a “representative Iraqi government.”

There’s also no mention of the word “interim” or of “elections” or of anything that implies a specific finite timeframe. Obviously the US doesn’t plan to occupy Iraq permanently, but the implied position is one of indefinite occupation until the position of a pro-US government is secure, regardless of whether it has any democratic legitimacy.

The report also indicates that the Iraqi opposition (for all its faults, the only democratic force on offer) has been told to forget about any ideas it might have for a provisional government followed by democratic elections. A reaction from Kanan Makiya of the Iraqi National Congress, with a reference to those Iraqis who might serve in a US-controlled administration as ‘quislings’, is here.

I should emphasise that this is all attributed either to unnamed ‘officials’ or to experts outside the Administration, and could be misinformation of some kind. With an invasion apparently no more than a few weeks away, we have no official policy and, in particular, no explanation of how the enforcement of UN resolutions can legitimately be turned into a war of conquest.

Further update An error on my part – the article does indeed refer to the rule of a civilian administrator as “interim”. However, the rejection of “democratization” is clear-cut.

What I'm reading

The Green Flag by Robert Kee, is a three volume history of Ireland, from the Norman invasion led by Strongbow to the end of the Civil War. Excellent background for anyone wanting to understand the current situation in Northern Ireland.

In reading this, it struck me that, although I have significant Scottish ancestry, I don’t have any real clue about Scottish history prior to Mary Queen of Scots. I know a bunch of jumbled up names and stories – Sir Patrick Spens and the Maid of Norway, MacBeth and Duncan, John Knox and Darnley, Bruce, Balliol and Wallace, but no real idea of how they all fit together. I’m not even quite sure which ones are real and which fictional.

Arguably, this doesn’t matter. I’m not greatly interested in history of the ‘kings and battles’ kind, and the developments that really affected the world of today, such as the rise of Parliament, took place in England. And my family links are to the Highlanders of the Isles, who were largely unaffected by what went on in Edinburgh and London at this time. Still, it would be good to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.