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Our prime embarrassment

March 12, 2011

La Guillotine has done it again. She has managed to completely embarrass herself and in the process Australia on the world stage.

The last few days has seen a growing controversy surrounding Kevin Rudd’s perceived departure from the government’s line on a no-fly zone over Libya. It was easily accepted that Krudd was a loose canon and causing such confusion and chaos in diplomatic circles that it was recommended by some that he be sacked.

It seems, however, that la Guillotine is the one causing confusion and chaos. Greg Sheridan in The Weekend Australian explains a treachery that is quite breathtaking . . .

THIS week in Washington Julia Gillard reduced Australian foreign policy to a ridiculous shambles. It was a week of almost insane over-reaction from the Prime Minister, which exposed her frailty, inexperience and incompetence on foreign policy.

Gillard is exposed as a reactive and tactical politician apparently incapable of sustained strategic decision-making and advocacy.

Even the seeming triumph of her lachrymose performance before the US Congress was actually much less than met the eye.

But it was her bizarre incompetence, at best, over the issue of the proposed no-fly zone for Libya that laid bare the utter thinness and unreliability of Gillard in strategic and foreign affairs issues.

Since late last month the Australian government has had a strong position favouring a no-fly zone over Libya to stop Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from using his air force to murder Libyan citizens.

This position is pretty much in line with that of Britain and France and a bit ahead of the US.

Gillard herself articulated the government’s policy to parliament on March 2, saying: “Now we must keep this pressure up.

“Australia is calling for the Security Council to consider a no-fly-zone over Libya. This would stop Gaddafi from launching his air force to attack protesters and the cities in which opposition forces have control.

“We urge the Security Council to consider this measure to protect the people of Libya.”

Not much ambiguity about that, you might think. All pretty clear and in Bristol shape.

Subsequently Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd both made similar statements.

Rudd then engaged in what he does best: sustained and extremely effective international advocacy of Australian policy.

There was no ambiguity or confusion about that policy. Rudd made a speech to the UN Human Rights Council on the issue. The speech was drafted in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and circulated to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Every day through the weeks following the formation of the policy late last month, Rudd’s office drafted the foreign policy talking points for the government. Every day these talking points included support for the no-fly zone.

Rudd’s advocacy in the Middle East was extremely effective. He saw everyone who mattered and put the Australian position to them. He also accumulated vast intelligence on the matter. One of the highlights was a long meeting with all the foreign ministers of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

At the end of the meeting, the council’s ministers and Rudd jointly called for a no-fly zone.

Then, at the beginning of the week, Gillard arrived in Washington. The Obama administration had decided to be very nice to Gillard. Paradoxically, she owes this primarily to Rudd.

. . . Gillard has had a horror stretch in foreign policy. It was revealed that as deputy prime minister she hardly ever attended cabinet’s National Security Committee meetings. Then she declared as Prime Minister that she had no previous interest in foreign affairs.

Her only significant foreign policy initiative as Prime Minister was the absolute dog of the proposed East Timor refugee processing centre, which has gone nowhere. And now she has produced the lowest primary vote for Labor ever recorded in the history of polling in Australia.

So Gillard went to Washington nervous, unsure and desperate to make a good impression. At the same time she was under severe internal criticism within the Labor Party, especially from the Right, for being overly influenced by the Greens. So she made a stunningly lachrymose speech going over Americans like Harold Holt on steroids.

I found the sentiments laudable but their expression unbelievable. Having been once criticised for not showing emotion in public, Gillard now tears up on cue. Even remembering the moon landing in 1969 was enough to reduce her to tears. Gimme a break.

She was also clearly overawed by the Americans. This often happens to people from a background on the Left who decide to be pro-American. They overcompensate and suffer a sort of nervous collapse in the presence of US power. More psychologically secure Australian leaders can express every warmth for the Americans but still manage tactical disagreements in a constructive fashion.

This was what Gillard was called to do over the no-fly zone. She failed miserably and as a result made Australian foreign policy into an embarrassing mess.

Gillard found herself in the White House holding a slightly different position from the Americans. Australia favoured a no-fly zone, the Americans were emphasising caution on it.

A more sophisticated prime minister might have seen that what the Americans were really doing was forcing the Europeans and the Arabs to take the lead, so that they would own the policy and political responsibility for it.

But after she had met Obama, Gillard, in a series of press conferences, refused point-blank to reiterate her own government position in support of a no-fly zone.

In other words, in an apparent funk of stage fright, Gillard had run away from a settled Australian position, but had not actually changed to any new position.

As the press conferences went on Gillard’s formulations became ever more tortuous, as she said the UN Security Council should consider all the options and she didn’t want to narrow those options.

So here we have the Australian Prime Minister, brave as a lion in Canberra, who won’t say boo to a goose in Washington or New York.

The journalists travelling with Gillard naturally noted the contradiction between her position and that being advocated by Rudd.

Rudd had indeed made Gillard look feeble. He was doing his job well, she was doing hers poorly.

Having tried to back away from her position, apparently because she was scared of contradicting Obama, Gillard then started to get heat for contradicting Rudd.

At this point, either a Gillard staffer, or someone close to her, tried to spin the story so that it was Rudd’s fault. As a result the Fairfax press came out with stories yesterday to the effect that Rudd was out of control. They quoted an unnamed Gillard adviser as saying that Rudd was “out of control”, that he did not co-ordinate foreign policy with the Prime Minister and that “a no-fly zone over Libya is not the Australian position”.

Every word of those sentences is a provable lie. If that briefing was indeed given on Gillard’s behalf, or with her knowledge, she is a Prime Minister in a very desperate position indeed.

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