John Howard's latest lapse of diplomatic judgement fits a pattern
John Howard’s lapse of judgement in describing Barack Obama as the Presidential choice of Al Qaeda was not his only recent diplomatic blunder.
In a far less widely reported statement, at the end of the APEC conference in Vietnam in November last year, the Prime Minister told the ABC that his support for the Vietnam war had not changed since the 70s. History, hindsight and his time Vietnam provided no cause for the PM to review his position on that war.
It reveals lots about the Prime Minister. It puts him at the far extreme of opinion on the Vietnam conflict. It also shows a man congenitally indisposed to reviewing his opinions as the body of available knowledge on an issue increases and previously held ideas are debunked. This theme runs through his tenure with the most glaring examples being his intransigence on Iraq, David Hicks, the aboriginal “sorry” issue as well as global warming.
Even on those rare occasions when political necessity requires that the PM amend a previously held position, there is a sense that he is deeply uncomfortable and that he still holds his previously disproved or revised position.
His recent embrace of the reality of global warming is so reluctant that on the world stage, Australia still sounds like a denialist state. The government continues to accuse Labor of extremism for holding positions that are now orthodoxy in Europe and through many parts of the United States.
Mr Howard’s recent assault on the concept of multiculturalism seems to represent a resurfacing of his 1980s views – described by many as racist at the time. While immigration numbers have been robust under Howard, the assumptions underpinning the welcome are changing.
The Prime Minister says “I think in public life you take a position, and I think particularly of the positions I've taken in the time I've been Prime Minister, I have to live with the consequences of those both now and into the future.
And if I ever develop reservations, well I hope I would have the grace to keep them to myself, because I think you take a position and you've got to live by that and be judged by it.”
How desirable is it that a Prime Minister might view a sensible revision of a flawed view as a failure of character? Isn’t the ongoing development of our views based on our developing knowledge a fundamental feature of progress? Even for Prime Ministers?
The PM’s comments on the Vietnam War were also outrageous from a diplomatic perspective. Even if the PM holds such extreme positions, it is totally futile and destructive to voice them – especially when the country in question is your host. The implication of the PM’s position must be that the current government in Vietnam is not legitimate.
The Vietnamese government did not respond to this diplomatic outrage as far as I am aware, but it was surely noted and cannot have helped relations.
Having spent the past 15 years living and working in Vietnam with people from both sides of the conflict, I found the comments grotesque and staggeringly insensitive. Most of Vietnam’s eighty million people have spent the past thirty years moving on from the conflict and focusing on the things that unite them. There is no doubt that the presence of foreign forces in Vietnam prolonged the war and heightened its brutality. The recovery has been difficult. It’s not an easy process and John Howard’s comments did not show any appreciation of its complexity.
For all its messiness, Vietnam’s achievements during the past 30 years have been impressive. And the newly appointed Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung seems determined to take Vietnam’s reconciliation to greater heights. So why would an Australian PM want to focus on a divided past?
After attending a ceremony at Long Tan commemorating Australian service in Vietnam and in a further expression of incredible insensitivity, Mr Howard said “It's a sensible, mature act on the part of the Vietnamese Government not to raise any objection.”
“ A sensible mature act” eh? I would call it an exceptional act of graciousness that the Vietnamese would sanction such a ceremony. After all, Australians were a foreign force in Vietnam fighting in a civil war. Local people in the area would have suffered terribly during the battles fought by Australians. And Australia’s enemy in the conflict allows Australians to return to remember a battle in which hundreds of their comrades died? If the Vietnamese government exhibited “maturity” in permitting such a service, what was the prime minister exhibiting by throwing into question the legitimacy of the Vietnamese government thirty years after the war?
I shudder to think what the real implication of diplomacy Howard / Downer style with all its prejudices and baggage - has been in our region – especially in Timor, the Pacific and PNG. That story is yet to be told.