Megawati's UN speech was a reminder that we have strayed too far into the US orbit, writes Geoff Kitney.
A year on, Australians are partying again in Bali, with the number of Australian visitors steadily rising from the post-bombing collapse. Surely this is testimony to the resilience and determination of the Aussie spirit, battered but not bowed by those who despise our way of life so bitterly that they were prepared to commit mass murder of innocent Aussie fun-seekers.
And next week, despite intelligence warnings that the bomb makers are at work again, hundreds of Australians, including the Prime Minister and his wife, will add to the growing visitor numbers to honour those murder victims.
John Howard says it is very important for Australian-Indonesian relations that "we be seen together to be marking this terrible event". Unfortunately, being seen together will not include Howard being seen with President Megawati Soekarnoputri. She cannot attend because of a previous engagement.
But Megawati did have a pre-anniversary message that she delivered to a packed UN General Assembly in New York this week. She was uncharacteristically blunt, warning that the US and its allies were getting the "war on terrorism" all wrong.
The war against Iraq and the situation in the Middle East were, she warned, increasing the alienation of Muslims from the West, creating more problems than were being solved. The message of her speech as leader of the world's largest Muslim nation (and Australia's most important neighbour) was salutary about the risks of fanning anti-Americanism and Islamic terrorism as perceptions grow of an anti-Muslim bias in US coalition policies.
It was a warning that echoed the warnings before the Iraq war and the "we-told-you-so" postwar comments of France's President Jacques Chirac. So how did Howard react to the goings on at the UN meeting , which, with Tony Blair, he was one of the few world leaders unable to attend? By telling us how awful the French are.
If you took at what George Bush and Howard are in effect saying, the only thing wrong with the war on Iraq was that the French selfishly opposed it and are now selfishly obstructing a smooth transition to democracy and peace in Iraq.
Whatever the errors of France's policy on Iraq, and the motivations for its actions, it was surely correct to warn of the dangers of rushing to invade Iraq without a broad international consensus for war. Those dangers are now realities, with Iraq in a mess, with the key justification for the invasion still not proven and with the standing of the US and its key alliance partnerships alarmingly diminished.
The one undeniable benefit of the war is that a tyrant has been removed. But to argue that this in itself justifies the war and to ignore the high costs and long-term risks of having done it is to deny reality.
And in her speech to the UN, Megawati highlighted the alarming consequences of the war not openly acknowledged by the Howard Government. Even when it is discounted for domestic political motives, her speech to the UN was consistent in sentiment to similar speeches from leaders of other Islamic countries. Their collective judgement is that the Iraq war and the continuing disaster in the Middle East have deepened the gulf between the West and large parts of the Islamic world.
Given our geography, this is a message we downplay at our peril. What Megawati had to say showed that what Australia should be really concerned about is not French opportunism but growing anti-US, anti-Western sentiment in Indonesia and its implications for the future of regional security, and Australian security.
It is said that the most powerful unspoken motivation for Howard committing Australian forces to Iraq was to build a reserve of credibility with the US as Australia's best guarantee of security from regional instability, especially in Indonesia.
Now it is becoming apparent that the Iraq war may have created the conditions for a deterioration of regional security, especially in Indonesia. This looms as potentially one of the great foreign policy miscalculations by an Australian government.
The post-September 11 world and the climate of "us against evil" made it very difficult to debate the appropriateness of the US response to the terrorist threat. Howard's view was that the only course for civilised democratic nations was to give unquestioning support to Bush's policies. To question them, as France and Germany did, was to give comfort to terrorism. Doubters in Australia were immediately branded anti-US and soft on terrorism.
The way the postwar world is unfolding is reaffirming the case for consultative multilateralism rather than Rambo unilateralism. That multilateral mechanisms were not up to the task in a world reshaped by September 11 only gives weight to the case by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, for the international community to take up the challenge of reforming them. Unilateralism is proving to be an even greater failure.
It is also time to stop mindlessly labelling any questioning of US strategy and leadership as anti-American. Bush's speech to the UN shows that the postwar situation is a monument to the case for debating the potential consequences of such action to be ready to deal with them.
Australia can pursue its interests without being anti-American. In fact, by focusing on the need to build greater trust and understanding with Indonesia, Australia will be making a much more important contribution to the war on terrorism than it did by sending troops to the war in Iraq.
To prevent this becoming a disaster, Australia needs to redouble the effort it puts into regional diplomacy. It needs to build bridges of understanding. Howard should give priority to travelling to the regional capitals, but especially to Jakarta.
As part of this, Howard must be prepared to be more critical of US policy, or at least less kneejerk in his pro-Americanism, as he was with his attack on France. It's now in Australia's interest to be a bit less pro-American and a bit more pro-Indonesian. By acting more independently we would be helping the US.
Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Sept 2003