A little bit of history repeating brings hope
For most Australians the visit of American Vice-President Dick Cheney was something of a non-event.
The Sydney demonstrators, their ranks thinner but their faces still furious, did their predictable thing before being predictably defeated by superior police numbers; the remainder of grid-locked Sydney, faced with yet more unnecessary traffic jams, just wished hed go away.
Kevin Rudd was no doubt grateful to have it confirmed that withdrawing some of Australias token presence in Iraq would not affect the American alliance, to which John Howard replied that Cheney was just being diplomatic about interfering in local politics, a courtesy of which he himself could never be accused following his absurd attack on the American Democrats and their possible presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, Howard did not go out of his way to thrust his association with the most notorious surviving architect of the Iraq fiasco before a queasy public, and seemed mildly embarrassed by the whole thing; three months ago, when it was planned, the visit must have seemed like a pretty good photo op, but in the week when Tony Blair announced the British pull out that Howard refuses to call a pull out, Cheney was about as welcome as Asian bird flu.
Perhaps sensing this he did not open himself up to the media except to give a platitudinous interview to The Australians foreign editor and Washingtons agent of influence, Greg Sheridan. Inexplicably, Sheridan omitted to ask Cheney how much he personally had profited from the war, so this was a non-event too.
But for some of us older folk the fleeting but well-managed appearance by an American Vice-President brought waves of nostalgia. Just 47 years ago a troubled Prime Minister embroiled in a losing American war had tried exactly the same stunt, and look what happened to him.
In 1970 John Gorton, if not actually on the political skids, was moving rapidly in that direction. The year before he had lost 17 seats to Labors whiz kid Gough Whitlam, and the polls were suggesting that he could not survive another go round. His deputy and long-time rival, Billy McMahon, was openly manoeuvring to unseat him. And the war in Vietnam, which had sustained the conservatives so well since Australia committed its first troops in 1965, was finally going sour in the public mind.
In the past a visit from the American president had always gone down a treat, but unfortunately Richard Nixon was not available at the time. However his slightly shop-soiled Veep, Spiro Agnew, was looking for an excuse to get out of America for a break from the investigators, so with some misgivings Gorton laid out the red carpet.
Like Cheney, Agnew was not too keen on the media, although after considerable pressure from the Canberra press gallery (pressure apparently absent from Cheneys visit last week) he did manage to sandwich a restricted press conference between a set of tennis and a cocktail party. But again like Cheney, Agnew was hugely gung ho about the war, painting an apocalyptic picture of the final showdown between good and evil. Defeat for America in Vietnam, he thundered, would be a humiliation from which the West would never recover. Communism would receive an enormous boost and huge numbers of waverers would be drawn to its side.
Sound familiar? But wait, theres more. When I heard Cheney warning of an Islamic Caliphate stretching from Spain, through northern Africa to the Middle East and thence through south east Asia to Indonesia and it wouldnt stop there it took me back to the domino theory, all the rage among those who described themselves as right wing intellectuals in the Vietnam years. If Vietnam were to fall, they intoned, the neighbouring nations would collapse to the Asian (by which they seemed to mean Chinese) communists like a row of dominos; Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and it wouldnt stop there Talk about dj vu all over again.
To those who see the defeat of American forces in Iraq as being as inevitable as it was in Vietnam, history offers considerable comfort; Agnews predictions were way off beam, and there is no reason to believe that Cheneys will be any more accurate. Both proceed from a profound and unshakeable ignorance of the history, culture and even geography of the regions involved, which is, of course, the reason we got into the mess in the first place.
The kind of eleventh hour bluff and bluster in which the supporters of the military adventures (and in both cases the Vice-Presidents were even less prone to self-doubt than their bosses) indulge in a desperate effort to persuade their remaining allies to stick with them as they go down in a screaming heap should be discounted as self-interested hysteria, and generally has been by all except Howard. Interestingly, Agnew used his visit to ask Gorton for more Australian troops and was turned down flat. Howard, on the other hand, came good with an extra commitment of trainers before Cheney even arrived, such is his devotion to the patently lost cause.
Spiro Agnews visit had a sequel. Shortly after he returned to the United States he was charged with corruption and forced to resign. It is worth noting that Halliburton, the company which Cheney used to head and with which he still has close and rewarding associations, is currently under investigation. And Gorton did not survive to face another election; McMahon knocked him off a few months later and was then himself defeated by Labors whiz kid. Dare we hope that history will go on repeating itself?
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