Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 05:50 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 05:50 | SYDNEY

The Downer legacy (part 3): The war on terror


Graeme Dobell

5 March 2009 15:51

The struggle against terrorism and its extremist ideology is one of our generation’s greatest political challenges.
- Alexander Downer, December 2006

Alexander Downer’s thinking on Muslim extremism reflected a US starting point in 2001, but slowly broadened to accept Indonesian perspectives. Downer’s language on terrorism shifted from an American-influenced apocalyptic vision to a more nuanced discussion of a struggle of ideas.

Australia signed up to the ‘war on terror’ as a US ally and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the US alliance. In Southeast Asia, the US alliance effect was muted, except in the Philippines. Instead, Australia confronted extremists in Southeast Asia through a network of bilateral and regional relationships, inter-faith dialogue and meticulous (at times, almost inspired) work by the Australian Federal Police.

The ‘war on terror’ was an American phrase initially adopted by Australia. Nearly three years after the 9/11 attacks on the US,  the Manichean flavour of Downer’s language was still evident when he released a White Paper titled ‘Transnational Terrorism: the threat to Australia’. In July, 2004, Downer told the National Press Club that Muslim extremists were waging ‘a version of total war’. This ‘terrorist project of limitless ambition’ meant Australia was engaged in  ‘a struggle to the death over values’. 

Downer spoke of an ‘existential war’ and called on Australians ‘to understand how comprehensively the world has changed since war was declared on us, and to win that war.’ Downer was delivering these words only three months ahead of the federal election won by the Howard Government in October, 2004. The political timing matters.

The Howard Government won  two elections — in 2001 and 2004 — heavily flavoured by issues of security, the alliance with the US and the threat of terrorism. There was a domestic political dividend in signing up for what the Pentagon called the ‘GWOT’ — the Global War on Terror. The problem for Australian diplomacy was that the GWOT had the undesirable effect of uniting potential enemies while sowing discord among potential allies who disliked being confronted with George W Bush’s stark choice: ‘with us or against us’. 

The ‘with us or against us’ tensions were dealt with in different ways according to geography in the 2004 White Paper on terrorism. The war could still be mentioned when talking about Iraq. In considering Southeast Asia, though, Foreign Affairs’ language was about shared police and intelligence work and how Australia and the region had common interests in ’successful management of the terrorist threat.’

Australia was confident that the odds of failure in Southeast Asia were completely different to the problems in Iraq. Jemaah Islamiyah could not win in Indonesia:

Jemaah Islamiyah’s concept of a Southeast Asian super-state, forming part of a global Islamic caliphate, governed by Taliban-style religious extremism is flawed. The overwhelming majority of the population of Indonesia — and indeed of Southeast Asia more broadly — appears to reject JI’s vision and its use of terrorist attacks to further its aims.

JI exploded three bombs in Bali on October 12, 2002, killing 202 people, 88 of them Australians. In 2003, JI exploded a car bomb outside the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. In 2004, JI attacked the Australian embassy in Jakarta with a suicide car bomb. In 2005, JI bombed three Bali restaurants, killing 20 people and injuring 200. Australians died at the hands of terrorists in Indonesia, but Australia could not use the language of war in talking to Indonesia.

The different Jakarta perspective was illustrated by Indonesia’s refusal to bow to demands from neighbours such as Australia and Singapore to outlaw JI. Indonesian Ministers said a ban was impractical because JI was not a ‘formal organisation’. An Indonesian court finally got around the politics of this issue last year by declaring JI an illegal organisation while jailing two of its leading figures.

Australia achieved extraordinary levels of police cooperation with Indonesia in confronting JI. It was a police operation, not a war. Australia contributed nearly $37 million for the creation of the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation. The Centre trains officers from across Asia in counter-terrorism.

Australia and Indonesia co-hosted regional ministerial meetings on counter-terrorism so Southeast Asian nations could agree on approaches to information sharing, legal frameworks and enforcement. The Howard Government also negotiated 13 bilateral counter-terrorism agreements across the Asia Pacific and secured a Joint Australia-ASEAN Declaration to combat International Terrorism.

Australia’s presentation of its thinking on terrorism was altered by the nuts-and-bolts of achieving cooperation around the region. The simplest way to describe this shift was that the language moved from ‘war’ to a battle of ideas. By the time Downer spoke in London at the end of 2006 on the ideological challenge of extremism, his speech was headed ‘Ideas as Weapons’. The issue of ideas had been almost an aside in 2004 when Downer’s focus was on ‘existential war’.

By 2006, of course, war had lost much of its lustre in Iraq. Instead, Downer argued that the need was to confront ideas, to work ‘closely with Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia’, to study and understand the arguments that led to radicalisation, to listen to Muslim groups and promote inter-faith dialogues with religious leaders in Asia. In this struggle, Downer said, the aim must be a counter-narrative explaining, ‘there is no conflict between the West and Islam’.

When Downer issued the Coalition Government’s foreign affairs policy for the 2007 election, the first headline in the section of global challenges was ‘The struggle against terrorism’. The Coalition recognised, the policy said, that ‘the campaign against transnational Islamist terrorism involves a contest of ideas.’ The regional interfaith dialogue got prior attention before the one mention of ‘substantial progress in the war on terror’.

Photo (of the Australian Embassy, Jakarta) by Flickr user Ubz, used under a Creative Commons license.