Sunday, October 2, 2011

Afghanistan - the West's Tar Baby?

Most Americans and many Australians (of a certain age) know the folksy tales of Brer Rabbit, read to us as children from the popular books by "Uncle Remus", in the style of African-American story-telling.

Most memorable to me was the tale of the Tar Baby, wherein one of Brer Rabbit's many enemies made a doll out of sticky tar and sat it in the road where Brer Rabbit was to pass by. The irascible Brer Rabbit, as expected, picked a fight with this mute, inanimate Tar Baby, and began strike it in anger, because the Tar Baby would not reply to his impertinent questions.  Brer Rabbit hit the Tar Baby with his right fist, and it stuck in the tar. Then he hit it with his left fist, which also stuck. Then he kicked it with left and right feet, becoming firmly stuck and helpless.  I forget how he lived to embarass himself another day.

The story came strongly to mind in reading Karen Middleton's new chronicle of how Australia, seeing its strategic advantages as bound tightly to the US government, has become further and further enmeshed in the conflict in Afghanistan, from which no exit is visible even when no credible good outcome can be predicted.

I've read and reviewed several books dealing generally with this conflict, but Middleton's is unique. She is a long-serving bureau chief in the political Press Gallery of the Australian Parliament in Canberra.  She was visiting Washington DC with Australia's then Prime Minister, the conservative John Howard, on 9 September 2001, and has followed every twist and turn of Australian policy and political debate on Australia's strategic engagements since then.

Sadly, Australia seems to be trapped in the same colonial mentality we have suffered since the first British colonies were established in 1788.  Governments of quite different political colours have rushed to answer the call for token support from whichever hegemon we were dependent upon, lest we be considered ungrateful for the supposed umbrella of protection we might, in future, wish to call upon.

Earlier colonial leaders used to get royal favours and knighthoods for their public loyalty to the British crown. Now the most they can expect is the occasional stroll in the White House rose garden,  a brief photo-opportunity on a White House portico for the Australian evening TV news, and a patronising affirmation that the USA "has no closer or more trusted ally" than Australia.  If invited to a White House karoke night, I recommend any Australian politician to rehearse that great American cultural export, Carole King's splendidly honest song "Will you still love me tomorrow?"

Karen Middleton's book is:

An Unwinnable War: Australia in Aghanistan
published by Melbourne University Press, September 2011.

Read my published review of Karen's book here...