Occasionally - just occasionally - it is still possible to be left speechless by the stupendous naiveté and gormlessness of the Australian Foreign Minister. In a remarkably long, but notably undistinguished, career Alexander Downer has frequently paraded his schoolboy humour, plummy accent and effete demeanour as something he seems to mistake for sophistication and worldliness.
His performance throughout the Lebanon crisis, however, has been truly lamentable, and not a little embarrassing. It has been an object lesson in the implications for a country when it has the misfortune to find coupled in its Foreign Minister a lack of curiosity for any deep, contextual understanding of important international issues and an ingrained propensity to accept comfortable conventional wisdoms without thought of a challenge to their validity.
This reached its high water mark in his interview on the ABC’s 7.30 Report on last Wednesday, July 19. The notable disinclination of Kerry O’Brien - the media bete noire of this government - to seriously challenge the Foreign Minister was also a remarkable feature of this performance, but that is another story. Suffice to say that Red Kerry should be a poster child for the Liberal Party after letting Downer get through this interviewed unscathed.
In an interview which must surely have set new benchmarks in the minister’s evident inability to even suspect that the word of our great and powerful friends should, in any circumstances, be taken with a grain of salt, there were some truly staggering offerings. Following are just some of the highlights, together with some helpful hints for Red Kerry about how he might have pursued the minister just a little harder. All quotes can be found on the ABC site, here.
… sometimes the port is secure and at other times the Israelis say it is not secure … I'm advised that the reason a number of ships that were expected to arrive today didn't arrive was because there was uncertainty about the security of the port …
There is only one reason why the ports would not be secure, and that is because the Israelis, at their sole discretion, might choose to attack them at will, notwithstanding the presence of thousands of civilians. Did you demand of the Israelis that they stop these attacks, at least while the civilians were there?
… the airports obviously are closed - that's the logical way and quickest way to get people out …
Indeed it would have been, and we know why the airports are closed, don’t we. Did you dare challenge the Israelis about whey they chose to destroy the Beirut International Airport? Did you make the obvious point that, since they have closed off that avenue of escape for the many thousands of civilians trying to flee their onslaught, they must guarantee safe road and sea passage?
… they [Israel] are trying to destroy Hezbollah, which is trying, in turn, to destroy Israel, and for them, this is a struggle of life or death. …
You’ve been reading too much Israeli and US propaganda again, Alex. Life and death struggle? Perhaps you might care to outline to the Australian public the extent of the power imbalance between Israel and all other countries and non-state adversaries in the Middle East. They can then make up their own minds about whether the state of Israel really is on its last legs. If you don’t understand this point very clearly, and you actually believe this rubbish about Hezbollah destroying Israel, you should resign immediately. Such ignorance is very dangerous for this country.
… the targets that the Israelis are after are not general targets, they are after specific targets associated with Hezbollah. …
And we’ll just take the Israelis at their word about “specific targets” and “surgical strikes” and “pinpoint attacks”, will we? Even in the face of the massive damage caused to civilian infrastructure of all kinds and the huge civilian death toll? I suppose it’s too much to expect that you might have raised this point - ever so gently, of course - in your discussions with the Israelis?
… we've talked about the possibilities of temporary ceasefires or perhaps some safe passage arrangement or some other formula that might enable these people to escape. They haven't agreed to those things yet because they say they need to nail down Hezbollah …
And you didn’t have the stomach to demand this, did you? Or would that be much too impolite?
This was not an isolated performance by Downer on the Lebanon issue, and his line is typical of that taken by other members of the government, including the Prime Minister. His refusal to challenge the Israelis, even in the face of the mortal danger faced by thousands of Australian citizens at their hands, reveals ignorance and cowardice in equal measures.