Australian PM's Pre-Emptive Strike Statement Flusters Region

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Australia's prime minister has triggered a storm of protest from Southeast Asian governments by saying he would be willing to order military strikes if necessary to pre-empt terrorist attacks being planned in the region.

John Howard said in a Sunday television interview he also thinks international law should be amended to allow member states to strike first if they believed an attack was imminent.

The Australian leader, whose country is on the alert for possible terrorist attacks in the run-up to Christmas, said if pre-emptive strikes were the only option available to stop attacks against Australia, any prime minister would use it.

"It stands to reason that if you believed that somebody was going to launch an attack against your country - either of a conventional kind or a terrorist kind - and you had a capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity, then of course you would have to use it," Howard said.

Southeast Asian governments are already unhappy with Australia - and other Western countries - for travel advisories and embassy closures sparked by terrorism fears.

They say the travel warnings and closures give the impression the region is unsafe, and could harm tourism and investment.

Australia - along with Canada - closed its mission in Manila late last week, citing a "credible and specific" terrorist threat. But Philippine officials said they knew of no threat and accused the governments of "unfriendly" actions and over-reacting.

Malaysia and Indonesia have also been annoyed with Australia over travel advisories and other steps taken to help prevent citizens being caught up in attacks like the October bombing in Bali, in which some 90 Australians died.

Indonesia protested police raids on the homes of Indonesian-born Muslims in Australia, while Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently derided Australian policies, saying it was acting in the role of "deputy sheriff" to the U.S.

Against that background, Howard's "pre-emptive strike" statement prompted a quick response from regional capitals.

Australia had no right to launch military attacks in other countries, said Indonesia's foreign ministry.

The Philippines' national security advisor called the remarks "from a supposedly friendly government" surprising, while a Thai government spokesman said national sovereignty must be protected.

Malaysia's Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak said his country would not allow any foreign intervention in its battle against terrorists, and that Australia could not operate on Malaysian soil without approval.

He also said Canberra's proposal to amend international law was unacceptable.

A rare positive response came from New Zealand - although not from the government, which played down the comments.

A small conservative party, ACT, praised Howard's statement and called on the New Zealand government Monday to give its support.

"John Howard has raised an important issue that should be discussed, both at national and international levels," said the party's deputy leader, Ken Shirley.

"Modern warfare stemming from cells of fanatical terrorists striking across jurisdictional boundaries calls for new protocols on rules of engagement," he said.

As some domestic opponents called for Howard to retract his statements, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer defended them, while stressing that Australia was not about to launch military attacks on its neighbors.

Howard himself also refused to back down, saying that any Australian prime minister unwilling to consider pre-emptive action to prevent terrorism in cases where other options weren't available "would be failing the most basic test of office."

Both Howard and Defense Minister Robert Hill have argued on a number of occasions for the need for a broader definition of self-defense at a time when nations face a combination of terrorist and weapons of mass destruction threats.

The U.N. charter on self-defense was drawn up to resolve disputes between states in a very different security climate, they said.

Things had changed from a time when conflicts were defined in terms of nations attacking other nations, Howard reiterated Sunday.

"What you're getting [now] is non-state terrorism which is just as devastating and potentially even more so,'' he said. "All I'm saying - I think many people are saying - is that maybe the body of international law has to catch up with the new reality."

Last June, the Howard government voiced support for President Bush's "first strike" strategy, enunciated early that month.

"We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge," Bush told West Point military cadets on June 2.

"In the world we have entered the only path to safety is the path of action," he said. "And this nation will act."

Australia's special forces troops were recently recalled after a year of participating in the U.S.-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Canberra at the time played down speculation that the redeployment decision was linked to terrorism fears at home or a potential campaign against Iraq.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow