Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australia's conservative government has endorsed Washington's policy of striking pre-emptively against terrorists planning to attack the U.S., but it is now facing domestic criticism from opponents concerned that this could entail an assault on Iraq.
In remarks that caused a stir in Australia, Defense Minister Senator Robert Hill said this week the country was willing to support the "strike-first" strategy enunciated by President Bush on June 1. The reaction from other U.S. allies has been less enthusiastic.
"The need to act swiftly and firmly before threats become attacks is perhaps the clearest lesson of September 11, and is one that is clearly driving U.S. policy and strategy," Hill told military officers at the Australian Defense College in Canberra.
"It is a position which we share in principle."
In this context, Hill referred specifically to Iraq.
A pre-emptive strike policy, he said, "applies in particular where the stakes are raised - as they are in Iraq - by the frightening possibility of terrorists gaining access to weapons of mass destruction."
In subsequent remarks, on Australian radio, Hill stressed the threat of terrorism did not only target the U.S.
"We see it as a threat against the values that we share with the United States and, therefore, a threat against Australia. And that's why we're willing to support the U.S. in its goal of significantly reducing the terrorist threat that we see at the moment."
Coming just days after Prime Minister John Howard told the U.S. Congress Australia was America's "best friend," Hill's suggestion that Australia could support a U.S.-led strike against Iraq drew swift criticism from the opposition parties.
The leader of the official opposition Labor party, Simon Crean, said if there was evidence of Baghdad's links to terrorism, the government should "make the case."
"All of us have to fight terrorists and fight terrorism but we've got to do it on the evidence and on the facts," Crean said in a radio interview. "And if it's weapons of mass destruction, as Senator Hill seems to be suggesting, there is already a framework through the United Nations for weapon inspectors. They should go in."
Crean also suggested Hill's statement was an attempt to divert attention away from a current row over the budget, which the government is struggling to get through the Senate.
The third-largest party, the Australian Democrats, said any decision to send Australian troops to combat zones abroad must be cleared by parliament.
Like U.S. administration officials following Bush's original announcement, Hill has, since giving his speech, stressed that diplomatic and financial measures, not purely military ones, could also be used.
"The lesson is that [pre-emptive action is] not necessarily through military means, but when a problem is seen to be developing that might lead to those catastrophic outcomes, it needs to be tackled earlier rather than later," he told Australian television's flagship news program.
But while everyone would prefer that the Iraqi threat could be tackled through other than military means, Hill said, "You've got to get to a point when you recognize that no other means are going to be successful."
Pressed on whether Canberra has actually agreed to support an attack on Iraq, Hill reiterated that, if the U.S. wished Australia to contribute to the anti-terror campaign beyond Afghanistan, "we'll consider the request at the time on its merits and in the circumstances of our capabilities."
He said the government understood the U.S. argument that diplomatic and economic efforts had not succeeded in preventing Saddam Hussein from pursuing a weapons of mass destruction program.
"But we nevertheless have got to reserve our national responsibility to make decisions that are in our national interest at the appropriate time."
Australia earlier this week announced it was sending a third rotation of elite Special Air Services troops to Afghanistan as part of its commitment to the U.S.-led coalition.
Australian PM Under Fire For Supporting Bush On Terror War (Feb. 5, 2002)
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