Clinton wins neocon approval; Buddhist violence in Myanmar; out of the blue threat to Union Jack. By Hamish McDonald.

Honest Abe must lead on new militarism

Thousands of pro-independence campaigners march in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence.
Thousands of pro-independence campaigners march in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence.
Credit: Getty Images
Japan should be given a “fair go” by the world, Tony Abbott insisted this week, to show that its post-1945 record as a non-aggressive global citizen will continue despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new interpretation of its constitution. 

This allows a wider ambit of “collective self-defence” with allies, such as shooting down North Korean missiles passing over Japan on their way to the United States.

But Abe has as much or more trouble persuading his fellow Japanese that this is not a step down the path of militarism as he does with sceptical Chinese or Korean neighbours. Even a poll by the Yomiuri newspaper, which supports the reinterpretation, found that only 36 per cent of respondents approved of Abe’s changes, while 51 per cent opposed. The Kyodo news agency found that 62 per cent of Japanese thought the scope of collective self-defence would be further widened, despite Abe’s denials.

This is rather reassuring about the deeply pacifist mood of the Japanese, given that Abe has managed to turn the influential national broadcaster, NHK, into a virtual government propaganda agency since he took office at the end of 2012. NHK totally ignored the self-immolation of a man during protests against the new policy. Other main media groups followed the NHK lead, giving it brief mention on back pages at most. This was “despite this being one of the most dramatic political acts since [novelist] Mishima Yukio’s suicide in 1970 after failing to win public support for his radical right-wing views and proposed coup,” notes Temple University Japan’s Jeff Kingston, a leading analyst of Japanese politics, on the website Japan Focus.

The background to NHK’s attitude is that soon after returning to power, Abe replaced directors and top executives with right-wing figures who believe the national broadcaster should support government policies, and who have also questioned the degree of Japan’s culpability in wartime atrocities such as the Nanjing massacre and the sex slavery of the “comfort women”. Abbott seems to have taken the cue from his “best friend in Asia”. Just before Abe arrived in Canberra this week, of course, Abbott appointed newspaper columnist Janet Albrechtsen and former Liberal MP Neil Brown, long-time conservative critics of the ABC, to the board that nominates ABC directors. In Tokyo we can see where it might lead.

1 . Clinton wins neocon approval

Hillary Clinton is the unlikely source of further comfort for the right. She’s emerging as a possible rallying point for America’s neoconservatives to return from the wilderness (if Washington’s right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation can be thus described). 

Such are the strange ways of US  politics that the neocons have been left behind as their normal Republican Party home is dragged further to the right. One strong candidate for the presidential nomination, libertarian Senator Rand Paul, is so far right he’s aligned with the left in opposing further US intervention in far-off conflicts.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the “realist” journal The National Interest, whose neocon directors left en masse in 2005 over its criticism of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Last Sunday in The New York Times he noted that older neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle are “permanently buried in the sands of Iraq”. But younger and more nimble neocons, such as Robert Kagan and Max Boot, are making their way back into contention through centrist think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, where they write approvingly of Clinton’s muscular foreign policy stance as senator and secretary of state. 

“And the thing is, these neocons have a point,” Heilbrunn noted. “Mrs Clinton voted for the Iraq war; supported sending arms to Syrian rebels; likened Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to Adolf Hitler; wholeheartedly backs Israel; and stresses the importance of promoting democracy. It’s easy to imagine Mrs Clinton’s making room for the neocons in her administration. No one could charge her with being weak on national security with the likes of Robert Kagan on board.” 

Far from ending, Heilbrunn says, “the neocon odyssey is about to continue”.

2 . Saffron violence 

Buddhist countries continue to be such a puzzle. Why are so many of them places of such violence? 

In Myanmar, the “firebrand monk” Ashin Wirathu has whipped violence against the Rohingya, Muslims of mostly ethnic Bangladeshi origin, which has killed more than 200 people and displaced 150,000 over the past two years. Now Sri Lanka is joining Myanmar in beating up on its Muslim minority, only five years after the brutal end of the war with the Tamil separatists (whose community is mostly Hindu or Christian). Saffron-clad monks were some of the most chauvinist elements of the Sinhalese majority pushing war against the Tamils. Some of them are at it again with the even smaller Muslim minority, leading a vigilante outfit called the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) in riots that killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes last month, mostly in the south-west tourism centre. Of course it’s a generally peaceful country, with no reason − bar the odd disappearance or pogrom − for anyone to jump on a boat and head for Australia.

3 . Out of the blue threat to Union Jack

Has anyone in Australia’s monarchist camp thought out the implications of the Scottish referendum on September 18, should the Scots go for independence?

At present, the polls show the Yes Scotland vote stalled around 43 per cent, with 57 per cent responding to the Better Together campaign. The inclusion of 16- and 17-year-olds in the electorate seems to have added to the “no” camp, since the young seem happier with their British identity and look to wider opportunities of the political union. Diverse sources, from Grant’s distillery to J. K. Rowling, are funding the Better Together campaign. 

But imagine if there is a yes vote and the Scots then opt for a republic, instead of sharing the monarchy, as First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party prefers. We would see the Queen ruling over a rump state waving the St George banner so beloved of football hooligans; England perhaps out of the European Union; the British nuclear deterrent expelled from its Scottish submarine bases; London possibly stripped of its UN Security Council seat. What then for our royal links, our flag and Tony Abbott’s bunyip aristocracy? Just a wee thought.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 12, 2014 as "Honest Abe must lead on new militarism".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on August 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.