Jokowi’s execution smokescreen; unease between Iran, the US and Israel. By Hamish McDonald.

PM Tony Abbott fights critics by donning flak jacket

Graduating Iraqi army soldiers at Camp Ur, where the Australian Army Training Team (AATT) mentors instructors.
Graduating Iraqi army soldiers at Camp Ur, where the Australian Army Training Team (AATT) mentors instructors.

If Tony Abbott survives the current leadership crisis, we could be in for a very khaki-coloured year or two. 

With his domestic agenda such a shambles, Abbott won’t just be making as much mileage as possible from the imminent centenaries of Gallipoli and other World War I battles, but quite possibly be looking to ramp up involvement in present-day conflicts.

Last year his defence advisers had to talk him out of the idea of sending Australian troops to secure the Malaysia Airlines crash site in Ukraine and, after the Islamic State, or Daesh, captured the city of Mosul in Iraq, out of another brainwave, for a lightning special forces attack to drive the movement out of the city. 

In his January visit to Iraq, made just after pledging to mind the shop more closely at home, Abbott was clearly hankering for a more active role for the Australian special forces currently advising their Iraqi counterparts. As well as these 200 or so troops, Australia has six F/A-18 strike aircraft attacking Daesh from a base in Bahrain, an airborne control aircraft and a tanker, plus about 400 support personnel in the Gulf. 

Now reports of Taliban elements in Afghanistan linking up with Daesh are causing reviews of plans to exit that country. American and other NATO countries still have about 13,000 troops there to back up and train the Afghan National Army, on which the United States has spent $US65 billion so far. Australia has about 400 soldiers in Kabul and Kandahar, about half training the Afghans and the other half watching their backs.

We can expect lots of “morale-boosting” visits and photo ops from our embattled PM. Meanwhile, the Daesh are showing themselves more vile than ever, and whatever support they had from Iraq’s Sunni minority must be slipping away as the hypocrisy and arbitrary cruelty of their regime is revealed. As for Mosul, the Kurdish militia seems to be close to ousting the fanatics.

1 . Jokowi’s execution smokescreen

Abbott’s “Jakarta not Geneva” mantra is sounding a bit ragged, if heard at all, as the two Australian drug smugglers on Indonesia’s death row look like facing the firing squad in coming weeks.

It’s hard not to see the series of executions as a diversion from a scandal that has quickly ended the political honeymoon of President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi. This began last month when he made the unexpected appointment of a police general, Budi Gunawan, as chief of the Indonesian National Police even though the incumbent’s term had not finished. Soon after, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) named Budi a suspect because of millions of dollars of unaccounted-for wealth. 

The National Police then entered the fray, launching an investigation of KPK chief commissioner Abraham Samad for breaching his duty of political impartiality by talking to Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) leaders last year about the possibility of running for vice-president alongside Jokowi. Three deputy commissioners were also arrested or interviewed over spurious-seeming complaints dating back several years. It all recalled an epic showdown five years ago when police and prosecutors tried to frame two KPK deputy commissioners for abuse of power, a plot that came unstitched when tapped phone calls became public. 

That the nominated police chief, Budi, was a former aide-de-camp to PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri when she was president from 2001-2004 makes the politics murkier. As The Jakarta Post put it, Budi and Megawati “are said to have a close personal friendship”. Indeed, no doubt completely apocryphal stories have long circulated in Jakarta that compromising photographs exist of the two together. If so, of course, Megawati would have faced down political blackmailers in the same spirit as her father, the late president Sukarno, did when snapped in flagrante by the Soviet KGB. He promptly asked for multiple prints to circulate, arguing they would enhance his standing with the Indonesian public.

Jokowi has immense personal popularity, so great that Megawati reluctantly put aside her own hopes of a comeback last year. But the KPK is probably more popular and respected. His presidency will be crippled if this favour to Megawati goes ahead. 

Meanwhile, what can be done to save the Bali Nine’s Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran? It may be too late, but a call for a regional drug summit to evaluate existing countermeasures and the effect of current punishments might just be the face-saving excuse for a suspension of executions. 

2 . Oil diplomacy

Low oil prices, engineered by the Saudis and Americans, appear to be quietly working diplomatic magic across many trouble spots.

It is being quietly suggested to Vladimir Putin that if he moderated his behaviour in Ukraine, and lessened support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, supply might be tightened to drive up the oil price. Likewise the squeeze on oil export earnings is piling pressure on Iran to reach agreement with the big powers on capping its uranium enrichment program.

A new round of negotiations in coming days is supposed to reach the main points of a deal by the end of March, with a formal treaty by midyear. Latest reports suggest it will involve Iran shipping stockpiles of enriched uranium overseas and replumbing its array of centrifuges so that they can’t enrich the uranium up to weapons grade, thereby extending its “breakout” time (to ditch the deal and produce a nuclear weapon) to one year or more. 

3 . Washington divided

One potential spoiler is the combination of distrustful Republicans in the US congress and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

They don’t trust the Iranians one little bit, and would prefer an ultimatum to Tehran to scrap all its enrichment facilities or face even tighter economic sanctions and possibly pre-emptive strikes.

Now in control of both houses of congress since the November mid-terms, the Republicans have called a committee hearing on the Iranian nuclear issue to hear from former generals and secretaries of state what should be the approach. In addition they’ve invited Netanyahu to address a joint sitting on March 3, and Iran will be his main topic. The invitation was worked by speaker John Boehner with the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, a former Republican Party staffer. 

The visit is dividing Washington, both because it threatens to derail the negotiations with Tehran and because it will come just two weeks before Israel’s general election. White House officials said Boehner had “broken protocol” and announced Barack Obama won’t be meeting Netanyahu, ostensibly because of the imminent election. This week Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi made the suggestion of a Democrat boycott of the speech. As the newspaper USA Today editorialised: Netanyahu risks “swapping an alliance between nations for an alliance between his Likud Party and the GOP [Grand Old Party, the Republicans]”. 

Moderates in both countries are hoping Netanyahu calls off or postpones the visit. However, the likelihood of an increased vote for Likud may tempt Netanyahu to thumb his nose at the Obama administration. Dermer, the ambassador, is not all abashed. Just before the American football Super Bowl game last Sunday, between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, he tweeted: “Breaking Protocol, Choosing Sides: Go Patriots”.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 7, 2015 as "PM fights critics by donning flak jacket".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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