Julie Bishop in Iran. Australian soldiers face turmoil in Iraq. Mahathir calls out Najib Razak. By Hamish McDonald.

Hillary Clinton’s presidency bid two-edged for Australia

Clinton supporters at a “Ready for Hillary” rally in New York.
Clinton supporters at a “Ready for Hillary” rally in New York.
Credit: REUTERS / Darren Ornitz

It’s still 18 months out from the US presidential election and anything could happen, but Hillary Clinton looks set to roll towards her anointment as the Democrat candidate and, unless a more credible opponent arises among the Republicans than has done thus far, to win the vote.

Compared with Barack Obama and the line of previous Democrat presidents and candidates, she is widely portrayed as lacking their charisma or distinctive sense of mission, though just being the first prospective female president is certainly something. The “dynastic” charge will be easily shrugged off. Republicans who put up George W. Bush, son of president George H. W. Bush, and who may yet select the former’s brother, Jeb Bush, can hardly talk.

Like Margaret Thatcher, Clinton is a seasoned politician with ministerial experience. That has produced an odd reversal in politics, as put to The New York Times in this nice observation by one Richard Tafel, founder of a group called the Log Cabin Republicans, which turns out to be a gay advocacy group. “Mrs Clinton knows that her image is elite, aloof and disconnected to average voters, while Republicans like Rubio, Walker and Paul each know they are perceived as untested and not ready for prime time,” Tafel said. “The irony is that each party has to pretend to be like the other. The dynastic Clintons are pretending to be average Joes, while the average-Joe Republicans are pretending to be powerful global leaders.”

So what can we expect from a President Clinton? Probably more of the same in domestic policy, including welfare, jobs growth and free trade. On foreign policy she will be out to show more toughness than Obama, keeping Iran to the nuclear deal if it goes through.

Canberra’s foreign affairs and defence establishment will be delighted that she’ll show closer attention to Asia, having claimed authorship of the “pivot” strategy while secretary of state in the first Obama term. She turned up to regional meetings and stuck it to the Chinese on the South China Sea. In 2009 she stood aside while the Pentagon brutally put down the attempt by newly elected Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama to get out of the contentious new US Marine Corps base in Okinawa. Hatoyama was gone a few months later.

So perhaps Canberra should be careful what it wishes for. If she does what Obama calls “stupid shit”, she’ll expect us to roll in it, too.

1 . Bishop in Iran

As mentioned last week, Julie Bishop gets off the plane in Tehran on Sunday. With all the big issues swirling around Iran − the impending nuclear agreement, the parallel fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Yemen civil war − Bishop’s visit is an early chance for a savvy Western foreign minister to explore Iranian thinking.

Unfortunately the trip was announced last weekend by Tony Abbott and Bishop with a display of the small thinking that characterised Abbott’s launch of the G20 summit in Brisbane last November, when he proudly told the greatest assembly of world leaders ever to visit that he’d stopped the boats and rescinded the carbon tax. News reports said Bishop would be lobbying Iran to take back hundreds of would-be asylum seekers rejected by Australia.

Once out of Canberra and its pitiful obsessions, Bishop seems to have regained some foreign policy bearings. In India, where details of uranium sales to a new nuclear weapons power were being hammered out, she did say the Iran nuclear deal would be a primary focus of her talks, and has echoed Tehran’s call for a ceasefire in Yemen. The Saudis – fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in defence of the Yemen government – immediately rejected the idea of a truce, but might be reconsidering their intervention after Pakistan’s parliament voted against sending troops to do the ground fighting. 

2 . Australian soldiers face turmoil in Iraq

The 330 soldiers Abbott sent off this week to help train Iraq’s army will have their work cut out for them.

What was one of the largest armies in the world when the Americans left four years ago, with what seemed like 280,000 well-equipped and trained soldiers, is now a small force of perhaps 50,000 active soldiers, most of whom need basic training.

Generals and colonels bought their ranks, and paid back loan money by pilfering the supplies, equipment and salaries of their soldiers. Last year the four divisions defending the northern city of Mosul collapsed and ran from an Islamic State attack. Ground is being won back with the help of outside air support and reinforcement by Shia militias and Iran’s Quds force of Islamic revolution diehards.

Abbott says the key to success of the battle against IS will be “winning hearts and minds” (a slogan going back to the Vietnam War). But with Shia soldiers and irregulars burning with grievance at IS atrocities, the campaign must so far be leaving Iraq’s Sunnis to wonder about the best protection.

On April 3 Reuters reported the lynching of a captive, looting and arson by Iraqi government forces after they retook the city of Tikrit from IS last month. As a result, the news agency’s Baghdad bureau chief, Ned Parker, whose name was on the report, has had to leave the country after Shia groups singled him out for retribution on satellite news channels and online.

3 . Mahathir calls out Najib Razak

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, is in deeper and deeper trouble. A national investment fund he set up has $US12 billion in debts.

The ageing statesman of his country’s racial-based politics, Mahathir Mohamad, has singled him out for toppling by the dominant political party, the United Malays National Organisation, by joining the chorus of questions about who ordered the 2006 killing of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu by two of then defence minister Najib’s bodyguards.

One of the bodyguards, Sirul Azhar Umar, is in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre facing an extradition request. He could help answer the question if any police or judge in Malaysia cares to ask it. But as things currently stand he would be hanged as soon as he was returned. With Canberra refusing extradition in such circumstances, the mystery remains. Najib himself went on the UMNO-owned TV3 channel to deny again that he’d ever met Shaariibuu.

Najib’s response has been to reintroduce the arbitrary detention powers he abolished with great fanfare in 2012. Preceded by a swoop on alleged IS followers planning attacks, the ruling parties adopted a new anti-terrorism law that allows police to detain suspects for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, without trial or judicial review.

In addition, a 1948 sedition law has been used to arrest or charge nearly 40 leading critics since the start of the year, including three editors and two executives from The Malaysian Insider and The Edge Media Group, and the cartoonist Zunar, who had tweeted messages calling judges “lackeys in black robes” for jailing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy. Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, was also charged with sedition over a speech in parliament against the conviction of her father.

Another familiar tactic has been to stir racial tensions by quietly encouraging a push in Kelantan state to introduce the Islamic penal code, called hudud, which includes amputations and stoning to death. This has long been pushed by the Islamist party PAS, which until recently moderated its stance as part of Anwar’s multiracial opposition coalition. Tensions over hudud could break up Anwar’s grouping. But they could also break up Malaysia’s fragile civil harmony.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2015 as "Clinton’s Asia focus would be two-edged".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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