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Bahrain and the price of principles

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COMMENTS

16 March 2011 15:19

Normally, events in Bahrain would not elicit much commentary from officials in Canberra, except for travel advisories. The problem is that our activist foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, has been at great pains to describe Australia as a middle power with global interests. As part of that approach, he has taken a much more active interest in the Middle East, particularly its moves towards political empowerment.

He attended the IISS-organised Manama dialogue last year, made significant speeches and wrote op-eds on the issue. This approach even won praise from conservative commentators. The Foreign Minister has certainly talked the talk, taking every opportunity to advocate a no-fly zone over Libya and talking glowingly, even reverently, about the protesters in Cairo seeking a transition to democracy after decades of autocratic rule.

But those ones are easy. Qhadhafi had blood on his hands and few friends, and Mubarak didn't have the wisdom to jump before he was pushed. Economically, neither country mattered much to Australia anyway. 

But the region is very complex and a minefield for values-based approaches to diplomacy. In his speech to the National Press Club about Australia's interests in the Middle East, the Foreign Minister said: 'It is critical that Australia has a clear foreign policy framework for the future....Anchored in a clear definition of our interests....Anchored in a clear definition of our values.' 

Now I'm sure that systematic discrimination solely on the basis of religion, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the killing of protesters by security forces would constitute a violation of Australian values. But when your largest regional trading partner (Saudi Arabia) and the host country of your military support assets for Afghanistan (the UAE) both send forces to bolster the security of an autocratic Arab ruler, Australia's 'anchor' of clearly defined interests gets fouled with its 'anchor' of clearly defined values. Suddenly, we become mute.

The problem with calling for democratic reform in the Arab world is that it's either universal or not — you can't loudly proclaim it for the 'bad guys' and stand silent if it's going to affect your allies. And when the issue is about religion (as it is in Bahrain) then the futility of being a Western advocate of democracy is brought into sharp relief. The Foreign Minister may claim that 'Our experience in dealing with cultural and religious diversity is especially valuable for bringing about effective, non-traditional partnerships', but he should do some private one-on-ones with Gulf Sunnis on the topic of Shi'ism for some illuminating insights into Islamic religious diversity.  

Yes, freedom is a funny thing. It would appear that, as far as Canberra is concerned, it's a universal desire that should be supported publicly by globally interested middle powers such as ourselves...some of the time.

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