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The politics of a permanent threat

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COMMENTS

9 March 2010 14:01

Calling the jihadist threat 'permanent' sidesteps the need to offer a judgement about whether Australia is winning or losing the struggle against terrorism.

Avoiding the ultimate victory question in the Counter-Terrorism White Paper serves the political interests of the Rudd Government as well as the new counter-terrorism edifice.

Logically, calling the jihadist threat 'permanent' means there'll never be a victory parade. Going too far that way is dangerously defeatist. But avoiding any hint of premature triumphalism is just as vital. Every political spin merchant carries a mental picture of George W Bush in 2003, proclaiming the end to major combat operations in Iraq as he stood on on aircraft carrier bearing the sign 'Mission Accomplished'.

The winning-losing issue gets touched on lightly in the Paper. The Prime Minister promises an 'effective' approach and that the Government will 'take all necessary and practical measures'. The Paper points to counter-terrorism successes, 'most notably pressure on al Qaeda's core leadership'. Such wins, though, are offset by the way the threat keeps shifting and morphing.

Whatever the analysis, the political imperative is clear — to be seen doing more than enough and to maintain a unity ticket with John Howard.

The unity ticket achievement was given a tick in the column David Barnett wrote for the Canberra Times on 4 March (not online). Farmer David — ex-press sec for Malcolm Fraser and Howard biographer — can channel John Howard as well as anyone in the prints. The first par summarised the Rudd political strategy and pronounced it good. The White Paper, Barnett opined, 'is consistent with the security arrangements that Kevin Rudd inherited from John Howard.'

And the closing sentence reinforced the theme: '...the continuing readiness of the Government to maintain security measures is only what should be expected. But it is nice to know that what should be expected is what is happening.' Bingo for the unity ticket. Call it bipartisan. Or call it Rudd guarding his right wing.

The politics also comes up trumps when ignoring sceptical voices. Consider this from Chris Berg: 'The risk of terrorism is infinitesimally small.' And that leads to the second incontestable point: 'Human beings are terrible at assessing risk.' My favourite is Chris Michaelsen's observation that the chance of death by terrorist attacks is about equal to the chance of dying from severe allergic reaction to peanuts, lightning or bee stings.

Analysts can talk about bee stings. For a politician, that is the road to ridicule. The real challenge to the counter-terrorism edifice and the political strategy is the view that we are winning. Fareed Zakaria put the case enthusiastically in his cover piece for Newsweek on the victory of Muslim moderates over the extremists: '...the entire terrain of the war on terror has evolved dramatically. Put simply, the moderates are fighting back and the tide is turning. We no longer fear the possibility of a major country succumbing to jihadist ideology.'

The Zakaria summary, at the end of a fraught decade, is that the battle against jihadism has gone much better, much sooner, than anyone could have imagined: 'The enemy is not vast; the swamp is being drained. Al Qaeda has already lost in the realm of ideology. What remains is the battle to defeat it in the nooks, crannies, and crevices of the real world.'

Encouraging, really. It just doesn't fit the Canberra political narrative nor the bureaucratic interest.

Photo by Flickr user rhino neal, used under a Creative Commons license.

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