When the Rudd Labor government was elected two years ago, there were high hopes that it would leave behind the more negative foreign policies of its predecessor Howard coalition government. What we have, though, is a foreign policy shambles, overwhelmingly as a result of the Rudd government is allowing itself to be trapped by the Howard government’s legacy.

Australia’s policy on asylum seekers is framed by the Howard government’s politics, which effectively bought off the Hansonite right and confused much of the middle ground over the distinction between legitimate refugees and illegal immigrants — the overwhelming majority of the latter arriving by plane.

Yet the coalition has been successful in again wedging the Labor Party. In response, the government claims to be “tough on border protection” but “humane on asylum seekers”. What it is, however, is confused.

When foreign minister Stephen Smith visited Sri Lanka a few days ago, he canvassed how to assist the Sri Lankan government in resettling ethnic Tamils displaced by the recently ended civil war. His intent was to stop the “push” factor in people getting on boats in the hope of starting a new life in Australia.

Smith also addressed the red herring of people smugglers. This is a distasteful trade, but it does not create the conditions that asylum seekers wish to escape.

What Smith did not address was the increasing barbarity of conditions for Sri Lanka’s Tamils, in camps and in the cities such as Colombo. Nor did he address Sri Lankan government’s slide into militaristic authoritarianism, in which media freedom is effectively dead, local elections are rigged, and ethnic Tamils have become marginalised in their traditional areas.

Smith also neglected to address the Sri Lankan government’s “white van” culture — where people disappear into unmarked vans never to be seen again — which has terrified the Tamil population and anyone else in Sri Lanka who dares to speak out.

That is, Smith addressed a symptom, rather than the causes, of the increase in asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia.

As Smith breathlessly announced, Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono agreed that asylum seekers could be kept in Australian-funded refugee camps. But as the refugees themselves have noted, the camps are functionally Indonesian prisons. Their reluctance to voluntarily enter them is understandable. Meanwhile, Indonesian officials are giving lie to the president’s commitment.

Australia’s “much improved” relationship with Indonesia is now in chaos, with Indonesian officials noting that Tamil asylum seekers on an Australian government ship are Australia’s concern, not theirs. Australia intercepted — not rescued — the asylum seekers at sea and it increasingly looks as though they will eventually be resettled in Australia.

As a result of this confusion abroad, the Howard-era Christmas Island detention facility, excoriated for being a remote and territorially “excised” prison and lambasted internationally by institutions such as the New York Times, is now being portrayed in Australia as the “humane” option for asylum seekers.

In a bid to distract attention from this bungling of the Howard-era policy on asylum seekers, Rudd has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where Australian troops are fighting to support a deeply corrupt, increasingly brutal and now unelected government.

It has long been acknowledged that democracy in any identifiable sense was not a likely outcome for Afghanistan. The travesty of the recent elections and the failure of the run-off poll have only confirmed this end-point as arriving sooner rather than later.

Yet on the same day that the UK says that it is withdrawing troops from combat duty in Afghanistan, and before the US has indicated its own direction, Rudd has committed Australian troops indefinitely to his other inherited policy disaster.

A bit of lateral thinking and an exit strategy could have been more to the fore of Rudd’s thinking here, rather than an indefinite military commitment to an unwinnable war. Even Australia’s policy disaster that was the Vietnam War was not this open-ended, or blind.

More happily for the government, perhaps, is that Australia has effectively forgotten about its commitment to the Iraq war, much less the effect on the Iraqi people of the war itself. Yet this, too, continues, and is most unlikely to have a happy ending.

But perhaps, taking Iraq as the preferred direction, myopia and a degree of forgetfulness is becoming the preferred direction of Australian foreign policy.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury is with the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey