An insider decides to break confidence and reveal the inner workings of a country’s foreign policy, including the malign influence of special interests, combined with tittle-tattle from the diplomatic cocktail circuit on the foibles of statesmen and women around the globe — all to the fury of a later government.

Step forward Chelsea Manning? Not at all, it’s former foreign minister Bob Carr.

The evidence Carr presents in his memoirs this week about the influence of the Israel lobby, and in particular the most extreme sections of it, over the Gillard government is indeed in the national interest — as Carr says. This is a movement that prefers to operate out of sight: several different Israel lobby groups are constantly busy behind the scenes in Canberra, bombarding ministers and backbenchers with requests for meetings and urging MPs to take a sponsored study trip to Israel. And the wild overreaction from arch-Zionist Labor MP Michael Danby, who labelled Carr a “bigot”, has done more to demonstrate the way the lobby works than anything else in recent memory.

But better yet the memoir illustrates what a hypocrite Carr is, and the hypocrisy of the entire political establishment toward transparency.

As foreign minister, Carr was dismissive of WikiLeaks and its Australian editor-in-chief Julian Assange, and did nothing to raise concerns about the US government’s pursuit of Assange via the grand jury investigation that, for a long time, Carr refused to even admit existed. He habitually got basic facts wrong about Assange’s case, like how it would be easier for the US to extradite him from the UK than from Sweden. He displayed a bizarre, near-total lack of curiosity about what the US Department of Justice was doing regarding Assange. He rejected comparisons between WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning and Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, despite Ellsberg himself outlining how they were extraordinarily similar. He tied himself in knots as he tried desperately to avoid saying anything about the case, telling estimates hearings the government had “no interest” in the US pursuit of Assange and then saying seconds later “we have an interest in the case”. As both an obsessive Americaphile and as a former US intelligence source in the 1970s, Carr stuck doggedly to the US line on WikiLeaks and Assange.

And he’s still at it, explicitly contrasting his own memoirs with WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. “The Australian people are entitled to know these things,” he said by way of justification for publishing material such as texts between himself and then-PM Julia Gillard — without her approval. “And by the way: isn’t it better to have a discussion led through the diary or memoir of a foreign minister of Australia, and not through revelations from WikiLeaks or from Edward Snowden?”

This is the core of the hypocrisy of the political establishment. Governments, it must be endlessly repeated, aren’t in the business of secrecy when it comes to national security, but in the business of information management. For governments, there are two kinds of national security leaks (just as there are two kinds of leaks of any kind). Those that are authorised by governments themselves for what they construe as the national interest — which is usually their own political interest — and those that occur without authorisation.

The former are rarely, if ever, investigated, even if they cause damage; usually they are handed to favoured, state-aligned journalists as background, or sourced anonymously. The latter are relentlessly pursued at whatever cost, with the AFP using its telecommunications interception powers to find out who journalists and even non-government politicians have been calling, and ASIO poised to launch a raid on the whistleblower on — of course — national security grounds.

Plainly Carr sees himself as an authorised leaker, breaching confidences because of their value to the national interest — not at all like Manning and Snowden. His successor, Julie Bishop, disagrees, castigating Carr for shedding light on what happens in foreign policy, using the same argument the US government used about Manning’s revelations; that they would inflict damage on future relationships because diplomatic interlocutors would be less candid.

“… foreign policy is ordinary, banal bureaucratic life, but with canapes and bigger egos.”

The problem is that Carr’s assessment of the national interest is his own, and it’s self-aggrandising. He’s happy to portray himself as the hero trying to hurl back the forces of Zionism. But what other vested interests, with which Carr has more sympathy, does he analyse in such forensic detail? Carr’s assessment of what is in the national interest is unlikely to be shared by the rest of us.

Oh, and by the way, Bob — if you want to boast of revelations about the national interest, then you’ll have to do better. Chelsea Manning revealed war crimes and murder by the US military, the remarkable and malign influence of corporate interests over the practice of US foreign policy, and how Australian politicians routinely provided greater candour in their comments on public policy issues to US diplomats than to Australian voters.

Edward Snowden revealed an industrial-scale surveillance state that breached the US constitution and which extended globally, including spying on close allies of the US, and economic espionage. Bob only revealed what we already knew, that pro-Israel lobbyists wield disproportionate power over western governments.

There’s also been considerable focus on the minutiae of life on the wing for Carr, his lamentations about the lack of airline pyjamas; poor business-class service, no subtitles on in-flight operas. Carr perhaps is engaging in some mild self-mockery in his long litany of complaints. It’s not overly important, except for this: one of the most important revelations of the diplomatic cables released by Chelsea Manning is how banal foreign policy actually is. Foreign policy is purported by its practitioners and the priesthood that attends it — at institutions like the Lowy Institute — to be a kind of super statecraft that ordinary mortals cannot be allowed to witness.

What Manning showed is that foreign policy is like bureaucracy anywhere else domestically — a clutch of special interests trying to get their way via government (and the bureaucrats that are employed by that government). Carr’s gnashing of teeth and rending of his tailored suit about business-class travel or, conversely, his boyish delight at an invitation from war criminal Henry Kissinger, simply demonstrate how correct this impression is: foreign policy is ordinary, banal bureaucratic life, but with canapes and bigger egos.

Carr is right to seek to shed some light on the conduct of foreign policy and the inner workings of government. But while he was in government, he had a chance to support those who were seeking to do the same, not out of a sense of self-aggrandisement or to sell books, but because there is too little transparency about foreign policy and national security. Not merely did Carr fail to provide them with support, he attacked them and left them at the mercy of the world’s most powerful government.

Carr’s certainly no bigot. But he’s a colossal hypocrite.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW