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Washington Comes to Mr Smith

Washington Comes to Mr Smith
  • On March 15, 2006

With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice being feted on her flying visit to Australia, Richard Neville asks why are politicians such cowards in the face of cruelty and war crimes?

When Condoleezza Rice landed in Australia, she was treated like a fairy godmother. Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith, took her off to meet his mum, his dad and his children, this urbane superstar from Washington, who remains proud of her role in trashing Iraq. (Over 1.2 million deaths plus 4.7 million Iraqis displaced from their homes). The highlight of Condi’s stopover, according to media reports, was her hour long visit to a high school attended by Mr Smith’s 14 year old daughter, Maddie, “where enthralled students quizzed her about everything from shopping habits to holiday plans…”

No-one mentioned the wars. The Times of India headlined her ‘wardrobe malfunction’ which revealed a “little bit more than she intended, courtesy of her flesh-coloured blouse”. Asked about her ideal holiday, Condi waxed lyrical about a house in the mountains with a piano, herself playing Brahms. No-one asked her about torture or renditions. If they had, she would have denied it, as she did to the world in September 2006: “The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture”. Sure, and torture doesn’t happen at Guantanamo Bay, a facility she enthusiastically supports.

So why did the likeable Mr Smith grovel so? Why did the media focus on trivia, on Condi’s language skills, her fitness program and her “attractiveness”, at a time that the crimes of the Bush administration are finally receiving wider attention? There is one dispiriting explanation, to which I’ll later return. Condi was cheered by 450 schoolgirls and treated to a choral rendition of – wait for it – What a Wonderful World. “My favourite song” noted Condi, without irony, adjusting her blouse. “There is no better friend to the United States than Australia”. Right now, probably the only friend.

Meanwhile, the subject of U.S. torture, renditions and war crimes is being raised in unexpected quarters. The latest House of Commons Human Rights annual report states that the UK can “no longer rely on U.S. assurances that it does not use torture, and we recommend that the Government does not rely on such assurances in the future”. Condoleezza’s own bald faced lie on this subject, quoted above, is featured in the British report as a prime example of an unreliable assertion.

Even more of a surprise than the UK Government’s burst of candour, was David Letterman’s recent TV musings with Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side, that Bush & Co “were not good people”. The meandering conversation concluded that the “Bush administration is clearly guilty of war crimes”. Mainstream at last! Until a year ago, said Letterman, he used to think such suggestions were “wacky”… or “funny” to which Mayer replied: “I don’t think they’re laughing about it in the White House”. Certainly not Condoleezza, now back in the Devil’s lair, far from a besotted Australian foreign minister and worshipful choir girls.

In the face of cruelty and war crimes, why are our politicians such cowards? And why do so many media commentators continue to insist that George Bush’s America is a beacon of freedom? Part of the answer can be summed up in one word: duchessing, a process by which opinion leaders and politicians from friendly nations are flown to the U.S., to be deeply wined and dined and flattered; to be accommodated in 5 star hotels and treated to briefings with members of Congress and A-list celebrities. A friend of mine was duchessed years ago, and still hasn’t recovered. He was asked to submit a dream U.S. travel itinerary and a list of people he yearned to meet, and it all came true. He was flown to Aspen, Niagra Falls, San Francisco; he met the President, he dined with film stars, he paid for nothing, not even the call girls. I asked, “Did it change you?”. Oh yes, he said.

I think of this friend every time I see bright columnists write rubbish about the humanity of precision bombing, the genius of Wall Street, the need to pacify Afghanistan. I think of this friend every time I hear politicians proclaim the importance of an iron clad alliance with America “at all costs”, including that of our soul. It is why this weekend in Australia, as impeachment proceedings commenced against George Bush and the global voices of dissent gathered steam, all we got on the Condoleezza visit down under was hot air, a flimsy blouse and a choir of angels.

Photo above: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, his wife Jane, and their son Hugo and Mr Smith’s parents Les and Florence.

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