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Former Australian PM Howard Hails Absence Of 'Contrived Element' In Mideast Protests

February 23, 2011

John Howard, who was Australia's prime minister for almost 12 years before leaving office in 2007, visited RFE/RL this week to share his thoughts about the rising democratic tide in the Middle East and what the West can do to change authoritarian regimes. Against a backdrop of toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, a teetering one in Libya, and ripples in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, Howard talked about hopes of democracy building in Iraq and across the Middle East. The interview was conducted by RFE/RL senior correspondent Charles Recknagel.

RFE/RL: How do you interpret what is happening today across the Middle East? Do you see it as a democratic revolution, as a sea change in the region's political culture and, if so, where might it lead?

John Howard: I'd express the hope that it is a tide for democratic change. Sensibly, we have to suspend judgment until we see how things work out, but I have an optimistic view. One of the things I find very encouraging is that in all the visuals I have seen of the demonstrations, there has been a complete absence of any anti-Americanism or, as far as I can discern, any anti-Israeli motives. Normally, when you have orchestrated demonstrations in previously authoritarian or totalitarian countries, there is a contrived element that comes through in the pictures. That hasn't occurred on this occasion....

As far as one can see, the crowds are very young; and there may be a lot of messages in that -- not only the fact that the young, of course, are using the social media and communications devices and are increasingly restive with being told how they should behave and with being denied fundamental freedoms, but it might well mean that the young have a different take on things that might have been the propaganda tools of their elders.

RFE/RL: In March 2003, you made what you have described as your most difficult decision as prime minister -- sending 2,000 troops and naval units to support the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Among the reasons Washington put forth for the invasion at the time was a hope that post-Saddam [Hussein] Iraq could become a regional beacon for democracy. Did you share that thinking and, if so, do you see any echoes of democracy-building in Iraq in the events across the Middle East today?

Howard: Well, there could be. It is one of those things that you can never be absolutely declaratory about. The truth is that the Iraqis on five occasions have voted in a democratic process [including] to choose a constitution, to ratify it, etc....and they have done it in the face of the most fearful intimidation. Now, I find it hard to believe that that hasn't had some impact; I can't say that the link is any stronger than that, but it must have had some impact.

RFE/RL: Like other Western leaders, you had to have dealings with authoritarian regimes on the international stage. So, perhaps you long ago answered a question that perplexes many people when today they see the Libyan regime using aircraft to fire on crowds, or in 1989 the Chinese regime using tanks in Tiananmen Square. That is: what is it that makes authoritarian leaders so want to hold on to power that some are even ready to fire on their own populace to do so?

Howard: Well, it's the addiction and in some cases the perversion of power. I think [that] of the authoritarian leaders I have met -- and the worst I met, and I did it as the leader of the opposition in Australia, was [Nicolae] Ceausescu; for some extraordinary reason, he visited Australia under the former Labor government, and I think it was one of those situations where it was felt embarrassing not to accept him; I am not criticizing my predecessors, [but] he was the ugliest example of an authoritarian person I'd ever met....

The mindset of dictators, of authoritarian people, is very different. They are not used to the constraints and the impulses that go with the constraints, and in the end it is only a matter of degree before they start behaving in this fashion. Although some are less brutal than others, they nonetheless rely on a very brutal secret police apparatus. And, let's be realistic, every dictatorial regime tolerates torture, atrocities, and all sorts of abuses of human rights; it is just that some are infinitely more egregious than others.

RFE/RL: Is there a way to change the authoritarian mindset? The people in the streets of many Middle Eastern cities are trying to change it right now. But is their a way that democratic countries can help? It involves a conundrum, of course, because, even as Western governments support democracy, they also have relations with the authoritarian governments that are in place today. But what do you see as the best way democracies can promote change?

Howard: You have to act according to your own national interest but not to a degree where you are sacrificing your own values and principles. Australia is a major supplier of raw materials, and we are a close trading partner of China and China is our largest export destination. And China still has an authoritarian regime, and the suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising was very brutal and tanks were used to literally crush students in Tiananmen Square. So how do we best promote [democracy]? I think we continue to stick to our guns on issues of democratic principle, [for example] the Chinese were loud in saying to me and they did it publicly that I shouldn't see the Dalai Lama. Well, of course I did want to see him when he came to Australia; but whether I had wanted to or not, once I was told I shouldn't see him, I made sure I did see him....

Putting our own system on display and demonstrating that we have a rule of law process and we apply it whenever we come up against authoritarian regimes [is important]. There is no doubt that it is very valuable that many Chinese students want to come to Australia and they see what goes on in Australia and they take the experience of that back to their own country. There is no one single right approach; you have got to mix pragmatic self-interest and the inevitable contribution that expanding trade makes to the economies of two countries, you have to mix that with a healthy cultural self-belief.

RFE/RL: Finally, you left office in December 2007 after serving almost 12 years as prime minister. And now you have recently published your autobiography. It is titled "Lazarus Rising: A Personal and Political Autobiography" and it was released in October last year. Is there a central message you hope the autobiography will convey about democracy and authoritarianism?

Howard: I write in that that one of the very important things that Western countries must do -- and this was particularly in the context of fighting Islamic extremism but it is generally the case -- is have a greater sense of cultural self-belief. I think that too many Western countries have been a little too inclined to bland away the differences between the sort of philosophy that has guided us and the philosophy that drives others. Now that is particularly true with Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism, but it is also true in dealing with autocratic regimes.


Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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