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World: Australian Foreign Minister Speaks With RFE/RL

Alexander Downer in Prague on 14 September In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer strongly defended the U.S.-led war in Iraq and war on terror. In a wide-ranging conversation in Prague with RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan, Downer also weighed in on a recent terrorist threat against Australia, and urged Afghans not to give in to “thugs” bent on disrupting parliamentary polls this Sunday. He also sounded off on the “colored revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, as well as concerns over creeping authoritarianism in Russia.

Prague, 15 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- When it comes to the Iraq war, Downer said he has no doubts: defeat for the U.S.-led coalition would be nothing short of “catastrophic” for Iraq, the Middle East, and the world at large.

But despite such high stakes, Downer said Australia won’t be boosting its troop level beyond the 2,000 or so soldiers it already has in Iraq.

“Send more [troops]? We’re not planning to at the moment," Downer said. "We’ve been one of the countries that’s made a pretty solid contribution there. We have to weigh this up in the context of various other things we have to do or we might have to do. So we have to keep our contingencies dusted and in place. But we’ve made a pretty solid contribution in Iraq.”

In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL in Prague, Downer also rejected the idea that the Iraq war has boosted the number of terrorism recruits and attacks around the world.

However, Downer said Australia is taking seriously a recent threat made by a purported Islamic militant. In a video aired on ABC on 11 September, the alleged U.S.-born militant threatened attacks on Los Angeles and the Australian city of Melbourne.

“We’ve had a look at the tape and made an assessment of the tape," Downer said. "It’s a credible interview in so far as the person who speaks in the interview is a credible spokesman. But I think there are real questions about the extent to which he’s able to speak for anyone else, other than himself. But having said that, we are not remotely complacent about the issue of terrorism in Australia. Whilst we don’t think it will be inevitable there’ll be a terrorist attack in Australia, it’s possible it could happen.”
“In the end, changing the way the Middle East works -- in particular, but not exclusively -- but changing the way the Middle East works and injecting a greater degree of freedom and democracy there is going to work out to be a very strong antidote to terrorism."

But in Iraq, attacks are happening every day. However, Downer chalked up most of the ongoing violence to Saddam Hussein loyalists, as opposed to Al-Qaeda, and defended the U.S.-led drive to bring democracy to the region.

“In the end, changing the way the Middle East works -- in particular, but not exclusively -- but changing the way the Middle East works and injecting a greater degree of freedom and democracy there is going to work out to be a very strong antidote to terrorism," Downer said. "But it’s going to take time because the people who are missing out, the people who once wielded power and did so in a very barbaric way, have had it taken away from them. And they’re fighting to try to win back their positions.”

Downer had a similar message for Afghanistan, where Australia recently sent 150 special forces to fight insurgents threatening to disrupt the 18 September parliamentary elections.

“Like in Iraq, they’ve got a tiny minority of people who want to try to disrupt and destroy the democratic process," Downer said. "That view is not shared by the vast majority of the people of Afghanistan. And my message to them is that we’re with them; we support them in their aspirations to decide the destiny of their own country -- not to have a bunch of thugs determine it for them.”

During his visit to Prague, self-determination was a recurrent theme for Downer. He recalled that as a 16-year-old in 1968, he had been on holiday in nearby Vienna when Soviet tanks rolled into town to quash the “Prague Spring” movement for greater freedom and openness.

Czechoslovakia would finally find freedom 20 years later. Asked about more recent changes of power in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, Downer attributed them to the basic desire for freedom.

“In the end, people will always gravitate towards a freer system because it’s human nature to want to have a say in determining your own destiny," Downer said. "So where people feel they need further liberation, they feel they’re not having a sufficient say in the affairs of their society, they will agitate for it, in one way or another.”

He said the best example of this was last year’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

“I would go so far as saying it’s an unstoppable force," Downer said. "And what you saw in Ukraine was -- and whatever problems they’ve had subsequently -- what you saw in Ukraine was a classic example of that. People want to be involved in determining their own future.”

Asked about concerns over creeping authoritarianism in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, Downer predicted that people there sooner or later will come to express their desire for more freedom as well.

“You know, Russia is a difficult and complex country and there are complaints about the system there," Downer said. "And I can only say that Russia’s made enormous progress over the last few years and we hope that will continue to be the case. In any case, the people of Russia, as they become more prosperous, they’ll all want to have more of a say in the running of their societies.”

Meanwhile, Downer sought to play down concerns over the emergence as a world power of communist China. Australia has recently signed multibillion-dollar energy deals with Beijing, and plans on supplying China with uranium for nuclear energy. But Downer said the world need not fear the world’s most populous country.

“We don’t think that China is trying to expert extremist ideology in the way that jihadists are or, to be more moderate about it, the Soviet Union was," Downer said. "China is not in the game of exporting ideology; it’s in the game of exporting goods. It’s in the game of building its economy, it’s not in the game of building an ideological coalition to take over the world. So, you know, people need to be calm in how they approach China. And there’s no need for people, as I’ve often said, to be paranoid about China. China isn’t hunting you, China’s just looking for business.”

Downer, 54, is one of the world’s longest serving foreign ministers, having been in office since the election of Prime Minister John Howard’s government in 1996.

He was in Prague to discuss bilateral relations with Czech officials and address a public policy forum, the Prague Society for International Cooperation.