Paul Pillar

Allies and Independent Thinking

Small parties and political independents often function as sand thrown into the political machinery of parliamentary systems.  Whatever seats they win in elections to national legislatures make it that much harder for the major parties that must take the lead in forming a government to put together a stable majority.  The result is often deadlock and the need for new elections.  When negotiations do succeed in forming a majority, it often is at the price of disproportionate attention being given to the parochial concerns and special interests represented by the small parties and independents.  Or, the parliamentary math resulting from independent seats tilts the coalition-forming process in a direction it might not otherwise have taken. Something like this was involved in the bargaining following this year's British election that produced a hung parliament.  One reason Nick Clegg's Liberal-Democrats entered a coalition with the Conservatives even though many leftward-leaning Liberal-Democrats would have been more comfortable allying with the Labor Party is that a Lib-Lab coalition still would have lacked a majority in the House of Commons.  It would have depended on the sufferance of independents and small parties in the Celtic fringe.  

Last month's election in Australia produced another hung parliament, with a virtual dead-heat between the incumbent Labor Party and the conservative coalition of the Liberal and National parties.  Since the election, the two contenders have been negotiating with the handful of independents who hold the balance.  One of those independents just announced his willingness to support Labor.  He is Andrew Wilkie, a former army officer who later in his public service career worked at Australia's Office of National Assessments, which is roughly the counterpart of the U.S. National Intelligence Council.  In 2003 Wilkie quit his job at ONA in protest over what he termed the "grossly unethical" distortion of evidence by the Liberal/National government of the day in justifying its support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I don't know much more about Andrew Wilkie, and if I did know more I might consider some of his positions to be goofy.  In an unsuccessful run earlier this year for the Tasmanian legislature (before winning a seat in the subsequent federal election), his principal campaign issue was to outlaw poker machines.  But given his background, I'm inclined to think this is one instance in which the net effect of an independent's influence on major party leaders and subsequent national policy is apt to be positive.

More independent thinking in the governments of U.S. allies would have been a good thing during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in that it just possibly might have slowed down the impetuous march to war.  We are reminded of this with the publication of Tony Blair's memoir, in which the former British prime minister voices no second thoughts about the Iraq War, sustaining an image as George W. Bush's poodle.  Keeping the British on board regarding Iraq was quite important to the Bush administration and was the main reason the administration, on British urging, took the issue back to the United Nations in the final weeks before the war.  But Blair's poodling meant the British were on board anyway; the U.S and British governments ultimately said to heck with the United Nations and went to war without another Security Council resolution.  Meanwhile, down under, the Australian government of Liberal Party leader John Howard was as unflinching in its support of the Bush government's direction on Iraq as was Blair.

One of the tragedies in this is that the resolute support of outstanding allies such as the United Kingdom and Australia has been, for many years and over a wide range of issues, a tremendous asset to the United States.  It is an abuse of such friends to drag them into undertakings that are costly to them and that they are willing to undertake mainly because the friendship is important to them.  The alliances would be healthier if there were more room for independent thinking, including thinking that might run counter to whatever is the U.S. policy of the day.  So here's to Andrew Wilkie, anti-poker-machine campaign and all, and to the hope that whatever influence he exerts on Australian policy will be in the national interests of Australia and--whatever the immediate policy disagreements--ultimately of the United States.