03 May 2009

White, paper and The Plastic Gangster

When the government releases a White Paper on Defence, the Foreign Editor of a major newspaper should be expected to provide an intelligent and considered response. Not, however, if that editor is Greg Sheridan. He has had a go at the Defence White Paper, and frankly it's poor Greg who comes off second-best.
THE defence white paper is an almost incoherent blancmange of oddly unharmonised flavours.

A blancmange does not have harmonised flavours, Greg. It is pretty much a single flavour all the way through.
It reads like a biblical commentary in which 50 Talmudic scholars, each representing an alternative school of thought, have been allowed to write alternative sentences.

Biblical commentators tend to be Christian while Talmudic scholars tend to be Jews, Greg. What has this got to do with blancmange? Do you mean "alternate" where you've written "alternative" (and are you man enough to own the error rather than blame the subbies?)? I challenge you to provide any biblical commentary that reads like the Australian Government Defence White Paper 2009.
The internal contradictions in the document are so staggering it looks like sentences have been bolted on almost at random, like pieces in a Meccano set manipulated by a two-year-old.

As the parent of a child who is past his first birthday but yet to experience his third, I can tell you that much of any Meccano set would not be bolted together but inserted into the mouth.

No part of a Meccano set would be bolted onto biblical commentary, or to a blancmange, by a two-year-old or anyone other than the foreign editor of a national newspaper. He's not succeeding at being funny, nor at conveying meaning, nor at helping us understand what our government is doing with our money to provide for our defence. That is what Sheridan's job is here, and he has failed.
That's a bit unfair, of course.

More than a bit. You are accusing the document of lacking a coherence you don't have yourself.
For all that, the Government has mostly come up with the right decisions: 100 Joint Strike Fighters, 12 new submarines, the continuation of the army expansion program, new, big surface ships and so on.

How do you know it's made the right decisions? Based on what? Where's your in-depth thinking on defence issues, other than taking that shopping list and working backwards? Why 100 JSFs, and not 200, 50 or none? Should the army go for quantity or quality? When you say "big surface ships", do you mean aircraft carriers or Queen Mary 2?
In defence, to some extent equipment and budget are real policy, the rest window-dressing.

No, the idea of the White Paper is to determine what our defence needs are. The Budget and the shopping list you are so fixated on comes after, not before, a detailed examination of what Australia's defence needs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) are.
Australia's neighbours in the Asia-Pacific will look at the equipment commitments more than anything else.

Yeah, they'll see all those second-hand tanks that the Yanks foisted on the Howard government, the ones that are too big to go over bridges and across sand in island counties to our north and northeast, and they'll laugh. A big silly tank or a submarine won't stop another bombing in Bali, Greg.
They will see the air force, the navy and the army getting bigger and more capable.

Capable of what, Greg?
That's all that really counts.

The white paper will reinforce Australia's reputation as a formidable defence power.

Not bad for a biblical blancmange with Meccano stuck in it.
But a couple of sentences on China are, by white paper standards, remarkably direct and will confirm for everyone that the Rudd Government believes Beijing could do a much better job reassuring the region that its extensive defence build-up is not threatening.

The white paper comments: "China will be the strongest Asian military power by a considerable margin. Its military modernisation will be characterised by the development of power projection capabilities. But the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours pause for concern if not carefully explained and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans.

"China has begun to do this in recent years, but needs to do more. If it does not, there is likely to be a question in the minds of regional states about the long-term strategic purpose of its force development plans, particularly as the modernisation appears potentially to be beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan."

These are inelegant sentences and seem bizarrely to accept the proposition that it is entirely legitimate for China to build up forces designed to devastate and destroy Taiwan if it feels that's the decent thing to do.

No Greg, what that says is that China is developing the power to project force well beyond Taiwan. It describes this force build up in neytral terms befitting a fact, rather than conferring legitimacy, or using redundancies ("devastate and destroy") followed by more value judgments ("if it feels that's the decent thing to do").

If he can't get that right, could it be that he's wrong about the whole document?
This plastic gangster, faux hard man approach aside, however, these sentences state without much ambiguity that the white paper authors - that is to say, the Australian Government - believe China's military build-up is destabilising, inherently concerning and, given that the white paper says defence planning must be based on others' capabilities, not their declared intentions, something Australia should hedge against.

That, believe it or not, is a single sentence. I don't know what it means either. I recognised "the Australian government" and "China's military build-up", but that's about it. If it was complex defence-international relations jargon, I could understand it being incomprehensible - but seriously, that's just a poorly worded para-sentence, and not the only one in this piece.
Asia-Pacific nations will pay some attention to these sentences. Their inherent judgment will be shared in every capital except Beijing. Beijing will be annoyed by them. So be it.

Yeah, because the sentences don't make it through Babelfish.
... at the same time it avoids the intellectual myopia of former defence bureaucrat Hugh White, who argued recently that the rise of China was virtually our only fundamental strategic consideration.

I think you've misrepresented White there, Greg. He said that the rise of China was fundamentally important and that other considerations, while important, were less so than China. This isn't myopia, it's prioritisation and well-balanced judgment - and after the mish-mash you've presented to Australian readers, you should be a bit more humble in discussing the work of people who know what they're talking about.
It's in favour of self-reliance and the defence of Australia, but it's also in favour of an expeditionary military culture, the need to be able to undertake a vast range of operations within the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, and everything else as well.

It's in favour of building a capability where we can lead an operation if we have to, much as we did in East Timor or the Solomons, without waiting helplessly for the Americans.

At this point Sheridan goes on to point out a contradiction between the rise of China and the relative decline of the US, without wishing to offend the US at all. Sheridan has lost all credibility so that you wonder if he actually made the quote up, or cut out something that might help understand this phenomenon.
... the Government has gone a bit wonky on funding, projecting the 3per cent real increase only up to 2018, when the real big expenditure items start to kick in.

There are at least three elections between now and 2018. Has there ever been a nine-year budget projection in any area of government (or outside government) which has actually held up, ever?
In the end, the main decisions are sound, the accompanying verbiage dubious. That, of course, is much better than the other way around.

Given that Sheridan makes no decisions, and that "verbiage" is the tool of his trade, this article is an example of poor writing and a pathetic attempt to disguise ignorance of defence issues that should be inexcusable in a so-called foreign editor. It's sad when a two-year-old Talmudic scholar who eats blancmange with a Meccano set would make more sense on Australin defence issues than the foreign editor of The Australian, but that's what happened in Sheridan's analysis of this key document.


  1. derrida derider6/5/09 4:44 pm

    Oh, give over - criticising Sheridan is like shooting ducks. He's managed to combine spectacularly poor prose with spectacularly poor judgement for years now. This column is nowhere near the worst of either - dig up some of the ones from his neocon-worshipping phase for that.

    And Sheridan isn't even the worst of them at the Oz.

  2. No, he's not - but he benefits from (to use a neocon phrase) "the soft bigotry of low expectations". It isn't good enough that such a sloppy piece should be produced in response to such a key document. All the other serious media outlets - ABC and Fairfax - stepped up and treated this document with the seriousness it deserved. I still think serious analysis matters, and that Sheridan should not be treated seriously in this debate.