Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Alexander Downer, "Proud of the Role We Played in Saddam's Overthrow"

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Alexander Downer, "Proud of the Role We Played in Saddam's Overthrow"

Article excerpt

Alexander Downer was Australia 's minister for foreign affairs from March 1996 to November 2007, the longest serving in Australian history. In July 2008, he was appointed by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon as the world body's special envoy to Cyprus. Born in 1951, Downer received a bachelor 's degree in politics and economics from the University of New Castle-on-Tyne in the United Kingdom. He entered the Australian diplomatic service in 1976, serving in his government's delegation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and at the Australian embassy to Belgium and Luxembourg before becoming the senior foreign affairs representative in South Australia. In 1982 and 1983, he was a political adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and, after the election of March 1983, to Andrew Peacock, the federal leader of the opposition. In 1984, he entered parliament as the representative for Mayo, a seat he has since held without interruption until his resignation from parliament in July 2008, following the electoral defeat of the Liberal government, headed by John Howard, the previous year. Daniel Pipes interviewed him in Adelaide on August 18, 2010.


Middle East Quarterly: Serving as the United Nations secretary-general's special adviser on Cyprus1 is a seemingly thankless task, trying to negotiate a settlement for one of the world's most intractable conflicts. What induced you to accept this position?

Alexander Downer: I thought it was an interesting challenge. Both President Dimitris Christofias of Cyprus and Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader, struck me as being very committed to finding a solution, and I thought it would be good to provide some help if I possibly could. Cyprus is strategically very important, and there are all sorts of political implications that should flow from an agreement between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriots to achieve a federation and, therefore, the country's reunification.

So it's an interesting and massively difficult job. If it weren't so difficult, the problem would have been solved many years ago. You've got to assess whether the policy, which in this case is set by the U.N. Security Council, is realistic, and unbalance, I think it is realistic. It's a problem that can be solved.

MEQ: So you have a grain of optimism?

Downer: Yes, I am cautiously optimistic. I think it can be done. Many of the world's disputes are not diplomatic but rather political. And if y ou want to try to solve some of these global problems, your first lesson has to be in the politics of the place. You have to understand what drives the leaders, which is usually the voters, and what drives the voters; why they think the way they do; why there is so little trust between protagonists, and how trust can be built; what is tolerable or intolerable for leaders within their communities; and what sort of compromises could be sold by the leaderships to their constituents. You've got to understand all of that in order to have any chance of making a valuable contribution to solving these problems.

All too often the international community tries to solve disputes through diplomatic means. This is the American approach, the European approach, and the Russian approach - and they all expect that somehow things will fall into place. It won't work like that. You've got to think about the people, the voters in the area of contention and how they think; and once you understand this, you can start- not from the top down but from the bottom up, thinking about how you can put together solutions. That's what we tried to do in Cyprus.

MEQ: You've been in this role since 2008. Have you seen a change in the stances, public and private, in Turkish diplomacy as the Justice and Development Party [AKP] becomes more and more overtly Islamist? Has this been reflected in the Cyprus situation?

Downer: Not really. I think the Turkish government has several clear reasons to see the Cyprus problem solved, none of which have anything to do with religion. …

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