What next when civilisation clashes with darkness?

The President of You Know Where flies round in Air Force 1. Our equivalent is a sort of Air Force 0.15: a crate held together with chewing gum and rubber bands. A great advertisement.

The Prime Minister sensibly flies commercial.

The National party feigns shock/horror. That is the party that cut defence spending 30 per cent in GDP terms during the 1990s. Had it not, the army might have had some radios and ground transport that worked and clapped out planes replaced.

Press that a little further. Had National not slashed defence spending, Labour would have inherited a higher level and could not so easily have defended the current low spending level, about National’s.

So we can suspect National’s attempts to present itself as a party of protection of citizens at home and abroad. National is all huff now but was no puff when in office.

We can similarly dismiss ACT’s blusterings. It was Derek Quigley (ACT MP 1996-99) who wrote the interim parliamentary committee report that provided the allegedly “multi-party” backing for the course Clark has followed.

And which National MP put his name to that report? Wayne Mapp, now National’s foreign affairs speaker and trying to implant the notion that the government is not doing enough to protect its citizens at home and abroad.

National’s gig last week was to stir suspicion that either (1) Clark had been warned a bomb might go off in Bali and hadn’t warned holidaymakers or (2) she hadn’t been warned, in which case she hadn’t been told what the Australians had because she is not in the intelligence loop and that is now proving dangerous to life and limb of our citizens.

There is, indeed, an issue of national interest in the diminished acceptability abroad of this country’s stripped-down defence posture which in foreign capitals gives opponents more elbow and attenuates friends’ goodwill. That diminishes the likelihood of favours which are hard enough for a small country to obtain in the best of circumstances.

But Australian intelligence experts shot down National’s attempt to stretch that line. A country which has intelligence that might affect citizens of another has always, one expert said from his experience, passed that on even if there is no intelligence relationship. And Australia did not consider the information about Bali firm enough to pass on to its travellers.

In any case there is a double issue of plausibility. Why would Clark and/or our tiny (and probably swamped) intelligence community wilfully not tell citizens of a danger abroad? And why would the United States or Australia wilfully withhold information from Clark about dangers to our citizens? Only the sort of demented conspiracy theories that Islamic extremists recite will give you an answer to that second question.

The real point is not such dancing on the head of an intelligence pin. It is what happens next.

A great deal of world trade — and our trade — goes through straits bordered by Indonesian islands. There is a fair possibility Indonesia will be destabilised if tourists desert its already miserable economy. And that might intensify general unrest and antipathy between subject peoples in outlying islands and the dominant Javanese in the centre.

Those would be excellent conditions for extremists, including islamic extremists and islamo-fascists, to flourish. The whole region would be set on edge.

And the more incidents there are like the Bali bomb and the blown-up oil tanker, the more westerners will look askance at Arabs and muslims — and, in return, the more Arabs and muslims will look askance at westerners. There could be very painful economic repercussions all round.

Only a tiny proportion of muslims are fundamentalist or extreme and only a tiny proportion of those are islamo-fascists. But both proportions may now grow. And terrorism speaks with a volume greater than its numbers.

So is this the much-touted clash of civilisations in the making?

No. If this standoff happens it will be a clash between civilisation and darkness. There have been plenty such clashes before, notably last century with nazism and communism.

Civilisation won then, as it always has in the long run. Civilisation will win now. The catch is that sometimes it is a mighty long run.