There goes that idea

I was thinking yesterday about a column for the Fin, on the subject of personal relationships between Australian PMs and overseas leaders (prime examples being Keating-Suharto and Howard-Bush) and arguing that such relationships weren’t in our long-term interest since they create a risk of conflict with the domestic opponents of the leaders concerned, who may themselves be in power in the future.

Somehow I suspect that, by the time my column runs on Thursday, that idea will look rather old-hat.

31 thoughts on “There goes that idea

  1. John, Is it accurate to say that this criticism stems from a friendship with George Bush?
    Barack Obama’s call to withdraw all troops from Iraq by next March – while consistent with your views on what should happen in Iraq – are not consistent with those of John Howard who sees it as encouraging the sectarian conflict & terrorist position there. Would you expect Howard to say nothing in this situation because Obama might be the next US President?

    That really would be an instance of Australia playing a subservient role to the US.

  2. I think the following:

    “If Prime Minister Howard truly believes what he says, perhaps his country should find its way to contribute more than just 1,400 troops so some American troops can come home,” [Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs] said. “It’s easy to talk tough when it’s not your country or your troops making the sacrifices.”

  3. Harry, Howard pulled all of our troops out of Iraq not long after the invasion, in line with his clearly stated policy before the war. Troops only went back in after the 2004 election and in response to demands from Bush. The one point on which Howard has stood up to Bush is refusing to put our troops in front-line combat positions, such as embeds with Iraqi units.

    As a thought experiment, suppose that Bush announced tomorrow that he had changed his mind and would pull out all US troops within three months. Do you think Howard would criticise him on the grounds that this would encourage sectarian conflict and terrorism?

    Until the Obama comment, a reasonable interpretation was that Howard’s policy was based on the longstanding view of many Australians on both sides of politics that Australia should support the US regardless of our own policy judgement. But obviously that won’t work well should Howard and Obama both be in office in 2009.

  4. All hot air really. By the time the next president assumes office it will be January 2009, then the prez has to nominate his cabinet and then will the prez be able to begin enacting whatever Iraq policy they may have. Also assuming that whatever they discover in the closet doesn’t put a hole in their campaign policy. So that effectively means that the surge will have been history by then either as a failure or a success. If its still happening then it can be assumed that it is a failure. So in effect all candidates will be saying the same thing really – we’ll reduce our troops in iraq because either things have stabilised or because they are caught in a civil war. The rest are just details. The one proviso is that bush and cheney are still in power.

  5. Did the Prime Minister mention that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and that he went to school at a madrassa?

    If he didn’t, it must have been an oversight.

    Harry, far be it from me to accuse you of double standards, but why is it that people on yuor side of politics regard all Democratic Party politicians as fair game but accuse anyone critical of the Republicans as being reflexive anti-American?

  6. Dear John

    I agree with you that it is very likely that John Howard will be damaging the so-called alliance that Australia has with the USA by attacking Barak Obama in such a crude and partisan way. It is quite improper for him to be so close to the Bush administration, at risk of giving the perception of interference in American domestic politics. Fortunately or otherwise, most American will probably think our Prime Minister is something of a joke. A future Australian government will be dealing with a different US administration and we need to maintain a dignified stance.

    It was also improper and far more threatening to Australians when the US Ambassador, Tom Schieffer, criticised Mark Latham for his comments on withdrawal of troops from Iraq. I remember feeling incensed and insulted, considering that in many countries the USA could decide to assassinate Mark Latham or anyone who opposed US policies. So, we are talking here about the most powerful hegemon on the planet. This is a little different from John Howard trying to influence the outcome of the US elections. Our Prime Minister is just annoying 68% of Americans and demeaning his office.

    On the other hand, as the Rabbi says, we should all be trying to influence our American friends to be much more careful about how they choose their President. George W Bush was a careless and catastrophic, if accidental, choice. He has probably been the worst President of the USA in two hundred years, including Richard Nixon. The President of the United States is such a powerful person that we cannot afford to leave the job of electing them entirely to the people of the USA. We are all stakeholders.

    Bush has spoilt any chance of meaningful dialogue with North Korea, needlessly destroyed Afghanistan, waged an illegal and avoidable war in Iraq, threatens war with Iran, is waging a proxy war in Somalia and aided and abetted Israeli war crimes in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. The USA has previously and continues to give military aid and training to most of the brutal dictatorships in the world. If you read the Charter for the UN Security Council you would wonder why a rogue government like this one would bother to maintain membership.

    The greatest danger to our security is not that Al Qaeda will triumph in Iraq. That has been guaranteed by the callous and irresponsible way in which this war has destabilised the whole Middle East. The danger is that China, the hegemon-in-waiting, will behave even worse than the USA when they have the power to influence world events to the extent that the USA does now. So far the Chinese show no sign of invading other countries, except Tibet. This is the opposite of what the Menzies government told Australians. No doubt, John Howard will remain silent on this whilst China buys Australian coal – but the clock is ticking on this too.

    We should stop arguing about the date of the US orderly withdrawal from Iraq. What we should be discussing is how to manage the inevitable effects of the monumental power vacuum when (not if) the hasty, panic withdrawal from Iraq leaves Americans and the rest of the world relieved but demoralised by the collapse of the US empire as we know it. The most dangerous part of shooting their way to the airport will be rescuing the last one hundred US troops to leave.

    Willy Bach

  7. John, perhaps your article should focus on the bigger picture: not just the “personal relationships between Australian PMs and overseas leaders” but the broader cross-party political affiliations which are becoming increasingly entrenched.

    There are now quite unprecedented levels of political connectivity between Washington, London and Canberrra (e.g. Australia has a team of full-time diplomats working within the US State Dept) and of course we have a host of odd little things happening, like Howard’s son working on Bush’s election campaigns (or was it Blair’s? or both?).

    The truth is that national politics has become a globalized commodity. A vote for Howard is a vote for Bush, and vice versa. Australian domestic politics is now just one more item on the corporatized globalisation menu. Just ask Rupert Murdoch.

  8. This is what Howard said:

    “If I were running al-Qaida in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats.”

    This attack on the Democratic party, which has a majority in both houses, as well as on the only African American serving in the U.S. Senate and frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination is simply bizarre.

    Australia is hardly involved in Iraq. I don’t think that the Democrats will withdraw from Iraq should they win the presidential elections. However, I think that they will try to further internationalize the occupation. Howard’s interference in US domestic politics probably means that a Democratic president will pressure Australia to increase its commitment in Iraq and pull its weight, as it were. In practical terms this statement has blown our cover as one of the least committed member of the coalition of the willing. We will be paying for Howard’s words in a few years with another one or two thousand soldiers in Iraq. Howard has given the Democrats an excuse to demand further Australian engagement in Iraq; it will be hard to refuse such a demand when it comes from a Democratic president.

    Howard is clearly out of touch. Perhaps he’s forgotten the responsibilities that come with the job. His comments are diplomatically inept and damage Australia’s interests.

    Then there is the curious choice of language, which parrots the language of marginalized extremists in the US. The language is clearly intended for US consumption. Why would Howard care to engage in this kind of rhetoric? Is he looking to retire into a right wing think tank?

  9. His middle name should be irrelevant. By suggesting that Howard should have mentioned it you are suggesting that it should matter. Why should it matter?

    Better to have any criticism of him on the table now rather than in the middle of a presidential election. I recall Helen Clarks remark about George Bush being done after he was elected.


    Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? . . . . .

    In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.

    george washington 1796

  11. As leader of the ALP and potential PM Mark Latham launched an attack on the elected President, that was not only an attack on the Republican Party but on the entire USA.

    I dont remember too much criticism of Latham on that score.

  12. rog him say: “I dont remember too much criticism of Latham on that score.”

    Amnesia or selective memory, rog?

  13. I dont remember too much criticism of Latham on that score.

    Former Minister for Veterans Affairs, Bruce Scott:

    I think the international terrorism organisations, al-Qaeda, will say, well, we’ve got an ally in Australia, and that’s Mark Latham.

    And MP Ross Cameron said Osama bin Laden would be “celebrating the advent of Mark Latham”, whose comments were an invitation to terrorists to “belt” Australia. Link here.

    Now Howard says Al Quaeda will find an ally in Barack Obama. Plus ca change, n’est-ce pas?

  14. “I dont remember too much criticism of Latham on that score.”

    Rog, you must have been in a coma from 2002-2004 to have missed it.

    Anyway, let’s not forget, on the subject of interference in another country’s politics, how
    George W. Bush, during Howard’s visit to the White House in June 2004, described Lathsm’s “troops home by Christmas” policy as “disastrous”.

    Howard is returning the favour.

  15. re: Latham, criticism from the ALP over damaging foreign relations.

    Oooh! Big comeback! Can’t even be bothered with properly articulating your nonsensical defence of the indefensible? Sad days indeed, and still six months out from the election.

    If Howard’s display today doesn’t light a rocket under the arses of his Liberal party colleagues (and supporters like rog), nothing will.

  16. I love Alexander Downer’s response.

    “That would be half of our army. Australia is a much smaller country than the United States and so he might like to weigh that up,” Mr Downer told ABC Radio.

    Do your maths Mr Obama. Australia is 1/10 the size of the US. Howard only needs to reject sending 2,000 troops to Iraq before his talk is empty rhetoric.
    Both diplomatic and convincing.

  17. Mark, you might want to check your figures. Australia has about 1/15 the population of the US, which has 150 000 troops in Iraq. So, on a basis of proportionality, Obama should have said 10 000 rather than 20 000.

  18. I wonder why he did it. He is normally so careful about public comments. He must have thought he saw some sort of political advantage in making the comment, especally in such a crude way. Its obviously a dumb thing to do from the point of view of US-Australia relations but Howard has never been above putting politics before prudent diplomacy. I just can’t think of why he said it. Especally in light of the obvious come back that Obama’s team has made about our own relatively tokenistic contribution.

    Maybe he placed loyalty to the general cause of international conservatism ahead of the best interests of Australia. Is there a Republican version of The Internationale?

  19. “Do your maths Mr Obama. Australia is 1/10 the size of the US. Howard only needs to reject sending 2,000 troops to Iraq before his talk is empty rhetoric.
    Both diplomatic and convincing.”

    It gets particularly galling when you consider casualty rates. The US is certainly not 3000 times the population of Australia yet that is approximately the current ratio Australian to US military deaths in Iraq. Obama could quite reasonably ask how sincere Australia’s commitment is to Iraq when our soldiers are clearly being kept away from the front line.

    Whatever you say about Howard personally you cannot deny his Iraq policy has acheived the practical outcome of strengthening the Aus-US alliance at little cost in life to Australia. It would be shame if Howard threw this acheivement away with cowardly big talk that damaged the relationship or got Australian troops killed when he is asked to back it up.

  20. I wonder why he did it. He is normally so careful about public comments.

    To shift the domestic agenda on to a topic where Howard has been seen as stronger than the ALP. To ensure that Howard is the domestic topic of conversation and not Kevin Rudd and his ratings bandwagon. To garner US presidential support and line things up for appropriate images of Howard as global statesman for later in the year. To make Howard look like a tough guy willing to take on big players. To minimise Australian backwash from the growing anti-war noise in the US media by characterising it as mistaken ideology.

    Politically I think it was quite clever. What does Howard lose?

  21. I think Terje is onto something!

    Tonight we had hoWARd and a very senior 4 star US general plus some very senior diplomats making him “look” like the senior statesman, maybe as a build up to Cheney coming later in the month.

    hoWARd’s idea is to try to shift the focus onto “security” and “terrorism” his supposed strenghts. But instead, the finesse and media ability he used to have to move the focus into his prefered topics, seems to be gone.

    Rudd’s numbers on the polls would have taken him a bit by suprise I imagine, and perhaps he had to rush this topic into the public eye, earlier than he wanted. Or perhaps he was simply asked to return the favour by Dubya.

    Or perhaps he’s just lost his mojo and ability to read the public’s reaction and his ability to manipulated it accordingly.

    Or maybe is just his old man’s hearing: he just heard “Osama” 😉

  22. We now know where Obama stands with AQ (he is with them) and the ALP have temporarily halted their US bashing to blame Howard for hurting the US.

  23. Dear John

    Thankfully Osama bin Laden has not been heard from for quite a while and may have been dead for the past four years. But Al Qaeda does have allies in Australia. They are people like John Howard who keep reinventing OBL when there is an election in the offing and when ever the politics of fear will serve their expedient political schemes.

    Australian Prime Ministers do a lot of barracking (pardon the pun) to get the USA to do reckless and aggressive things, but do not push too hard for more than a token role in the show. (see: ‘A very small insurance policy’) It is obvious that Australian soldiers’ lives are no more than a political weapon in the hands of John Howard, as we saw with Brendan Nelson’s handling of the death of Jake Kovko, caused while he was “cleaning his weapon� indeed. But John Howard knows that if a lot of body bags started turning up in this country public opinion would turn against the war.

    Still working it out says, “The US is certainly not 3000 times the population of Australia yet that is approximately the current ratio Australian to US military deaths in Iraq�. This could also be a reflection on the relative professionalism of Australian soldiers, who may have a better sense of self-preservation. American soldiers have been extremely insensitive to Iraqi civilians, ensuring that there are lots of people whose homes have been ransacked and families terrorised who would like to kill them.

    So, should Australia show that it is ‘serious’ about pouring more troops into a conflict that is already lost? John Quiggin reminds us that, “Australia has about 1/15 the population of the US, which has 150 000 troops in Iraq. So, on a basis of proportionality, Obama should have said 10 000 rather than 20 000.� Although Jimmythespiv says, “we don’t have 10,000 much less 20,000 more soldiers anyway.� The Australian military is already costly to run and would not be of a higher quality if it was bigger, even if it was possible to recruit more entrants. What a waste of human lives that would be anyway!

    Some people think John Howard has made a mistake, others think he has nothing to lose or that he is being ‘clever’ (as usual). However, this hyperbolic rhetoric about Al Qaeda deserves to be taken at face value. Lets face it; John Howard says that Iraq was/is an existential threat to Australia – didn’t/doesn’t he? If he is so convinced about this threat he should do as Melanie says, “We had 19,000 in Vietnam. I guess we could go down the conscription route again.�

    That’s it! John Howard should be challenged to go to the election with conscription as the major issue. I wonder how long it would take to get genuine intelligence and international relations analysts out of the closet to tell us that Iraq was never a significant threat, only a ‘target of opportunity’ that proved more gristly than the Neocons and John Howard thought.

    That should keep his belligerent party out of office for the next thirty years while we deal with the legacy of squandered opportunities, economic mismanagement and neglect of the real threat – CLIMATE CHANGE!

    Willy Bach

  24. I don’t think Terje is onto anything:

    From today’s Crikey:

    What is happening to the Prime Minister’s political antennae? He could have hardly chosen a worse person to attack for their views on Iraq than Barack Obama.

    The Illinois Senator might be a newcomer to Washington, but he was a member of the Illinois state house when America went to war. And this is what he said then:

    I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida.

    I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

    “Senior Liberal sources� tried some desperate – and dizzying – spin yesterday. They claimed the PM’s remarks had focussed debate away from the environment and on to national security, a Coalition plus. This is unadulterated crap.

    Howard is looking rattled at the moment, much like he was in early 2004 by Latham and the reading to kids thing. He could well recover, but I don’t think this attack on Obama is part of the recovery.

  25. The numbers.

    It might be a little late for this, but I wanted to explain/correct my ‘2,000 troops’.

    Mr Obama suggested Australia contribute a further 20,000. My interpretation was that this would replace the recent 20,000 (approx) US troop surge. Mr Downer suggested that Obama should ‘weigh-up’ Australia’s relative size before considering Howard’s words empty rhetoric.
    This implies that Howard’s words are empty rhetoric until he sends 20000/15 (thanks JQ) further troops. That’s about 1,350 troops. Rather than the total 150000/15 = 10,000
    Quantified empty rhetoric, but empty rhetoric nonetheless.

    Why John Howard said it, is a good question. He’s a canny politicial and this looks like a blunder he would normally steer clear of.
    I think he was probably scared by the recent poll results and wanted the discussion back on his issues, and he chooses issues around security and fear during election years.
    I don’t think he expected the Obama camp would have the time or interest to react, or to keep up the debate as long as he could.
    Whether he was right or not seems to miss the point. I think the issue is that he’s interferring in US politics, and I don’t think that’s done him any favours.
    I believe it was just an error of judgement.

  26. In today’s news, I see Howard quoted as saying of Rudd’s policy “My charge is that the consequences of the policy you are advocating would be to destabilise Iraq and threaten the security interests of this country through a defeat of the United States in Iraq”

    My question to Howard is “And how would we distinguish this from the current situation?”

  27. Barak Obama is right in his criticism of Howard, however he is merely echoing a sentiment often expressed from the heart of the various empires to which we have been attached. I have been reading Corelli Barnett’s ‘The Collapse of British Power’, ISBN 0330491814, and his analysis of the period up to the Second World War is like a commentary on the present situation in international affairs, particularly with regard to the US empire. But more pertinently, Barnett makes the point that even before WW1 and WW2, the dominion countries in the British Empire, like Australia, were not pulling their proportionate weight in Empire defence. The 20 million people in the ‘white’ dominions provided 11 cruisers and 20 destroyers, while the 50 million in the UK provided 12 capital ships, 7 aircraft carriers, 50 cruisers, 94 destroyers, and 87 fleet escorts, and 34 divisions of soldiers against 5 from the dominsions. Another point Barnett makes is that, because of its empire interests Britain often had to involve itself in affairs in which the UK had not real interest, or which were detrimental to its interests. For the US Afghanistan was a real interest, afterall it was where the attack on the twin towers was plotted. Iraq was merely an Oedipal sideline.

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