Australian news rarely makes it out of the sporting pages internationally (and we’re not looking too good there just now) so it’s pretty exciting for us to make into New York Times coverage of the presidential election campaign. The occasion is a statement by our prime minister, John Howard, to the effect that a vote for the Democrats, and in particular for Barack Obama, would be a vote for Al Qaeda*.
This is not the first time an Australian political leader has commented on the choices available to US electors. A few years ago, then Opposition leader Mark Latham described Bush as ‘incompetent and dangerous’, but this accurate observation did not seem to have much effect in the 2004 US election campaign and probably contributed to Latham’s defeat in the Australian election the same year.
Latham was well known as a loose cannon, and this kind of remark was in character, but Howard has generally been seen as the embodiment of cautious solidity. As far as US politics go, he’s generally been seen as an advocate of unconditional support for US policy, regardless of the political colour of the Administration. He’s been very happy to cash in on his close relationship with Bush, but he was quite keen enough for photo-ops with Clinton. So what possessed him to take a high-risk, low return line like this ?
The obvious explanation is the collapse of Howard’s domestic position, primarily as a result of issues where he has followed the lead of George Bush.
First, of course, there’s the Iraq war. Howard’s approach to this has exemplified the traditional Australian approach to the US alliance, which combines uncritical public support for the US with ruthless pragmatism. In this case, the objectives were twofold – to keep the Iraq wheat market, and to avoid any casualties. At the time of the last election, it seemed as if both goals had been attained. Australian troops were pulled out not long after Mission Accomplished day, with no serious casualties. Meanwhile, having bribed Saddam to secure the wheat market until the day the war began, our marketing monopoly, AWB turned up in Baghdad straight afterwards, demanding that we keep our position as a reward for membership of the COW.
All this has gone sour. Bush demanded we send troops back, and while they are still in fairly safe locations (the only fatality has been a rather mysterious shooting death in barracks), the pressure to take a frontline role is growing. Meanwhile, the AWB machinations were exposed, though, as usual, the government maintained plausible deniability on the issue. Most importantly, the disaster in Iraq has been so obvious that even in the absence of casualties, our participation has become highly unpopular.
The second problem for Howard is David Hicks, an Australian who was in the first batch of Guantanamo Bay detainees, and is supposed to be going up for trial under the Military Commissions Act, some time soon. Unlike Blair and most other US allies, Howard has refused to push for the release of Australian detainees (a second detainee was released a while back, making claims of torture that have never been effectively denied). While debate on Hicks’ case has gone back and forth, the public as a whole has run out of patience with the US.
The third problem is global warming. Australia was set to ratify Kyoto (having negotiated a very favourable deal) when Bush dumped it, and Howard promptly followed suit. Until 2006, the government suffered very little for this, and its allies in the media pushed a denialist line, with Howard’s sotto voce support. In the last year, though, the denialist position has collapsed, as the weight of evidence has finally got through to the public at large. Howard is scrambling to find a credible response that does not involve signing Kyoto, but hasn’t been able to find one.
Finally, after a string of leaders who were unelectable for one reason or another, Labor has finally picked a winner – former diplomat Kevin Rudd, who comes across as a safe pair of hands, having enough new ideas to be interesting, but not the kind of visionary who scares Australian voters. The government is lagging badly in the polls (an election is due this year) and Rudd has even passed Howard as preferred prime minister, a contest where the incumbent has a huge advantage.
At this point, realpolitik provides an obvious response. Howard’s biggest problems stem from his ties to Bush, a lame duck who will be gone in two years’ time regardless. The logical solution is to pick a fight with Bush over Iraq or Kyoto, and cut him loose.
But despite his Australian reputation as a master politician, Howard is not the man for this kind of Machiavellian response. He is stubborn, loyal to his allies, and convinced of his own rightness. So, dumping Bush is not really an option for him.
I read Howard’s attack on Obama as a natural, if counterproductive, response to this situation. Rather than do the logical thing and dump Bush, or take the cautious path of saying nothing, he has lashed out at one of Bush’s most effective opponents.
* The precise quote “If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.”