Warning the Czar

by John Quiggin on February 12, 2007

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.”

{ 18 comments }

1

jonst 02.12.07 at 12:54 pm

Well, at present, I am not a big supporter of Obama. But I loved his come back at Howard…something to the effect that ‘if he were so ginned up for a fight in Iraq let him send 20K more troops, otherwise his is just hot air rhetoric….’

I won’t hold my breath on the troop increase.

2

aaron 02.12.07 at 1:25 pm

That is a good response.

3

Steve LaBonne 02.12.07 at 1:40 pm

Yes, my own interest in Obama’s candidacy increased several notches after that excellent comeback. That’s the kind of fighting spirit the Democratic party needs to develop. Well done, Senator.

4

Harald Korneliussen 02.12.07 at 2:36 pm

It was also probably a cost-free response, since we know how popular foreign politicians who involve themselves in US internal affairs get.

5

norbizness 02.12.07 at 2:38 pm

Hey, Bush may be incompetent, and he may be dangerous, but… what was the question again?

6

Hogan 02.12.07 at 3:09 pm

March 2008?

7

Steve LaBonne 02.12.07 at 3:10 pm

It was also probably a cost-free response, since we know how popular foreign politicians who involve themselves in US internal affairs get.

All the more reason to be contemptuous of the many sheeplike Democrats who would not have responded that way. Come to think of it, Howard attacked the entire congressional Democratic Party along with Obama, and so far I haven’t heard a peep out of anybody but him in reply.

8

P O'Neill 02.12.07 at 3:17 pm

March 2008 is the withdrawal deadline in Obama’s bill.

And I’m surprised that there wasn’t a precursor to this controversy with loudmouth Alexander Downer not so long ago, in comments reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger —

Walking on Santa Monica beach Sunday before last, Mr. Downer said he encountered a display of crosses in the sand, representing the American dead in Iraq. “What concerns me about this,” he said, “is that it’s sort of an isolationist sentiment, subconsciously, not consciously, and that would be an enormous problem for the world. I hope the American people understand the importance of not retreating and thinking the world’s problems aren’t theirs.”

Memorial to dead = Isolationism. Classy.

[link for Downer/Henninger]

9

John Quiggin 02.12.07 at 8:05 pm

There have been a couple of other responses from Democrats, as noted here

10

Alan 02.12.07 at 11:29 pm

I hated Obama’s response which is as offensive to most Australians as Howard’s attack was to Americans. Asking us to commit 2/5 of the entire personnel of the Australian Defence Force either speaks for spectacular ignorance or a diplomatic stance every bit as imperial and imperious as Bush’s own.

11

Carlos 02.12.07 at 11:43 pm

So what possessed him to take a high-risk, low return line like this ?

IRAN

On Monday night we had hoWARd and a very senior 4 star US general plus some very senior diplomats making him “look” like the respectable statesman, maybe as a build up to Cheney coming later in the month to ask for our support after a manufactured Iranian “attack” and the knee-jerk excalation that will follow.

The US ambassador is giving a speech at the National Press Club of Australia later this week:

14 February, 2007
Robert D. McCallum Jr
Ambassador of the United States of America to Australia

PM hoWARd’s desperate 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. The Bushistas’ demented idea is to drag the US into escalating attacks and a full blown invasion of IRAN.

Opposotion leader Rudd’s excellent numbers on the polls would have taken hoWARd 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 (or told!) to return the favour by Dubya.

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

Then again, it’s just as likely that both the bushistas and the hoWARdistas have simply started to believe their own BS! ;-)

12

Warbo 02.13.07 at 12:09 am

No offence taken by this Australian, alan. The precise number may have been a bit excessive, but it’s good to see an important political figure in either country pointing out the hypocrisy of Howard’s position.

13

Aidan 02.13.07 at 12:19 am

Alan, I can’t agree. The 20,000 refers to the number of troops for this new surge strategy. It is fairly immaterial how large our defence force is in relation to this number.

14

LoneNut 02.13.07 at 1:32 am

Alan, Obama’s response was more for US domestic consumption. The 20k figure is the size of the surge/escalation/augmentation/plus-up.

15

frankis 02.13.07 at 2:08 am

I imagine Australia’s tragic grub as again acting as just one more small cog in Darth Cheney’s ultra-Zionist inspired plans for middle eastern holocaust, Iran next. Howard wouldn’t have the wit to think up his own reasons for getting these particular headlines for himself (while Cheney hasn’t the mental capacity for anything other than mayhem, evildoing, and pulling Howard’s strings).

Like I say, it’s the way that I picture it.

16

patrickm 02.13.07 at 4:20 am

As far as being a presidential candidate Obama is a ‘dead man walking’and the following indicates why he has no chance at all.

‘Does anyone seriously doubt that BOTH (the following) statements are accurate despite being official US National Intelligence Estimates.’

1) Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.

2) If such a rapid withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the ISF would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries— invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally—might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI would attempt to use parts of the country—particularly al-Anbar province—to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.’

If as a progressive you do not doubt this assessment (and a great many people will not doubt the assessment) then consequences flow for Democrats and the ALP in Australia. Obama and Rudd’s position becomes junk. John Howard has Obama picked as a foreign policy dolt while Kevin Rudd is endlessly missing the main point because it’s popular to want out of Iraq.

Obama will not convince his Democrat controled Congress mates that he could manage what Hilary Clinton has already stated she can and will address when she becomes President. She has said that if the war is not ended by Bush, that she will end the war when she is President.

However she also knows that anything that smacks of defeat would be a disaster and would encourage the enemies of all humankind. (Baathism Jihadis and Shia death squads etc) So, she will give herself plenty of time and only accept responsibility when elected president.

On the other hand Obama wants to end it from control of the Congress against the current President. That is a bird that just can’t fly. So, he is either wrong in his estimate that it can fly – or grandstanding despite the reality. Either way he lost the serious Democrat vote as the Clinton type sharks start to slowly circle him.

17

Steve LaBonne 02.13.07 at 2:48 pm

Yes, patrcikm, I think that both those unintelligent “intelligence” assertions are complete and utter crap, like almost everything else that comes out of Washington on this subject. The multi-sided civil war will go on with or without the presence of foreign troops, and I have yet to see a single cogent argument- as opposed to free-floating fantasies- that explains why continuing to feebly interpose an inadequate number of troops (inadequate by about an order of magnitude, if you actually wanted to control what happens in Iraq) into the midst of this mayhem accomplishes anything whatsoever. (And this “argument” against “rapid” withdrawal is really an argument against withdrawal for at least the next decade- do you seriously think some kind of Golden Age is going to descend on Iraq in the next year or two to change that assessment?) No purpose, that is, other than continuing to get our overstreched armed forces ground into dust to no avail. Is that a purpose of which you approve?

18

Carlos 02.15.07 at 12:18 am

Those two points raised above are totally discredited already by the pure reality of the situation. But then again the Bush administration has demonstrated not to be beholden to any “reality” other than their delirious dreams of empire (and the world’s nightmare).

Most serious withdrawal arguments do not call for an-all-out sudden pull-out but for a definite and steady plan to really get out.

That most important aspect that is simply ignored due to those straw-men and lame arguments is the plan for an eventual withdrawal from Iraq, a withdrawal in any way whatsoever, simply because that was never the intention.

The building of bases, a huge embassy, entrenching the green-zone, etc. are only strategies to mantain the occupation.

But that, nobody wants to talk about.

As for Obama, he has expressed in a concise elocuent way his opposition to the war from the very beggining, and a realistic way to get out. And he is a real hope for change and therefore a huge threat to the bushistas and hoWARd.

Do you think that our racist PM would have compared him to terrorists and attacked in such a way another white senior democrat? Kerry? one of the Kennedys, etc?

No bloody way! It is a callous and stupid attack that comes from the deepest and worst of both current administrations there in the US and here in Australia, from their 50’s mindset and cold war prejudices, mercenary ambitions and their inherent racism.

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