For more than half a century now the Liberal Party has been benefiting from its portrayal of itself as the party of the US alliance. Yet the alliance has long enjoyed bi-partisan support. It was Labor’s John Curtin who, in 1941 said “without any inhibitions of any kind I make it clear that Australia looks to America” while the Menzies Coalition Government signed the ANZUS treaty which formalises Australia’s relationship with the US in 1951.
Polling by the Lowy Institute for International Policy shows that the Australian people have a balanced and pragmatic view of the US alliance. While 68 per cent of those surveyed (in 2005) took the view that Australia took too much notice of the US in formulating foreign policy, 72 per cent view our alliance with the US as important or very important.
The US alliance, then, is supported by the Labor Party and the Australian people as well as the Liberal Party. In spite of this truth John Howard has attempted to portray Kevin Rudd’s Iraq policy as a danger to the US alliance. Liberal attempts to paint Labor as anti-American are nothing new.
What is new, however, is the picture now emerging of John Howard’s management of the US alliance. Put simply Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have been behaving not as representatives of the Australian people but as paid-up members of the neo-conservative movement.
Back in 2004 John Howard publicly endorsed George W. Bush’s re-election, a rather unorthodox course of action. But that was just that the start. This January, in the aftermath of the electoral thumping the Republicans received in the November Congressional elections Alexander Downer complained to the Wall Street Journal of a “sort of an isolationist sentiment” taking hold in America.
Alas none of this can compare to the bizarre foray into US politics now being embarked upon by John Howard.
Mirroring President Bush, who prior to the US Congressional elections said “however they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: the terrorists win and America loses”, John Howard has now accused presidential hopeful Barack Obama and the entire Democratic Party of essentially being unwitting agents of al-Qaida. “If I were running al-Qaida in Iraq”, observed Howard, “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”.
There is nothing particularly unusual about a party of the right in Australia preferring to deal with a Republican Administration than a Democratic one. However, whatever the preferences of the leaders of Australia and the US they must always remember that the US alliance is not their partisan play thing. Politicians come and politicians go. If the US alliance is to have any staying power it must be based on a relationship between the Australian and American people, not the Australian prime minister and the American president.
John Howard has put his loyalty to George W. Bush, a President who cannot be re-elected in 2008 and who has lost the confidence of the American public in any case, over the health of the alliance.
Howard’s comments are sure to raise the ire of the Democrats. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden has already said “the most charitable thing you can say about Mr Howard's comment is bizarre”. These are the people who have a good chance of supplying the next president of the United States.
By no means does any of this indicate that our alliance with America is in any danger of collapsing. After all Kevin Rudd has said he is “a long-standing supporter of the US alliance with Australia, because America has been in the post-war period an overwhelming force for good in the world”.
What Howard’s comments do risk doing is degrading and cheapening the relationship.
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