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Howard’s Republican gamble

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 21 November 2006

In 2004 John Howard made the unusual decision to publicly support George W. Bush’s bid for re-election. By convention, leaders keep quiet about their preferred outcomes in elections abroad, particularly in friendly nations.

Howard’s partisan politicking is unlikely to affect Australia’s status as one of the most favoured nations in Washington DC even with a Democrat-controlled Congress. Where the Howard Government should be more nervous is what impact the resurrection of the Democrat Party will have on debates about the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq conflict and the war on terrorism. Congressional inquiries are already being planned.

Howard’s support not just for Bush but for his Republican party has been a risk Howard has considered worth taking to achieve his goal of strengthening the US-Australia security alliance. It could also be argued that Howard’s connections with Republicans were crucial in Australia gaining a free trade agreement with the US.


Howard’s pledge of allegiance to Bush has seen him ally himself as close as any foreign leader to Bush on Iraq and in the “war on terror”. Howard’s rhetoric has often echoed Bush and Cheney on Iraq, from the supposed threats posed by Saddam to recent attempts to describe the “war on terror” as the 21st century equivalent of the Cold War.

The congressional elections are a stunning result and signal the tide has temporarily turned in America against the Republicans as the guardians of national security and defence policy.

Since McGovern’s run for the presidency in 1972, the Democrats have been burdened with the “soft” label: soft on crime, welfare recipients and America’s enemies abroad. After these mid-term elections, one might conclude it is better to be seen as soft than as incompetent.

Now that Bush’s party has lost control of the congress, Iraq will be blamed even though the narrow Democrat Senate victories in Montana and seemingly in Virginia were also significantly the result of the personal failings of the Republican candidates. Nonetheless, Iraq is likely to be the main story and from this reading, real consequences will follow in the US.

The Republican loss will lead to a number of congressional inquiries looking into the Bush administration’s policies. Where this could impact on the Howard Government is that these inquiries are likely to find further holes in Bush’s Iraq strategy, holes that have already been highlighted by Bob Woodward’s State of Denial as well as in a range of other recent books.

Other issues these inquiries could focus on might include: the level of US bombing in Iraq over the last couple of years, the civilian death toll in Iraq, and the corrupt practices of US government funded private contractors in Iraq. New information on these issues will further discredit the record of the Bush administration. There may also be inquiries into America’s treatment of “enemy combatants”, such as David Hicks.


These inquiries and the media coverage generated by them will allow important questions to be asked. Critics of both Howard and Downer will rightly ask why they did not publicly express concerns about Bush’s strategy on any number of global issues and specifically why they were so supportive of such a disastrous approach in Iraq.

Admittedly the congressional inquiries in the US are likely to be followed in detail by only a small number of policy wonks, but their impact on the credibility of the leaders of the coalition of the willing cannot be dismissed as babble from inside the beltway.

If the Howard Government wanted to make the case for Australia supporting America in a future war, say in Iran, public scepticism, created in part by such inquiries and investigative journalism, would be very difficult to overcome.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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