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US prestige at stake

By Graham Cooke - posted Wednesday, 4 April 2007

American Democrats have been loud and long in their criticism of the Bush Administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq. Presidential candidate Barak Obama’s call for a March 31, 2008 deadline for a drawdown of forces there has even prompted Prime Minister John Howard to make an unprecedented foray into US politics with his suggestion that al-Qaida will be praying for a Democrat victory.

However, Australia’s Ambassador in Washington, Dennis Richardson, believes the debate in the US is more nuanced than is often reported here, and that a Democrat win in the November, 2008 presidential poll will not result in the US abandoning Iraq.

“There is agreement across the major Democratic candidates that there should be a continued military presence in the region that supports five major objectives,” he says:

  • to continue the fight against international terrorism, however one might define that;
  • to train the Iraqi security forces;
  • to provide logistical support for those security forces;
  • to ensure border security; and finally
  • the presence, either in Iraq or just outside, of a rapid response capability which could go to the assistance of the other four components if they run into problems.

Speaking at a meeting of the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs recently, Mr Richardson said this would mean a force of between 40,000 and 80,000 US military personnel remaining in the area.

“The core of Senator Obama’s policy is to have a drawdown of US combat forces by March 31, 2008, subject to certain conditions being met,” he said. “The word ‘combat’ is more often than not left out of media reporting within the US and Australia, yet he uses the word very deliberately because this does not include the different component elements I have mentioned.”

The suggestion here is that the Democrats, led by leading contenders Senators Obama and Hillary Clinton, will be walking a tightrope between now and next year’s primary season leading up to the nominating conventions and finally the general election. On the one hand they will be conscious of the polls showing that something like 70 per cent of Americans now harbour grave doubts or are openly hostile to the war. On the other they are conscious of how the world might view a chaotic, Vietnam-style withdrawal, the damage it might do to US prestige and the possibility of domestic public opinion forcing a retreat into isolationism and the ominous international power vacuum that would create.

Mr Richardson rejects this possibility, pointing out that five years after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War President Ronald Reagan won election on an internationalist program of rebuilding the military and fighting global communism.

“It is highly unlikely that the US would dramatically retreat unto itself over the longer term even though, depending on how Iraq unfolded, it would feel bruised with implications for the way it pursued certain aspects of policy,” he said.


Whatever the outcome in Iraq, it seems almost certain that the hard decisions will be left to the next president, whoever he or she may be. Veteran foreign policy analyst and national security adviser in the Carter Administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski believes the Bush White House has essentially circled the wagons around a core of true believers - “perhaps not more in number than the fingers on one hand” - determined to stick with the current policy to the bitter end.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Brzezinski regards this situation as particularly ominous. “If the United States continues to be bogged down in protracted, bloody involvement in Iraq, the final destination of this downhill track is likely to be head-on conflict with Iran and much of the Islamic world,” he predicts.

He worries that a White House bunker mentality may eventually lead to attempts to promote al-Qaida to the level of the threats posed by Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union, with the attacks of 9-11 re-branded as the equivalent of the Pearl Harbour assault that precipitated US involvement in World War II.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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