John Howard: Armchair Warrior

If Australian news and views received more international attention than they do, the recent rhetorical miscues of Prime Minister John Howard would be the butt of global derision of the sort which sometimes greets George W. Bush’s words of superpower wisdom.

Howard is desperate to show himself as a tough and fearless participant in the western crusade against terror and radical Islam. With an election looming and his party lagging far behind the Labor opposition’s new leader Kevin Rudd, Howard badly needs a security issue and a terror scare to drive the electoral flock back into the conservative pen. So Howard launched an attack on US Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama for recommending a 2008 deadline for US troop withdrawal.

“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,” Howard said.

From an Australian perspective, however, there is more reason to cry than laugh at the extraordinary presumptions that underlie not only these words about the charismatic senator from Illinois but Canberra’s foreign policy and the essential cowardice of Australia’s position on Iraq.

Howard was so outrageous this time that even the US media, long accustomed to ignoring his endless efforts to ingratiate himself with Bush’s Washington, took note.

Howard and his colleagues went on to suggest that anyone recommending a withdrawal from Iraq was giving succor to al-Qaeda, thus tarring Obama and his own challenger Rudd, who also favors troop withdrawal, with the brush of aiding terrorists.

Howard’s remarks were even sillier given that they coincided with a US drive to implicate Iran as the main sponsor of the chaos in Iraq. Even Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer must know that Shiite Iran and the Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda hate each other. But they obviously think they can serve up any collection of lies and non-sequiturs to an Australian public easily seduced by terror scares and servings of propaganda about tough Aussies helping to hold the line of civilization against the Muslim barbarians.

Howard, however, got some swift ripostes. Even some republicans were quick to condemn the remarks, which would have been unwise even if they were less inflammatory. After all, Australia is supposed to cherish its alliance with the US as a whole, not just with the US of George W. Bush. To suggest that Obama, fellow democrats and other US war critics, including those in the military, were helping the enemy and that terrorists would cheer a democratic victory was an insult to the US.

Obama’s response hit Howard where it hurt – especially given the oft-repeated rhetorical nonsense that Australia is “fighting side by side” with the US. Said Obama: “If he is to fight the good fight in Iraq I would suggest he calls up another 20,000 Australians and send them to Iraq”.

The reality is that Australia has just 1400 troops in Iraq and the immediate vicinity and they have been deliberately kept so far out of harm’s way that they have yet to suffer a single death from enemy action. Side by side indeed.

They are a token force intended to provide Bush with the fig leaf of an allied coalition and give Howard the appearance of being tough while minimizing the danger of body bags. The main reason why the Iraq war is not deeply unpopular in Australia is that the US and Britain are taking the casualties.

Given this avoidance of the front line, Australia’s position on Iraq is hardly in keeping with the nation’s tough guy self-image. This has not gone unnoticed among Asian neighbors long critical of Howard’s slavish following of the US on Middle East and “terror” issues. If Australia had the courage of its convictions it would, like Blair’s Britain, be willing to put troops in the line of fire, however ill-conceived the cause.

In another act of cowardice which demeans Australia, Howard has done almost nothing to secure justice for an Australian citizen, David Hicks, who has been locked up by the US without trial in Guantanamo Bay for five years. The injustice of the Hicks case is beginning to get some traction with the public and Howard was forced to push for an eventual trial. But Australia’s tendency to lecture other countries, especially its Asian neighbors, about human rights has been undermined by its blanket support for the US “anti-terror” actions, including the shameful Guantanamo detention center.