CANBERRA OBSERVED : by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Coalition, Labor split widens over Iraq
, June 19, 2004
President Bush's supposed intervention into Australian domestic politics has been mischievously overblown, and is unlikely to sway people who have not already made up their mind over the US-alliance and the Iraq situation.
More worringly, though, Bush's warning on any Australian pull-out signals that Australia will over the coming months become the focus of greater attention of terrorist groups in the countdown towards the Federal election.
Much has been made of the exchange between the President and Australian reporters during a brief joint press conference with Prime Minister John Howard during his recent trip to Washington.Reactions
Both major parties have tried to capitalise on the comments with the Coalition maintaining that Mark Latham is not fit to run the country, and Labor claiming that President Bush is trying to run Australia from Washington and interfere in our democratic process.
The presidential comments have been variously described as "unprecedented" and "dangerous", with Greens Senator Bob Brown calling for the President to "pull his head in" and absurdly insisting that Mr Howard should have stepped in and told Mr Bush it was none of his business.
It is worthwhile recalling the exact wording of the question-and-answer session which has raised so much heat.
Reporter: "Are you aware the alternative Prime Minister Mark Latham had promised to withdraw Australian troops by Christmas if he wins the election?"
President Bush: "It would be a disastrous decision for the leader of a great country like Australia to say: 'We're pulling out'.
"It would dispirit those people who love freedom in Iraq.
"It would say the Australian Government doesn't see any hope of a free and democratic society leading to a peaceful world.
"It would embolden the enemy, who believe they can shake our will.
"See, they want to kill innocent life, because they think the Western world, the free world is weak.
"That when times get tough, we will shirk our duty to those who long for freedom."
Now President Bush's words were certainly strong, and at one level it could even be interpreted that he is accusing the Australian Labor Party leader of a variety of deficiencies including being selfish, shortsighted, cowardly, meanspirited and defeatist.
In fact, he is doing none of those things.
Mr Howard insists that he did not discuss the matter with President Bush either before the press conference or afterwards.
In other words this was no put-up job.
The fact is President Bush was stating a bald opinion based primarily on his own concerns about the Coalition's role in leading Iraq toward a democratic government.
Australia's presence in Iraq was, and still is, a token contingent, but along with Britain and Spain it played an absolutely vital role in helping the United States legitimise the invasion as a true international force.
President Bush is simply stating the obvious that Mr Latham should be backing the Coalition at a key juncture in the handover process to the Iraqi governing council, that there should be no early pull-out which would embolden the terrorists, the enemies of the United States and of a free Iraq.
In fact, the message is more about protecting Bush's own position at home as it is about any desire to determine the Australian election result.Madrid retreat
The Madrid train bombings and the subsequent change of heart in Spain did enormous damage to the US-led alliance and proved to the terrorists that their evil tactics can indeed change governments.
In the post-war reconstruction period there were 34 countries assisting the United States.
The Dominican Republic, Honduras and Haiti have also withdrawn their tiny troop contingents, but any premature Australian withdrawal would be a body blow to the US and the Bush administration.
Mr Latham has taken a bold, some would say rash decision to extract all Australian troops by Christmas.
The consequences of that decision are now international.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the original participation in the war, President Bush is only stating the obvious when he says an Australian Government decision to withdraw before the job is completed would be disastrous.