CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
John Howard's election year dilemma
, March 3, 2007
Public opinion in both the U.S. and Australia has turned sharply against the war in Iraq.John Howard's personal ties to U.S. President George W. Bush could prove to be a growing handicap as Australia moves into the critical months of an election year.
President Bush only has his legacy to fight for, because he is prevented by the U.S. Constitution from seeking a third term in office. But Prime Minister Howard has the entire future of his Government at stake as he seeks a fifth term in office.
For years Mr Howard has used his close ties with President Bush to his political advantage.
Partly because he was in Washington at the time of the September 11 terror strikes, Mr Howard has stood by the U.S. regardless of the wisdom of President Bush's response to the attacks, or the sometimes appalling execution of those policies by the U.S. military.Pivotal
It was an indication to Australian voters that he had both an important international profile and a pivotal position among the United States' allies.
It was also evidence of the pair's shared endeavour and qualities of loyalty, strength and will in the face of the terror threat. Indeed, President Bush dubbed Mr Howard "the man of steel".
Others verballed Mr Howard as President Bush's "Deputy Sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific region — a title the Prime Minister publicly rejected, but which he was probably privately not unhappy about either.
But with the prospect of a Democrat President on the horizon, personal loyalties are being strained, and the ties with President Bush are proving to be an increasing liability.
Mr Howard has switched tactics on Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks in response to a change of mood among the Australian electorate, urging the U.S. to speed up proceedings against him.
On the other hand, Mr Howard has already agreed to increase the number of Australian troops in Iraq, sending 70 more military trainers to help the Iraqi troops.
It is a relatively token gesture and it is unlikely the Howard Government will increase troop numbers substantially.
The Australian public have no particular sympathies with Mr Hicks, but he has become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the United States' handling of the war in Iraq and the war on terror in general.
Opinion has turned sharply against the war in both the United States and Australia.
President Bush's "Surge" strategy, which has been questioned by many, has locked the U.S. and its Coalition allies into an increased number of troops in Iraq for an indeterminate period.
However, the strategy's success or failure will not be readily apparent until well after the Australian election, due in October or November.
It is probable that the "Surge" will be ditched by the next U.S. President — quite possibly, but not necessarily, a Democrat.
Sadly, the Iraq situation is eventually likely to peter out in the manner of most other sectarian and civil war conflicts — not by the use of an outside force, but through exhaustion and a death toll which becomes intolerable.
Meanwhile, federal Opposition leader Kevin Rudd's ongoing popularity continues to cause serious heartburn among senior Coalition figures.
According to the latest Newspoll, published in The Australian
newspaper, the Labor leader is ahead on the question of who is the preferred Prime Minister.
Mr Howard faces a delicate balancing act over the coming months, because it will be impossible to reverse his support for both the Iraq War and President Bush.
To do so would be the equivalent of committing political suicide.
On the other hand, Mr Howard's decision to host Mr Bush and other leaders of the Australia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group in Sydney, coinciding with the Australian election campaign, could prove to be a strategic mistake.