Politics

Published on February 12th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck

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Howard Responds to Obama

No matter how vigorously he waved, lifeguards wouldn't rescue him.

No matter how vigorously he waved, lifeguards wouldn’t rescue him.

When Barack Obama declared his candidacy for the US presidency yesterday, he must have known his policy of prompt withdrawal from Iraq would provoke furious attacks from his political adversaries. What he didn’t know, I’m sure, is that Australian prime minister John Howard would be one of those attackers. Who did?

Howard started this contretemps when he said on Australian TV that terrorists would be praying for an Obama win in ’08. He added that a withdrawal of US forces would see Iraq slip into chaos. In making these points, Howard conveniently ignored that US presence in Iraq has been a catalyst for terrorism, not a dampener. He also pretended that Iraq hadn’t already slumped into anarchy and multiple overlapping armed conflicts (all discussed in a post yesterday).

Obama, probably giggling at the notion of being attacked from halfway around the world by a colourless mediocrity like Howard, responded, calling on Howard to match his talk with some walk:

“I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq, and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1,400, so if he is … to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq.”

Never one to quit while he’s behind, Honest John countered with: “I think the most interesting thing about (Senator Obama’s comments) is that it didn’t really address the substance of the issue”.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also joined the fray, seizing on Obama’s call for another 20,000 Australian troops: “That would be half of our army. Australia is a much smaller country than the United States and so he might like to weigh that up,” Alex noted helpfully.

Of course, Obama’s point isn’t really about troop numbers per se, though that is the way he chose to frame his argument. What he’s really getting at is that the sacrifice of the two countries hasn’t been proportionate. Australia hasn’t experienced a single combat death. The US, in contrast, has lost over 3000 lives.

That’s Obama’s point: it’s easy to criticise an opponent of the war when you’re insulated from the costs of prosecuting that war as Australia, and Howard, have thus far been.

Of course, it’s doubly easy to be gung-ho when you know, as Howard does, that most of Australia’s 1400 troops are serving in non-combat roles. That is, Australia has experienced few casualties, and this isn’t likely to change.

What’s most interesting about this controversy is Howard’s motives in attacking Obama. John Howard is many things, but politically naive isn’t one of them. His ability to affect the electoral prospects of Obama is zero, and he knows that.

So why get involved in the first place?

My first thought was that he saw the candidacy of the anti-war Obama as a fillip for Australia’s own anti-war movement. Australia’s next federal election will take place later this year, and Howard’s party currently trails. So perhaps he was trying to preemptively debunk an electorally damaging issue?

Having thought about it a little more, this seems unlikely. Rather than debunking the anti-war argument, Howard has simply fuelled it. What’s more, any dispute that opposes the star power, charisma and eloquence of Obama to, well, John Howard can’t help but work to Howard’s disadvantage.

The simplest explanation, it seems to me, is that Howard underestimated modern communication. When he made those statements on Australian TV, I doubt he thought they’d reach Obama, halfway across the globe conducting a presidential campaign. Even if they did, he probably didn’t expect his statements to gain enough traction in US media to coax a response from Obama.

If that’s the case, John Howard was, not for the first time, wrong on all counts.

–HSF


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