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Friday, Aug. 24, 2007


Howard feeling the squeeze

LOS ANGELES — John Howard, often the most patient and sure-footed of Western-style political leaders, is reported to be losing patience with the current Iraq government and mulling over options for an Australian troop withdrawal.

Howard, who has served as Australia's prime minister longer than George W. Bush has been America's president, is no dummy. The Australian people have soured on the war effort, to which their country has committed about 1,500 troops. And the facts on the ground in Iraq do not seem to be improving rapidly.

America does not go to the polls until late next year, but the probability is that Australians will choose their next government before yearend. Howard, the prime minister since 1996, has seen his opinion ratings deteriorate and faces the prospect of leading his Liberal Party (read: conservative party) to defeat.

Time is not on the chiseled veteran's side. The squeeze has begun and the wily Howard is looking for a way out that avoids the appearance either of defeat or of a timetable. Judging from his public statements, the prime minister seems to think timetables for withdrawal are sort of unwise and unmanly.

Just a few months ago Howard, in a utterly gratuitous commentary on the U.S. presidential debate, lambasted U.S. Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama not so much for advocating withdrawal as for proposing a specific timetable — sometime in the spring of 2008. The prime minister suggested that the very idea was problematic, if not unpatriotic.

"I think that will just encourage those who want to destabilize and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory," he told Australian Nine Network television. "If I were running al-Qaida in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats."

But if Howard is aiming to time the beginning of the Australian withdrawal to the country's impending election, then why shouldn't al-Qaida "put a circle" around the earlier date? In fact, those running Obama's presidential campaign might well be justified now in throwing the prime minister's angry words right back in the Aussie's face.

Petty get-even politics aside, the Iraq tragedy raises the very important issue of excessive alliance loyalty, if not dysfunctional geopolitical co-dependence. Sure, President Bush had put it on the line when the unwise decision to invade was made. "You are either with us or against me" was the un-nice way he put it.

And, as if in response to the snap of the president's fingers, three prime ministers were at Bush's feet in short order: Tony Blair of Britain, Junichiro Koizumi of Japan and, of course, Howard of Australia. Each calculated that it was in his country's national interest to leap at his master's command.

But with the benefit of hindsight — which admittedly always does put tough issues into perfect focus — we can now ask the question: Was it really in America's interests to have allied leaders who were such yes-men? Might not it have been better for the United States to have had real friends courageous enough to challenge the administration's thinking, instead of pimping it to their domestic publics and around the world?

After all, the U.S. has lost more than 3,600 soldiers in Iraq — and more than 27,000 have been significantly injured. The British have had 168 killed, as of this writing. The Japanese have had none from combat; the Aussies have lost two soldiers.

In Japan and Britain the governing parties remain in power, and there is still time for Howard to pull out a victory from the jaws of defeat in Australia. After all, none of these governments staked everything on this awful war, as did the Bush administration. It is the latter's legacy that will be largely colored by this unnecessary war.

Worse yet, history will be even more condemnatory of Bush if it turns out Afghanistan (which was a necessary war) is lost because of the diversion of resources to Iraq. So thanks a lot, Great Britain, Japan and Australia — you were good old boys in the end.

So it may be asked: With miscalculating, fawning friends like Howard — and Blair and Koizumi — Bush, in the end, really didn't need enemies, did he?

And so it is Howard — far more than Obama — who has blood on his hands from this awful tragic mess.

UCLA adjunct professor Tom Plate is a veteran American journalist. His syndicated columns appear in newspapers and on Web sites around the world. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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