It's been a long time since an Australian prime minister made news in America, but that is just what's happened in the past few days.
In response to a call by Senator Barack Obama call for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by March 2008, Prime Minister John Howard unleashed a barrage. "If I was running Al-Qaeda in Iraq", he said, "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." In case the message was not received properly, he gave Obama this verbal slap: "He's a long way from being president of the United States."
There is a saying that in diplomacy, words are bullets. However in the context of a charged U.S. presidential campaign, these particular words were more like improvised explosive devices.
We should not exaggerate the damage done by Mr. Howard's loose language. Indeed, one of the common criticisms of current Australian foreign policy is that Canberra has been too circumspect in putting contrary views to Washington. Our consistent support for America's war in Iraq entitles us to speak our mind about its conduct.
Nevertheless this contretemps is developing in a troubling way.
Firstly, the tenor of Mr. Howard's comments may have undercut Australia's influence with the Democrats. Last year we began to hear murmurs that the unprecedented intimacy of the relationship between John Howard and President George Bush was rubbing some congressional Democrats the wrong way. The past 48 hours will only have reinforced the perception that the alliance has been politicized and personalized-as will the arrival in Australia next week of Vice President and uber-hawk Dick Cheney. Sure enough, one Democrat described Mr. Howard's intervention as "bizarre" and another said that, given Howard and Bush have been "lockstep from day one on this war in Iraq . . . we don't care what he says."
The problem is Australians want Democrats to care what our leaders say. Democrats control both houses of Congress, and there is a reasonable chance they will soon occupy the White House too. We need to influence Democratic thinking on many issues, including Sino-U.S. relations and the disposition of U.S. forces in Asia (where we rely on our ally to keep a lid on interstate tensions). Mr. Howard has adroitly cultivated the current administration, but we need to think about how to retain that influence if President Bush's successor is an anti-war Democrat who has no special feelings about our participation in Iraq and is more interested in renewing ties with disillusioned European allies.
Even more disturbing than Mr. Howard's intervention, however, was Obama's deadly response. The senator compared the 1,450 personnel Australia has deployed in and near Iraq with America's deployment of roughly one hundred times that number. If Mr. Howard wants "to fight the good fight in Iraq", said Obama, "I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq, otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric."
Obama's argument drew blood because it highlighted the gap between the Howard Government's commentary on the importance of the struggle in Iraq and the actual scale of our deployment there. The Bush Administration has been very polite about this mismatch, but it seems that Democrats may not be so charitable.
Australia has a strong claim to being the most reliable U.S. ally, and that is how we like the Americans to see us. There is no doubt that tradition strongly influenced Mr. Howard's decision to support the invasion of Iraq.
It is ironic, therefore, that as a result of his intervention we now have a serious candidate for the presidency making light of a dangerous deployment we have undertaken largely for alliance management reasons-and even implying that Australia is not living up to its full responsibilities.
"It's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced", Senator Obama said over the weekend. But Australia is not an ally of George Bush: we're an ally of the United States. That is a critical distinction, one that is consistent with both sensible statecraft and Australian public opinion-and one that Canberra should be very careful to maintain.
Michael Fullilove directs the global issues program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy based in Sydney, Australia. This comment is adapted from an op-ed that appeared in The Australian Financial Reviewon February 13.