After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard told the U.S. Congress, "America has no better friend anywhere in the world than Australia." This might soon change.
Opposition leader Mark Latham, who vows to pull Australian troops out of Iraq and has described George W. Bush as the most incompetent and dangerous American president in living memory, could soon lead Australia.
Howard recently ended months of speculation by announcing Oct. 9 as the date for the country's federal election. His conservative government has been a staunch supporter of the Bush administration.
Bush refers to Howard as a close friend. Bush declared during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, "I deeply appreciate the courage and wise counsel of leaders like Prime Minister Howard," naming him ahead of British leader Tony Blair. Bush has lavished praise on Howard's leadership, calling him a "man of steel" – provoking more than a few laughs in Australia. (Howard isn't exactly viewed as superhero material).
Ever since the Second World War, Australia and the U.S. have been close allies. Australian soldiers fought alongside Americans in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and both Gulf Wars. Australia was one of the few countries to send soldiers to Iraq before the fall of Baghdad.
Latham has been strongly critical of Howard's relationship with Bush, famously referring to the prime minister as an "arse-licker." Since assuming the role of opposition leader, Latham has toned down his comments but still argues that Australia should withdraw its troops from Iraq.
Latham's opposition to the Iraq war has led to an unprecedented U.S. intervention in Australian politics. Bush in June derided Latham, claiming "it would be disastrous for the leader of a great country like Australia to say that we're pulling out." He added that such action "would say that the Australian Government doesn't see the hope of a free and democratic society leading to a peaceful world."
Latham stated that he supported good relations between Australia and the U.S. and that "the alliance is bigger and stronger than the mistakes made in relation to Iraq." But U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage fired back, saying Latham could not choose the parts of the alliance he liked – it was all or nothing.
Attempting to heal a potential rift, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasized, "Australia will always be a close friend of the U.S.," and that the U.S. respected the right of the Australians to choose their own leader.
Howard has made the U.S.-Australia alliance an election issue, charging that Latham "has demonstrated that in his new position he is dangerous so far as the American alliance is concerned. [Latham] has allowed his tribal dislike, because of the politics of the current American President, to overwhelm his concern for the national interest."
Howard says there isn't much difference between Bush and John Kerry's positions on Iraq, and that even a Democratic U.S. president wouldn't look favorably on Latham's position on Iraq. Howard argues that a positive relationship with the U.S. is very important for Australia's security.
The issue hasn't registered as a high priority for Australian voters. A recent survey found the three most important electoral issues were health policies, the economy and education. The latest opinion poll shows the government and opposition tied with 50 percent support each. If Latham wins and goes ahead with his promise to withdraw Australian troops, it will follow a similar move by the newly elected Spanish government, which drew criticism from both the American and Australian governments.
In practical terms, Australia's withdrawal would make little difference. There are fewer than 1,000 Australian soldiers in Iraq and they have no combat roles. The move would be more important symbolically as it would punch a lot of air out of Bush's claim to a "coalition of the willing" in Iraq.
Some analysts have speculated on just how frosty relations between Australia and the U.S. could become if Bush remained in power and Latham won the Australian election. They pointed out that In 1984 New Zealand banned nuclear vessels from its ports. The Reagan administration responded by suspending defense commitments to New Zealand.
It is unlikely, however, that a similar scenario would develop with Australia. Although Armitage hinted that blocking a Latham government's access to intelligence information was a possibility, the U.S. relies on the Pine Gap satellite tracking facility in Central Australia for intelligence-gathering. Pine Gap would also form a key part of any planned "Star Wars" style missile defense system.
Howard leads one of the few national governments left that haven't been alienated by the policies of the Bush administration. Bush certainly wouldn't want to lose such a close ally.