by Alan Wirzbicki
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 06.29.04
Later this year, John Howard, Australia's prime minister, may become the second leader of President Bush's coalition of the willing to lose his job. Howard, who has been in office since 1996, faces a tough challenge from antiwar Labor party candidate Mark Latham in elections that could take place as soon as August. Not surprisingly, Iraq is high on the agenda. Most Australians opposed the war, and Latham, to the consternation of U.S. officials, has promised to bring Australia's 850 troops home by Christmas.
Australia's troop contingent is small, but the Bush administration has made a big deal about the race. Earlier this month, the president attacked the Labor leader during a joint Rose Garden press conference with Howard. "I think that would be disastrous," he said in response to a question about Latham's pledge to withdraw from Iraq. "It would embolden the enemy who believe that they can shake our will." Other high-ranking U.S. officials have also stepped in to criticize Latham. Bush's ambassador to Canberra, former Texas Rangers co-owner Tom Schieffer, has repeatedly warned Australian voters that a Latham win would hand terrorists a victory.
American officials are not only pulling for Howard, but making noises about U.S. retaliation if Australia chooses Labor instead. In March, Schieffer hinted darkly at "very serious consequences" if Latham wins and carries out his withdrawal pledge, a comment widely interpreted in Australia--where the entire episode is front-page news--as a threat to the longstanding U.S. military alliance. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was more ominous, suggesting Australians "ought to think what it would be like without this relationship." So far, though, Bush's campaign hasn't worked. According to an opinion poll published last week, 56 percent of voters, including one-third of Howard supporters, opposed Bush's meddling in their affairs. The same poll found that Latham leads the race overall, 52 percent to 48 percent.
But whatever the outcome of the race, the administration's strident interference has already exposed just how unhinged Bush's worldview has been made by the chaos in Iraq. U.S. officials are plainly willing to make Iraq the determining factor in America's bilateral relationship with even an ally as close as Australia. "Bush is making Iraq a test of the alliance," Hugh White, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the Age newspaper. "Latham is saying the alliance is bigger than Iraq--Bush is saying 'No, it isn't.'"
This message has the virtue of being clear. It also has the drawback of being, well, crazy. After all, as many bewildered Australians have pointed out, the punishment threatened by the Bush administration seems way out of proportion to the crime. Labor's proposed troop withdrawal would have a negligible effect on the coalition's military operations in Iraq. During the initial invasion last year, Australia supplied 2,000 troops, including special forces and combat units, to the U.S.-led effort. But over the past year, the size and nature of the Australian contribution has changed. Those combat troops have been withdrawn, even as the guerilla insurgency goes on, without complaint or threat of retaliation from the Bush administration. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian presence now amounts to 250 troops actually located in Iraq--60 air traffic controllers at the Baghdad airport, 90 military guards, 60 soldiers training the Iraqi armed forces, 15 "analysts and technical experts" searching for WMD, 12 sailors, and 13 liaisons to the Coalition Provisional Authority. Soldiers based in neighboring countries account for the rest of the remaining 850 Australian troops in the Middle East. Removing them would not cause major military problems; Iraq's interim finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, interviewed by the Herald after Latham made his controversial pledge, told the newspaper that "the sky won't fall in. As long as we do not have chaos, [the Australian troops] leaving by Christmas will not be an issue."
Of course, the real effect would be symbolic. Withdrawing Australian troops would have a political impact beyond their military significance, and that's what seems to be at the heart of the Bush administration's fears. In his Rose Garden appearance with Howard, Bush said that if Australia abandons the Iraq mission, it would "dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq." Howard has taken the same line domestically. Taking troops out of Iraq, he said earlier in June, "would not only have a real, but also a symbolic, effect in relation to the most critical international issue that the American administration faces at the present time."
But for the Bush administration to punish Australia would be highly symbolic, too. And what it would symbolize is that the administration has lost all perspective on Iraq. After all, this is Australia we're talking about, the land of Mel Gibson, violent contact sports, and Rupert Murdoch. France it is not; Australia has been an exceptionally loyal (and in the eyes of some Australians slavishly loyal) ally during the past few decades. No matter what Latham does if elected, the fact will remain that Australia helped fight the war in the first place, back when its boots on the ground really mattered. If the world comes to believe that in U.S. eyes Australia's sacrifice counts for nothing--that a U.S. ally as historically close as Australia can be excommunicated by a single-minded Bush administration--it sends a clear message that cooperating too closely with the Americans is a no-win proposition. Ornery American conservatives expect French goodwill from World War II to last forever; but ours apparently expires after 18 months. If that's the way we treat Australia, what other countries are going to participate in Iraq's reconstruction?
Indeed, our clumsy intervention in the Australian elections only makes it less likely that Australia and other countries will want to contribute to the Iraq mission. Latham faced pressure from the pro-American wing of his party to soften his pledge, but now, following Bush's intervention, he can't back down without appearing to cave to U.S. pressure. Armitage tried to lower the temperature recently, saying the Australian alliance was "sacred" and would survive disagreements over Iraq. But the damage has been done. "[Bush's] statements will merely serve to harden attitudes on both sides of the debate," the Age said in an editorial. Instead of a low-key disagreement between allies over a tiny troop contingent, this fight is now a big deal. And since the negative effect of an Australian withdrawal would be almost wholly symbolic, the bigger a deal it is, the more damaging the whole episode is to our national interests. That is, a quiet, barely noticed withdrawal--like the withdrawal of combat troops already ordered by Howard--would not "embolden" the enemy nearly as much as a dramatic, highly publicized withdrawal in which Australia is seen to be defying threats from the United States. Yet the latter is exactly what the Bush administration has now invited. In the end, the prediction that an Australian withdrawal would "dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq" may turn out to be true. But only because Bush said so.
Alan Wirzbicki is a writer living in Washington, D.C.