Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Reading the Entrails on Howard vs Obama

Who would have thought that international news services would consider anything said by the small, grey little man who calls himself our Prime Minister worthy of comprehensive coverage? It's already inspired satire; now all it needs to do is appear in either Jay Leno or David Letterman's daily monologue to be confirmed as an authentic watercooler warmer.

John Howard's comments - essentially, that a win for Presidential hopeful Barak Obama or indeed, the Democrats as a party, would lend solace to Iraqi insurgents - were not only bizarre, and not only extremely intrusive (there is an enormous difference between criticising broader policies and criticising specific people and their parties) but highly out of character. His usual method of gently massaging public opinion is to press a few pre-designated attack dogs into action, sit back, watch the fallout, and either back whoever is the clear winner or refuse to endorse either position but say that it's `important that the debate take place'. Just as it was when, in 2003, the US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, was highly critical of the Labor Party's policy of opposing the war in Iraq, implying that it was placing a strain on the US-Australian alliance and endangering the US-Australian free trade deal (and wouldn't it have been a tragedy if that had fallen over). Schieffer's intervention was widely decried not only as an unprecedented and unwelcome attack on Australian sovereignty, but an equally malevolent distortion of Australian democracy, coming as it did during an election campaign.

Instead of opening a `debate', nearly everyone - even those broadly supportive of Howard's position on Iraq (including some US Republicans) - are scurrying to distance themselves the idea (all except some wacky young Liberal backbencher whose name I failed to catch, but who, if my ears did not deceive me, described Obama's comments as `genuinely evil'. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for this chappie, he sounds like he could give Senator Concerted Feverent-Whinge a run for her money).

Howard has also constantly insisted that it is not Australia's job to poke its nose into America's domestic policy any more than it is America's to poke its nose into ours. Apparently, this rule is a flexible one, even despite the fact that this is the man who argued that Mark Latham's notorious description of George W. Bush as the `most dangerous president in living memory'? could destroy the ANZUS treaty? Are Howard's comments any less extreme or intrusive? I happened to agree with Latham on this one, but he soon realised they probably weren't the best sort of comments to commit to Hansard once he became leader of the ALP and eventually contested a job in which co-operation with the US would have to be a given.

Herein lies the most intriguing aspect of this affair. As Obama himself put it, the idea of a Presidential candidate attracting the recognition of a world leader only a day after declaring his entry into the presidential race is something extraordinary in itself. This asks two quite different questions.

Firstly, is Howard so concerned about the possibility of Obama becoming president that he feels he must prevent it at all costs? Does he really believe there would be such a clear connection between a Democrat win and all-out chaos in Iraq? Does he perhaps believe that his own domestic support would collapse without the support of a sympathetic White House? (If it's the last point, he truly is drifting out of touch).

Alternatively, is Howard so unconcerned about the possibility of Obama or the Democrats winning the next election that he's happy to throw caution to the wind - to s**t where he eats; to risk starting 2009 with a White House he has already alienated? The Democrats have no right to be any happier with Howard than the Republicans would have been with Latham. Surely Howard must acknowledge that the chance of a win by the Democrats is not impossible - or, even if unlikely, not unlikely enough for him not to maintain civility towards them as a contingency? As our old mate Tom Schieffer pointed out, the strengthening of the US-Australian alliance can be directly attributed to the close friendship of Howard and the current President, George W. Bush.

There can only be one conclusion. Either Howard expects that Obama won't be there in 2007 - or Howard doesn't expect to be there himself. I wonder which it is?

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