PM John Howard reacts to the controversy during a session at the Australian parliament
UPDATE: From Frenzy to Footnote. Richard Fernandez speaks with Tim Blair, blogger and the opinion editor for Sydney's Daily Telegraph on the 'psychotic snowball effect' that followed Howard's remarks in Australia. Listen HERE All politics is local, the saying goes, and Prime Minister John Howard's controversial comment that terrorists were likely "praying" for an Obama victory didn't take place in a vacuum. PJM editor Richard Fernandez offers the view from Sydney.
It’s not often that an interview on Australian television makes news in the US, but a short remark by John Howard touched off a blaze in American Presidential politics. “If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, 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,” Howard said. It was not the first time in US-Australian relations that a head of state of one country had criticized an opposition politician in the other. In 2004 President George Bush criticized Mark Latham for his plan to withdraw from Iraq at a time when Latham was running against Howard for the Prime Ministership.
US President George Bush has delivered an unprecedented blow to the Labor Party, describing Mark Latham’s policy of withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq as “disastrous”. Speaking after a one and a half hour meeting with the Prime Minister, John Howard, at the White House, Mr Bush said withdrawing the troops would “dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq” and “embolden our enemy which believes it can shake our will”.
“It would be a disastrous decision for the leader of a great country like Australia to say that we’re pulling out,” Mr Bush said as the two leaders met reporters in Washington early today, Australian time. “It would say that the Australian Government doesn’t see the hope of a free, democratic society [in Iraq]. It would embolden the enemy to believe that they could shake our will.” Mr Bush’s comments are the strongest yet to emerge from the White House against Labor’s position and are a highly unusual intervention in Australian domestic politics.
Obama’s responded by practically calling Howard a chickenhawk. “I think 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 (my candidacy),” Senator Obama said. I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1400. So if he is … to fight the good fight in Iraq, 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.”
Neither Howard’s use of the word “pray as many times as possible” nor Obama’s characterization of Howard as “George Bush’s” ally can be entirely coincidental. Both men were speaking to a domestic political audience. But if Presidential politics fueled Barack Obama’s belligerent reply to Howard, the Australian media seem to think that Howard’s remarks were similarly motivated by recent polls suggesting that Labor leader Kevin Rudd was drawing level with John Howard in electoral popularity. Pundits suggested Howard deliberately stirred up a storm to lure Rudd into a debate on foreign policy, where Labor is perceived as “soft” on terror.
In another curious reversal it was Rudd, not Howard, who warned against “angering” America over the Obama incident. Countering the specter of Osama with the threat of Obama, Rudd warned it was unwise, with the Democrats in power in the House and Senate, for Howard’s to engage in a “personal” attack on a man who might very well be the next occupant of the White House. Howard, for his part chided Rudd for his worries about l√®se majest√©; the real danger, Howard warned, was not in lack of manner but in lack of faith. “I would say the greatest current threat to the quality of the alliance would be a sense in the United States that Australia had deserted her in her hour of need,” Howard said. It was a curious assertion of equality from the leader of a country 1/15th the population of America, a reminder to everyone that Australia was not a blind follower of George Bush. It was John Howard’s war too.