Fear and Favor: The Australia-Iraq-U.S. Equation

Australia's Prime Minister John Howard (L) and U.S. President George W. Bush speak at a joint press conference in Washington, DC on June 3, 2004.  (Photo: Luke Frazza/AFP-Getty Images)

During a White House press conference after last week's talks with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, U.S. President George W. Bush, in an unprecedented and highly controversial move, appeared to take sides in the upcoming Australian election, expected in August.

Answering a question from an Australian journalist regarding the opposition Labor Party's policy of withdrawing the country's 850 troops from Iraq, Bush said, "That would be disastrous ... it would dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq. It would say that the Australian government doesn't see the hope of a free and democratic society leading to a peaceful world. It would embolden the enemy to believe that they could shake our will." The question - which was prompted by Howard - came after the prime minister restated his commitment to maintaining the Australian presence in Iraq.

This apparent reward for the Howard government's long-term policy of unquestioning obedience to the White House has many commentators in Australia claiming interference by Bush in Australian domestic affairs while also highlighting the policy differences between the two major Australian parties on Iraq.

Furious Labor Party members, accusing Howard of influencing the U.S. president's comments, maintained that their policy of "bringing the troops home by Christmas" was best for the security of the country. Opposition leader Mark Latham refused to back down and issued a statement declaring, "The best role Australia can play in Iraq is through humanitarian, economic and civilian aid, not a long-term military role ... Labor never wanted the troops there in the first place." Latham restated his pledge to return Australian troops to the country by Christmas and added, "Nothing President Bush has said today changes our hopes and expectations about the future."

Australian Greens leader Senator Bob Brown was also scathing in his criticism of the U.S. president. "How dare this popinjay of a president interfere in Australian affairs - Australian domestic political affairs? He should pull his head in," said Dr Brown in a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Corp's World Today program. "The Australian people are quite able to judge our political leaders and the diversity of opinion in this country, and we don't need President Bush, from his biased and quite small-minded point of view in Washington, telling the Australian people what they should think or what they should do."

A delighted Howard - who led Australia into Iraq as an original member of the "coalition of the willing" - denied allegations that he influenced the president and defended Bush's right to speak out. "Obviously he feels very strongly and I understand that," said Howard.

However, the president's controversial comments have thrown sharply into focus one important aspect of the upcoming Australian election: the gulf that exists between Howard's Liberal/National coalition and Labor on Iraq policy, which is almost the only major difference between the parties discernible to the voting public. In this regard, comparisons can be drawn between the present political situation in Australia and the circumstances of another Bush ally earlier this year: Spain.

On March 11, in the midst of Spain's election campaign, as many as 10 bombs ripped through the Madrid underground-railway network, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands. Centered on the main Atocha train station in Madrid's city center during peak hour, the bombings shocked the nation and marked a turnaround in popularity for the ruling conservative Popular Party, allowing the Socialist Worker's Party, under Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to claim a surprise election victory. Initially blamed by the government on the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Liberty), later evidence concluded that the bombings were the work of al-Qaeda sympathizers.

In analyzing the Spanish election result, one compelling though arguable school of thought is that voters, angry that prime minister Jose Maria Aznar had brought al-Qaeda terrorist activity to Spain by closely aligning Madrid with Washington, chose to elect the candidate who had promised to bring Spanish forces home. Newly elected premier Zapatero was good to his word, withdrawing Spanish troops in May, to the dismay of his coalition allies.

Terrorism debate in Australia
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty created a political storm after the Madrid bombing by implying that it had been a direct result of Aznar's support for the war in Iraq. Interviewed on Channel Nine's Sunday program, Keelty replied to a question asking whether he thought a similar type of attack could occur in Australia by saying, "The reality is, if this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it's more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies took on issues such as Iraq. And I don't think anyone's been hiding the fact that we do believe that ultimately one day, whether it be in one month's time, one year's time, or 10 years' time, something will happen [in Australia]."

Howard immediately denounced Keelty's comments, saying the police commissioner was only "in charge of operational police matters and the question of this analysis is not something that directly comes in that area." Other high-ranking ministers followed suit, with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, in an attack on the police commissioner's integrity, accused him of "expressing a view which reflects a lot of the propaganda we're getting from al-Qaeda." Attorney General Philip Ruddock called Keelty's views "fairly simplistic" and not backed up by evidence.

Believed by many commentators to have been threatened with dismissal after a call from the Prime Minister's Office, Keelty backed down; stating to the press that he believed his views has been taken "out of context" and agreed with government statements that Australia had been a terrorist target well before September 11, 2001.

However, Keelty's view has received fairly broad support from counter-terrorism experts. Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism study at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said to reporters at the 2004 Conference of Commissioners of Police of Australasia and the South West Pacific Region, "Australia continues to face a certain level of threat. This scale of threat has increased since Australia's high-profile participation in Afghanistan and in the Iraq campaigns."

John Pistole, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's executive assistant director for counter-terrorism, agreed with this analysis in an interview on Sydney's Radio 2UE. "I would agree with the statement that an attack is likely inevitable. Any Western nation that is not an Islamic state is a terror target for al-Qaeda ... any country that allies itself with the U.S., unfortunately, is a target."

Are Australians at greater risk?
Al-Qaeda extremists, having already successfully intervened in the democratic process in Spain, may look to repeat their actions on Australian soil. Already shaken by the tragic events of October 12, 2002, when 202 people - including 88 Australians - were killed by bomb blasts in two nightclubs on the popular Indonesian island resort of Bali, Australians now look to the forthcoming election campaign with more than a little trepidation. The elections are due before early next year.

Opinion polls show the prospective election result as being finely balanced. Howard, until recently, has been able to brush off both criticism of his support for the war in Iraq and questions as to why no weapons of mass destruction - the reason given for the war - have been found. However, under the new leadership of U.S. critic Mark Latham - he once referred to Bush as being "incompetent and dangerous" - the opposition Labor Party has successfully questioned the government's pro-U.S. policy. With the majority of the Australian public now disagreeing with the way the war is being prosecuted, Iraq policy may hold the key to success or failure at the ballot box.

However, the government has repeatedly denied that its automatic support for the United States has increased the risk of a terrorist attack, muzzling any critics and apparently preferring to score political points on the lawn of the Rose Garden in Washington. It remains to be seen whether or not Howard and his Liberal/National party pay the ultimate electoral price, as did Spanish premier Aznar. All Australians, though, hope that the country will not pay the price of a Madrid-style terrorist attack.