Thursday, November 18, 2004

How Australia Finessed Iraq

The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, was the first leader of any of the three nations that went to war in Iraq last year to face a general election. On Sunday, Oct 10, his ruling coalition was returned to power with an increased majority. That would seem to be good news for U.S. President George W. Bush, who, of course, faces his big electoral test in a couple weeks, and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has to call a general election by next spring.

Of course, Australia is no stranger to terrorism. The general election came just days before the second anniversary of the horrible terror bombing of a popular tourist resort in Bali, Indonesia. The blasts killed 88 Australian citizens among the more than 200 victims. In September a bomb exploded outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta. But in many ways the remote war in Iraq was as unpopular in Australia as it is in Britain and other countries, like Spain, that were part of the larger coalition. Howard’s decision to send troops to join the Americans and British sparked some of the largest anti-war street demonstrations since the end of the Vietnam War.

In the aftermath of the war, there have been the familiar arguments over distorted intelligence, and the leader of the main opposition Australian Labor Party, Mark Latham, promised bring what troops are left in the Persian Gulf region back home by Christmas if he were elected, but he never was able to make this promise resonate with Australians. Right after the election, Australia’s leaders sounded resolute. “We will not let down our allies,” proclaimed Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in the Wall Street Journal. “The overwhelming majority of Australians believe strongly that having gone there, we should stay and finish the job,” Howard told the CNN network.

Yet the words obscure just how adroitly Prime Minister Howard has navigated this difficult issue, managing on the one hand to present his government as a steadfast ally in the Global War on Terrorism while at the same time keeping passions among the people cool and managing to keep power for himself. Not a bad trick.

Australia, of course, was one of the three countries that attacked Iraq in March 2003. Canberra dispatched about 3,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, many of them from the vaunted Special Air Service. They are said to have done valuable though still secret commando work in the Iraqi desert.
But Howard withdrew most of these troops shortly after the fall of Baghdad, and he immediately served notice to Washington and the rest of the world not to expect much more help. In a speech to Parliament in May, 2003, Howard said, “The government has made clear all along that Australia would not be in a position to provide peace-keeping forces in Iraq.”

The approximately 850 Australian servicemen still in the Persian Gulf region are, for the most part, stationed outside of Iraq, serving aboard naval vessels in the Gulf or with air force detachments on the periphery. Fewer than 100 are actually in Iraq now, providing security for the embassy and some air controllers at Baghdad International Airport.
But having been with the Americans at the very beginning, Australia effectively immunized itself from having to pony up any additional troops to try to suppress the growing insurgency. Not for them the thankless task of garrisoning and patrolling the dusty, dangerous towns in the south of Iraq. These were left to the Italians, Poles, Ukrainians and smaller contingents. Alone of the major coalition partners Australia has suffered no combat casualties in Iraq, no beheadings and probably no kidnappings (one report kidnapping is ambiguous as to whether the rebels held Australians or persons of some other nationality).

The cornerstone of Australia’s foreign policy for the past 60 years has been to support the United States and its foreign policy in expectation that the U.S. will defend Australia if attacked. Howard’s ability to maintain this relationship in the face of popular opposition to his Iraq policy is a testimony to his considerable skills – and luck.

Of course, Howard’s electoral prospects were bolstered by a steadily expanding economy. Businesses are hiring, and unemployment is lower than it has been in 20 years. In September the Australian economy added 63,500 jobs. Weighted for the vast disparity in population that’s roughly equal to the U.S. adding a million jobs in one month (actual figure about 96,000). No casualties in Iraq, the equivalent of a million new jobs in September. No wonder they call it the Lucky Country.



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