Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

The winds of change

John Howard is right; last weeks American election result does not mean that American foreign policy in Iraq is going to change overnight.

George Bush as President is not directly responsible to Congress in the way that Howard as Prime Minister is to Parliament, and in any case many of the Democrats who now control both houses in Washington are pretty hawkish; they, like the Republicans, have no desire to see the Iraq misadventure end in the same kind of humiliating retreat as did the Vietnam disaster.

But Howard is wrong when he claims that the same old slogans about staying till the job is done, making the place secure and stable and at least quasi-democratic, are still relevant. The strategy has flipped: it is now about honourable withdrawal, with only the tactics to be determined.

The White House is resisting Democrat calls for a guarantee that the troops will begin to pull out within six months; Bush has always refused to set any kind of timetable. But this does not mean that the boys in the Pentagon have not been told to start drawing up a few possible schedules, and the sooner the better.

Finally free of the dead weight of Donald Rumsfeld, many of them will be happy to do so. A war in which constant losses are seldom relieved by any sign of progress is no more popular with the military than with the civilians.

And of course when they go, so do we. Howards ongoing bravado is no more than background noise and the defiant support he is getting from his media cheer squad has all the conviction of that old chant: Look, everyones out of step except our Johnny.

But the wave of change that has swept America has implications for the Howard Government that go beyond Iraq. Howards unqualified support for Bush the arselicking, as Mark Latham crudely but accurately identified it is no longer going to play too well in Washington.

The Democrat ascendancy means that Bush will finish his term not only as a lame duck President, but as one to be avoided by the movers and shakers of the future. Howard, by association, will be shifted toward the outer circle and while he will be treated with courtesy, will no longer be the favoured courtier let alone the deputy sheriff. The Howard-huggers in the media will have to drop their vainglorious boasts about punching above our weight.

The fatuous Alexander Downer insists that our relationship is with the United States, not just with Bush, and that for the first four years of its existence the government had to deal with the Democrat Bill Clinton and his administration. What he fails to add is that even in those days the Democrats treated Howard with a measure of suspicion and disdain; after six years of grovelling to their enemies, he is hardly likely to have risen in their estimation.

Howard will go into his own election year without the unstinting endorsement of our great and glorious ally, and, since Washington was the only capital in which he was held in any serious regard, without the label of international statesman. It may not be a killer blow, but, like the drought and like interest rates, it certainly doesnt help. Perhaps his long run of luck is finally coming to an end.

Another week, another cop out.

The heavily promoted Water Summit between the Commonwealth and the states was a real chance to set a new agenda, to demonstrate to irrigators and conservationists, townies and bushies, that we were really serious about the problems and prepared to take radical measures to solve them.

Public attention was focussed by a spate of headlines on global warming and climate change, and the immediate threat of the Murray-Darling basin drying up altogether provided a genuine sense of urgency. Things could hardly have been better set up for a national call to arms coupled with a few dramatic policy announcements.

But once again, our leaders squibbed it. All we got was a vague reassurance that towns and irrigators were somehow both to be protected and that a Mickey Mouse system of water trading was to be introduced a kind of shuffling the bilge pumps on the Titanic. Anything more was apparently all too hard, especially with a couple of state elections in the offing and the feds not all that far away.

The missed opportunity was all the more disheartening because there were such obvious moves to be made. Queensland had signalled it was prepared to take part in a buy-out of the massive Cubbie cotton farm, widely seen as grabbing far too much water to the detriment of both downstream users and the river system itself. All that was needed was for Canberra to come to the party, both to share the cost and to demonstrate that the project was a national one.

Add to this a strong and unanimous resolution warning that crops like cotton and rice were simply too water hungry for the area and that farmers should start diversifying or risk losing their water allocations altogether, and you could have had a robust outcome with a chance of real and accelerated progress towards restoring a sane balance.

But Howard wouldnt be in it; too bold, too much risk of offending too many voters, especially when the National Party was getting a bit uppity. Better, far better, to leave it to the next generation. So once again our Dear Leader shrunk to the occasion.

Another week, and another, and another, and another....

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