Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Defending the indefensible

Last week was an excellent week for John Howard.

True, he spent most of it being derided within parliament and without, jeered at by commentators in Australia and the United States, and humiliated in the opinion polls, one of which predicted he would lose not only the government but his own seat. But these were only the superficial impressions of the chattering classes as they sip their chardonnay-flavoured lattes.

Actually our Dear Leader had an excellent week, and we know because we were told so by The Australians foreign editor Greg Sheridan, a polemicist whose dedication to the administration of George W Bush has made him one of Washingtons more useful agents of influence in Australia. To the rest of us Howards slagging of the Democrats in general and the presidential candidate Barack Obama in particular was a crass and damaging mistake. Sheridan corrects us: it was actually a brilliant political coup.

Well, actually it might have started as a crass and damaging mistake, but it developed into a brilliant political coup because it changed the debate away from climate change, where Howard is weak, and back to national security, where he is strong. The fact that he spent six days looking and acting like a headless chook is neither here nor there; all will be forgiven and forgotten within a couple of weeks. What matters is that Howard has regained control of the agenda, and now watch his smoke.

The only problem with this trenchant analysis is that its about three years out of date. To talk of withdrawing the troops from Iraq, as Obama did, is no longer some kind of lefty cop out; it is mainstream politics. The extreme position is Howards: we must stay till the job is done, no matter what.

Howard said that Osama bin Laden would be praying for a Democrat victory in 2008. His unstable Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, took it further: anyone supporting American withdrawal is actually supporting Al Qaeda. If this were the case we might as well surrender to the terrorists immediately, because at least 95 per cent of the worlds population would have signed up behind Osama. But of course it isnt the case; the universal aim now is to find a way out of the mess Bush, Tony Blair and Howard created while damaging what is left of Americas prestige to the least possible extent.

In fact Osama would probably prefer that the troops stayed, at least for a while longer; they have turned Iraq from a stable, secular dictatorship into an anti-Western religious anarchy, a perfect ground for recruiting and blooding terrorist fanatics. In the process the Great Satan, America, has been made into an impotent enemy of the Muslim world. Osama is on a roll.

But its coming to an end. Even the small minority who approve of Bushs last, desperate troop surge realise that it is only a postponement of the inevitable; the Iraqis have been given one last opportunity to get their security into some sort of order, but whether they do or not, the withdrawal will begin within 12 months.

Howard is apparently the only one who does not understand this: his frothing and bluster last week were those of a man hopelessly out of touch with reality. They might have worked against Mark Latham in 2004; against Kevin Rudd in 2007 they verge on bathos. Rudd, like a large majority of Australians and Americans both, is simply following the widely respected Baker-Hamilton report from the Iraq Task Force, which recommended a staged withdrawal of troops as the only effective way to pressure the government in Baghdad to take responsibility for its own destiny.

No-one, but no-one, is in favour of a precipitate withdrawal, and for Howard to rant about Rudd lacking the courage and guts to say what he thought might happen if one took place is simply irrelevant. The claim that Rudd, a lifelong supporter of the ANZUS pact, is preparing to desert our American allies is both absurd and dishonest.

Obviously an American withdrawal, however skilfully it is managed, will be seen as a defeat by a great many people around the world and obviously this perception will be a fillip for the enemies of the West, especially for Al Qaeda. This is regrettable but unavoidable, and the longer the troops stay, the greater the eventual damage will be. Howard talks of guts and courage, but lacks the resolution even to face the facts, let alone to take the necessary action.

Not only that he still refuses to admit what is now blindingly clear to all but the seriously deranged, that the whole adventure was a disaster from the beginning, conceived in hatred and based on lies; that far from liberating Iraq it has become a national catastrophe and the Iraqis are voting with their feet and emigrating in millions to escape the consequences of the folly; and that Australias interests would have been far better served by counselling caution and, if that failed, keeping right out of it than by the fulsome subservience Howard showed.

But then Howard still refuses to admit that Vietnam was a mistake, either; given the chance he would probably stick up for Custers Last Stand as a sound strategic decision. Last week he showed himself as a forlorn old man, increasingly out of touch with a new generation but still stubbornly refusing to admit that the world has changed.

But of course it was an excellent week Greg Sheridan said so. Osama must be praying that Howard and he both keep their jobs. Their capacity for self-deception makes them better allies for Al Qaeda than Obama could ever be.

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