Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

The times they are a-changin

In a world of constant flux, it is a comfort to find there is at least one thing that remains as solid as a rock: the mind of dear leader, John Winston Howard.

While the winds of change storm all around him, the Prime Minister stands like Gibraltar, a tower of inertia. And even when he appears to waver, he doesnt really; it is, as he ponderously informs us, merely an illusion. His truth, once arrived at, is eternal.

For example, just last week Howard appeared, for the first time, to acknowledge the now universal scepticism about continuing to push at doors marked pull in Iraq. Asked, yet again, when he would declare the job done and start bringing Australias token troop commitment home, he was anything but his usual gung-ho self. Instead of bombast about leaving a haven of peace, freedom and democracy, he set the bar no higher than relatively secure, with a reasonable chance of democracy, if thats what the bulk of the people want.

Unsurprisingly the commentators pounced: the deputy sheriff was finally reading the mood in Washington, where the push for change, at least of tactics, more likely of strategy and perhaps even of the Bush doctrine as a whole, is now gaining irresistible momentum. But no; Howard explained huffily that he was being taken out of context, that his remarks indicated no doubts and no revisions.

His mind was still set in concrete; and in case anyone had any doubts, he was still totally convinced that his decision to join the invasion in the first place was the right one too, so boo sucks. In the slogan of his alma mater, Sydney University, Mens eadem sidere mutato: Though the fixed stars may change, the mind shall remain the same.

But while Howard plays Mr Standfast, the rest of the world is moving on; and while the increasingly impotent George Bush still insists that he will not cut and run, his spin doctors are busily dreaming up euphemisms for just that. Chief among them is the already-mentioned plan to develop a new strategy. In England Tony Blair is marginally more honest: the phrase there is progressive withdrawal.

Less reverent suggestions include Snip and hobble (for cut and run) and dawdle at speed. No less an architect of defeat than Henry Kissinger is credited with elegant bug out. The most cynical of all is Declare victory and go home. Given that Bush has already declared victory more than once, this may have an appeal.

Obviously there is still considerable confusion about what the outcome will be, but there is absolutely no doubt that the ground has shifted; which is no doubt why Howards blustering response to the sustained opposition attack in parliament last week sounded hollower than usual.

But if his mind has not changed, his basic argument has. These days we dont hear so much about the great plan to liberate the Middle East, let alone the weapons of mass destruction; it has become more personal. To cut and run, Howard claims, would be to hand Al Qaeda and the forces of terrorism a huge propaganda win and a formidable recruiting weapon. The United States and its allies simply cannot afford to undergo that sort of humiliation.

Well, obviously they would prefer to avoid it; but the problem is that the invasion, and the continuing occupation, have already given Osama bin Laden a propaganda and recruiting tool beyond his wildest imagination. Certainly if when the foreign troops pull out it is indeed likely that things will get worse in the short term. But theyll have to leave sooner or later, and there is no doubt that the longer they stay, the worse things get anyway.

Alexander Downer may rabbit on about how the invasion has given Iraqis the right to vote, free vaccinations and more mobile telephones, but all the indications are that they would gladly swap the lot for a bit more safety on the streets, not to mention electricity and running water. What they have now is so close to civil war that the departure of the occupying forces would make very little difference to large parts of the country.

And in any case, what Bush and Howard are worried about is not really the fate of the Iraqis; as was made dismally clear in parliament past week, it is much more about loss of face.

Indeed, such was Howards self absorption that he placed Australias token presence in what remains of the Coalition of the Willing as its lynchpin, its very reason for being: if Australia pulled out, our Generalissimo opined, why should not America and Britain do likewise? If there was no good argument for keeping the handful of diggers on the ground, then obviously there was no point in the military might of the worlds only superpower and its most powerful ally remaining either.

Apart from the breathtaking hubris of this position, it rather overlooks the fact that this was never Australias war until Howard declared it to be, and he could undeclare it just as easily. By his logic, it would seem that the Australians will have to stay on even after everyone else leaves. From the noises coming from Washington and London lately, the opportunity to test this thesis may come rather sooner than Howard would like.

It is said that a hard line politician once spent a long speech berating John Kenneth Gailbraith, the famous economist and diplomat, for alleged inconsistency: he had apparently repudiated a theory he had held some years earlier. Gailbraith replied coolly: When circumstances alter, I change my mind. What do you do?

Over to you, Mr Howard.

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