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Rusted On Down Under

Howard, Bush and Sharon

by BRIAN McKINLAY

Some months ago, Australia heard with a degree of surprise, the soon-to-be Labor leader, Mark Latham describe John Howard as"an arselicker". This earthy phrase, outraged Conservative supporters of Prime Minister Howard,a mused his army of critics on the left (who by and large had reached that conclusion for themselves, but enjoyed hearing Mark Latham say it), and opened a vigorous debate in Australia about aspects of the US alliance, and Australia’s participation in the Iraq War.

Latham rather compounded the offence in the eyes of Conservatives by describing George Bush as the most dangerous American President in memory (he must have overlooked Nixon) and this triggered a series of attacks on Latham by the US Ambassador to Australia, Schiefer, and such Bush luminaries as Colin Powell and Richard Armitage.

Latham added insult to injury by describing Howard’s Ministers as a "conga line of suckholes". The worst of such being Howard’s fatuous Foreign Minister, the comic, Downer.

Now it seems the Howard has found another client for his attention,and none other than Ariel Sharon. Howard’s liking for the Israeli PM is no secret. In the opening stages of last years invasion of Iraq, the Australian forces were posted to the Western desert along the Syrian border, to search for missile sites which might have been used, as in the first Gulf War, to attack Israel.

Australia has a long and costly history of involvement in the Middle East, as a kind of mercenary army, a bit like the Nepalese Ghurkhas, in the service of imperialism, usually the British form. In the First World War a large Australian force was engaged in the defence of the Suez Canal,a vital Empire lifeline for the British, and later Australian forces were sent by the British to invade Turkey, with landings on the Dardanelles, where British incompetence, lead to a heavy death toll. Later Australian forces helped drive the Turks from Palestine, opening the way for the British Mandate there after 1919.

In 1939, Australian forces again went to guard the Canal,and were only withdrawn in 1942 on the insistence of Labor Prime Minister Curtain,who demanded of Churchill,that the troops be sent home to defend Australia then facing the threat of Japanese invasion. This was rare and remarkable show of independence by an Australian leader, unimaginable in a man like John Howard.

It’s been said by a former Intelligence office,Andrew Wilkie,now turned author, and critic of Howard’s Foreign Policies, that Howard decided to support Bush, not because he believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but because he believed that Bush wanted war and Howard would support him irrespective of evidence of any kind.

Australian opinion was always against the war and huge demonstrations took place,but as in Britain the Government ignored the people and joined in Bush’s crusade. but now Howard faces an election in which the ghosts of Iraq have come back to haunt him.

Amazingly, this has not prevented him from standing alongside the US in the UN General Assembly, in the debate on Sharon’s Wall–and this saw Australia, along with only Israel and the US, and three Pacific island Micro-states (all under US domination) make up one of the 6 votes cast against the motion. Interestingly Australia’s rather independent neighbour New Zealand voted against the Wall. Not surprisingly, after the row with Israel recently over the actions of an Israeli spy ring in New Zealand, two of whose members were jailed last week for passport forgery.

Even on this matter Howard agreed with a suggestion on radio that he might "mediate" between New Zealand and Israel to restore relations. As if the matter was a minor diplomatic tiff,rather than a criminal act against New Zealand. Israel was spoken of as if it weree a mere error in diplomatic etiquette Howard conspicuously failed to reprimand Israel, and will host a visit to Australia next month by the Israeli President, a visit New Zealand has cancelled. One doubts that the New Zealand government expected any better from Howard, as they would have been well aware of his enthusiasm for Israel and it’s leader, who would rank second one supposes after Bush in Howard’s list of friends abroad.

Last year Howard also got on famously with Berlusconi, who has also been invited to Australia, but can’t come just now because of his troubles at home. Howard faces an election before Christmas, and is agonising over a date, because he can’t be sure of Bush’s fate, and going to the polls after November might highlight the demise of his best friend should Bush lose However every poll this year has shown Latham to be in a winning position, and Howard’s decision to support Sharon is being seen in Australia as just another example of the way he is "rusted on" (to use a local expression), to Bush and Sharon.

BRIAN McKINLAY is an Historian,and author of a number of books on Australian History,most notably a three-volume "Documentary History of the Australian Labor Movement" and "Australia,1942: An end of Innocence." He can be reached at: brianmckinlay@bigpond.com