June 07, 2004 | Graham

Howard and the disadvantages of foreign travel

Mark Latham’s cancellation of his plans to travel to the USA later this year was smart, judging from the electoral problems John Howard’s trip is generating him.
I am not in the school which says that George W Bush is stupid. He may not be the intellectually sharpest tool in the shed, but since when has IQ been the only intelligence that counts? But he is culturally insensitive. This is a characteristic he shares with many of his fellow Americans and is possibly one reason that Iraq is proving a bigger challenge than many of them imagined.
His cultural insensitivity was on show two days ago when he launched his attack on Mark Latham’s Iraq policy.
The Australian reported the exchange thus:
“Asked directly about Mr Latham’s plan, Mr Bush said: ‘I think that would be disastrous.
‘It would be a disastrous decision for the leader of a great country like Australia to say that we’re pulling out.
‘It would dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq.
‘It would say that the Australian Government doesn’t see the hope of a free, democratic society (in Iraq).
‘It would embolden the enemy to believe that they could shake our will.
‘They want to kill innocent life because they think that the Western world and the free world is weak.’”

John Howard must have been extraordinarily embarrassed, and so he should have been. US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Scheiffer cut the template of the ugly American diplomat with his forays into Australian domestic politics beginning while Simon Crean was Opposition Leader. As a result, Howard should have anticipated that there was some prospect that George would also talk out of turn and warned him off. The question was completely predictable.
Bush could have palmed it off, perhaps by saying that it was a matter that he was sure that Australians could work out for themselves. He could have deflected it to John Howard and let him answer. If he’d wanted to deliver the message that he did, he could have done it by explaining why the American people would be staying the distance and allowing Australians to make their own connections. He did none of these things.
Bush has sent a number of messages. One is that he is in charge and that Howard is just a supernumerary – more the spear carrier than the deputy sheriff. Another is that he thinks that he can tell Australians what to do and they will fall into line. Yet another is that he does not appreciate the boundaries between nations and sees the rest of the world as an extension of the US.
The reaction across the board in Australia will be adverse. Anti-Americanism has been a feature of Australian political debate for decades. We do not regard ourselves as the 52nd state of the Union, and don’t want to be taken for granted.
No-one appreciates being told what to do within their own family. Many of us disapprove of Latham’s stance as being impractical, immoral and crassly politically opportunistic, but some of us may just overlook that if the US decides to stand-over us. Latham may be wrong, but he is one of us.
But cultural insensitivity is only part of the story. If Howard is to have any chance of beating Latham he has to play on his weaknesses. One of these is that he is seen as being young and inexperienced. If Latham had gone to the US, the failure of major figures in the power establishment to take him seriously would have underlined those two perceptions.
Another weakness Latham has is that many voters, suspect that he is an opportunist and will prove to be a “closet Tory”. In this context it is in Howard’s interest not to be demonizing him as a representative of the pacifist left, but to suggest that he’s just another politician and will go back on his word once elected.
By slamming his policy position, George Bush has elevated Latham in seriousness and importance, suggesting that afterall Washington policy makers do take him seriously. It also makes it harder for Howard to run a domestic argument suggesting that Latham will change his mind after the election. It also cramps his argument that Latham’s promise is reckless (the charge that will stick rather than the one of dishonesty) because George Bush is the one that ran it. This devalues the argument in Australian eyes.
Liberal party strategists must be wondering what would have happened if Latham had gone overseas and Howard stayed home. Perhaps the Coalition of the Willing would be in better shape today along with Howard’s re-election chances.

Posted by Graham at 11:14 am | Comments Off on Howard and the disadvantages of foreign travel |
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