Apolitical wrangle, with Prime Minister John Howard as the prime wrangler, has begun in the rodeo ring of Australian politics — and it certainly looks as if someone is going to take a spill.

I am writing this column in Sydney, where the action has suddenly become lively. The results of the struggle going on now in Aussie politics will determine not only the fate of Howard and his government, but also the country’s diplomatic direction in the coming decade.

It all started on Feb. 11 with a brief comment by the prime minister on the Channel 9 network’s “Sunday” show.

Howard said, “If I were running al-Qaida in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.”

He was referring to the senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who had launched his bid for his party’s nomination the day before. Obama had stated his opinion that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq by March 2008. Howard, by criticizing Obama, was inferring that the exceedingly popular senator and his party were giving aid and comfort to terrorists.

Now, it isn’t often that statements made in Australia, even by prime ministers, rate a prominent mention in the world media. But Howard’s swipe at Obama and, indeed, his entire party, captured the attention of CNN and the BBC, both of which featured it in their main news reports. Not only that, but Obama himself referred to Howard’s comment in a speech in Iowa, where he was on the hustings.

He was pleased, he remarked, that one of President George W. Bush’s allies “started attacking me. . . . I take that as a compliment.” He called Howard’s comments on terrorism “a bunch of empty rhetoric.”

The confrontations did not stop there. Kevin Rudd, the dynamic new opposition Labor Party leader in Australia, went on the attack on Feb. 12 on the floor of Parliament.

“To accuse the Democratic Party of the United States — the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson — of being the terrorists’ party of choice,” he said, “is a most serious charge.

“I cannot understand how any responsible leader of this country can say to the nation that it is his serious view that the Democratic Party of the United States is the terrorists’ party of choice.”

Arch-conservative government

For his part, Howard retorted, “I do not retract the statements I made yesterday [on television].”

On the surface, this may look like a run-of-the-mill parliamentary confrontation. But within this two-leader polemic lies not only the possibility of defeat for Howard’s arch-conservative government in elections later this year but also the very identity that Australia adopts in its attempts to create a foreign policy independent of the United States.

To see why Australia has found it so hard to establish its integrity as an independent nation in the Asia-Pacific region, it is necessary to go back some decades.

Although Australia became an independent federation in 1901, most Australians for the next 40 or so years considered Britain the “home country.” Any attack on the distant motherland was taken as an attack on Australia, and the country duly rushed its troops to North Africa, to Turkey and to Europe in the world wars. The Australian national myth was inspired by sacrifice, but not as it is in most other countries: “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what you can do for somebody else’s.”

The orientation of this myth pivoted about during World War II, when more than a million American soldiers passed through Australia. Britain lost many of its colonies and Asian markets in and soon after that war, and Australians began to consider themselves better off under the American wing than the British one. (Unfortunately, they didn’t at the time see their rightful place as a nation unfurling its own wings.)

Today’s security alliance between Australia and the United States, so eagerly and subserviently pursued by the Australians, stems from this switch of allegiance. (No matter that Americans are largely oblivious of Australia’s overidentification with U.S. interests.) Howard, for one, is keen to prove again and again that he will stand alongside this present president — even when only Bush’s wife, Laura, and his dog, Barney, are there with him.

It is virtually unprecedented for an Australian prime minister to comment on domestic U.S. political issues in the way Howard did on Channel 9. In fact, a bevy of American leaders were quick to dump the can on the prime minister from what, in his eyes, are the greatest heights — telling him pithily to “butt out” of U.S. politics. (Americans are always rather quaint on this point: They are most enthusiastic about “butting in” on other nations’ politics, but brook no foreign interference in their own.)

The issue at hand is, of course, the war in Iraq — and when and how to exit. Bush and Howard are both adamant that even the suggestion of going home gives succor to those fighting against “coalition” forces, and that anyone advocating it is, in effect, sympathizing with terrorism.

Rampant corruption

Again let’s go back a few years, this time to the watershed U.S. presidential election of 1952. The Democrats had been in power for 20 years, and the Republicans were pinning their hopes on their candidate, popular World War II general Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In that campaign, Ike, as he was known, made three major promises. One, to put a stop to “the mess in Washington” (a reference to rampant corruption). Two, to balance the budget. Three, to “bring the boys home” (from Korea). Not only would these three policy promises form a credible Democratic Party platform for 2008, but the third one shows that even Republican war heroes can choose strategic retreat as the genuinely patriotic option.

Even in that era of paranoid anticommunist McCarthyism in America, no one accused Ike of sympathizing with communist North Korea.

Howard has made a classic (and compound) blunder. Not only has he totally identified Australia’s pro-American stance with the political fortunes of one man — George W. Bush — but he has refused to see that the fortunes of his philosophical mentor in Washington are seriously waning. In addition, the Australian prime minister has underestimated the depth and energy of the political debate in the United States, which in recent months has begun to dominate the media.

The reason why Howard has not recognized this debate is because such public debate is sorely invisible in his own country. The Australian people, like the American people, are overwhelmingly against their country’s part in the foreign occupation of Iraq, but arguments on how and when to end it are not nearly as profound or widely reported in Australia as they are in America. This allows Howard to continue taking his stance, unaware that he has lost the plot: the plot written in Washington, D.C., and acted out with stubborn, blind vigor in Canberra.

This year’s election in Australia will decide whether Howard and his party survive in power. It may also put Australia on a new course, one that recognizes the value of old allies such as Britain and the U.S. — but also acknowledges that Australia does have a diplomatic voice of its own. It merely needs, after all these years, to get some practice using it.

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