John Howard’s recent US visit was largely overshadowed by speculation about the PM’s departure from office. We may have been better served by focusing on the PM’s relationship with President Bush – touted as the closest between an Australian PM and a US President in recent decades – and its implications for Australia down the track.
Bush is a disgraced President with an approval rating of 29%. His macho unilateralist foreign policy embraced by our Johnny with great enthusiasm is also dead. Its greatest exponents – Cheney and Rumsfeld are also disgraced and held in greater contempt than the President. They owe their continued tenure to the President and the President only. His is a government that provides permanent cover for insiders irrespective of their incompetence.
On the world stage, our Johnny is a standalone in his blind advocacy of Bush Presidency positions. Tony Blair (another leader in a terminal tailspin) might have gone into Iraq alongside W but even he’s not been able to stomach Bush masterstrokes like Guantanamo Bay, wider Middle East (Israel) policy and global warming denialism. Our Johnny though, he’s taken the lot. Hook line and sinker. He’s even returned to Australia a nuclear evangelist (he knows how to pronounce it too!).
Unlike Bush and Blair and for reasons that should give Australia considerable cause for pause, Howard remains an unassailable figure in Australian politics. He dominates the landscape.
So where does Howard’s love affair with the George Bush’s US leave Australia? If only 29% of Americans like Bush’s America, the middle and long range dividend for Australia from the Bush – Howard love in is likely to be slim indeed.
Bush’s floundering power looks likely to be clipped in November congressional elections. Lacklustre Democrats may regain control of congress unleashing Clinton era style enquiries into the administration’s serial mendacity. This time the issues will count too!
Even if the Republicans retain congressional control, Republican unease with Bush grows daily. And even if the Republicans retain the Presidency in 2008, with Guiliani and McCain as current favourites, there is no prospect of a Bush clone winning the primaries. In other words, all practically foreseeable electoral outcomes spell an end to Bushism.
John Howard has attached Australia’s foreign policy to a US posture that is breathing its last and is reviled the world over. If there is to be a dividend we’d best extract it soon.
As the next President – Republican or Democrat - goes about cleaning up the Bush mess - salvaging something in Iraq, winding down Guantanamo and developing a credible global warming position – and I believe all of these things will occur – the obsequious nobodies that provided the cover for Bush’s reckless policies on the international stage will not be top of mind. Closer to home, from Denpasar to Delhi and from Shanghai to Saigon, local people will recall Australia as a nation that Vietnamese tell me “da theo duoi My” – follows the tail of the US – a more elegant phrasing of one of Mark Latham’s lines. Following the US tail has been a habit of Australia’s for a long time. Never before has it required such a wholesale abandonment of our values or a distortion of our national interest. At least we can be confident that Bush’s time is past – even though the Presidency has just under three years to run. The damage it has wrought to the US and the world is enormous. The damage that Australia’s complicity has wrought to our reputation will take some undoing as well.