Australian PM shares a farcical White House media conference with Bush
By Mike Head
In a telling sign of how seriously the catastrophe in occupied Iraq has damaged their governments, US President George W. Bush on Thursday lavished praise on visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard and launched an extraordinary intervention into the campaign for this year’s scheduled Australian elections.
Their brief media conference on the White House steps was truly surreal. It brought together two blood-soaked political criminals, clinging to each other for electoral survival. One measure of the depth of Bush’s predicament is that he sought to inflate the importance of a man as politically and historically insignificant as the current Australian leader. He hailed Howard—a political flunkey whose government has slavishly followed the US administration—as a “close friend” whose “advice” and “clear vision” were highly appreciated.
A near-fiasco in the final moments of the press conference made clear the purpose of the stage-managed performance. It concerned the final question, which was put to Bush by Steve Lewis from the Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s Australian flagship. Lewis asked Bush to comment on the pledge made by opposition Labor Party leader Mark Latham to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas.
Lewis apparently missed his cue to present his question, producing the following exchange:
President Bush: No other questions? This is unbelievable. You better hurry ...
Prime Minister Howard: Mr. Lewis, Steve Lewis, the Australian.
Steve Lewis: President Bush, I’d like to ask you a question ...
President Bush: Where are you? There you are.
Steve Lewis: Just here.
President Bush: Thank you.
Answering Lewis’ question, Bush made the most strident attack by an American president on an Australian political leader in living memory, describing Latham’s policy as “disastrous” and implicitly accusing the Labor leader of siding with “enemy” terrorists.
“It would dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq,” Bush declared. “It would say that the Australian government doesn’t see the hope of a free, democratic society leading to a peaceful world. It would embolden the enemy to believe that they could shake our will. See, they want to kill innocent life because they think that the Western world and the free world is weak.”
From any objective standpoint, Bush’s diatribe was absurd. In the first place, the Howard government’s troop deployment in Iraq is militarily insignificant. Of more than 130,000 foreign troops, including some 120,000 from the US, Australia has just 280 actually on the ground in Iraq, none of whom are directly involved in the major military operations against the growing insurgency.
Secondly, Labor has no fundamental differences with Howard. Rather, it regards the Iraq war as undermining the “war on terror,” as well as Australia’s national security. Latham’s call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq is based on the tactical calculation that Australian military forces are needed for operations closer to home.
As for the equation of the US-led occupation with freedom and democracy, that claim lies in tatters after more than a year of mass killings and brutal repression against the Iraqi population, the exposure of systematic torture and abuse of prisoners in US jails, and the installation of a widely despised puppet government in order to secure US hegemony over Iraq’s oil wealth.
Precisely because of this debacle, Bush felt the need to bolster Howard’s political credentials. No one, not even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has been a more enthusiastic or unconditional backer of the Bush administration and the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, with the withdrawal of Spanish troops, followed by other members of the threadbare “coalition of the willing,” Bush cannot afford to see Howard defeated.
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