Australian PM Under Fire for Supporting Bush

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - President Bush's warnings to Iran, Iraq and North Korea have earned him criticism from some European governments, but his Australian ally is behind him all the way.

Despite the Australian government's unease at the inclusion on Iran in Bush's "axis of evil," Prime Minister John Howard has thrown his weight behind Washington's commitment to fight terrorism beyond Afghanistan's borders.

Howard's firm support on this issue has prompted some criticism at home, but political analysts see little chance of a change of policy from Canberra, which sent one of the largest forces -- relative to the size of its military -- to aid America in Afghanistan.

In his State of the Union speech last week, Bush said states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, along with their terrorist allies threatened world peace, and that terrorist nations could not be left "unchecked."

Even as criticism poured in from the three named countries and others, Howard took a different position.

Addressing the World Economic Forum in New York on Saturday, the Australian leader expressed willingness to follow the U.S. into a wider campaign against terrorism.

The military and diplomatic campaign against terrorism, he said, had achieved success, "but I will join others who are saying that the campaign against terrorism is by no means over."

"We must recognize that the possibility of activity elsewhere in the campaign against terrorism is very real."

In other remarks, made to a Jewish audience in New York shortly after the president's speech, Howard confronted the issue head-on.

"I understand why the president would have said what he did ... I think it signals a determination to go the distance in fighting terrorism. That is both understandable and something that should be supported."

Should the U.S. ask Australia to be involved militarily elsewhere, he said, it would consider it "but against the background of our broad support and very strong support for the American response to terrorism."

Howard's support came at a time other U.S. allies were questioning the "axis of evil" statements.

German and French officials responded negatively, while suggestions by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the speech was drafted with an eye on the mid-term election later this year prompted a sharp rebuke Sunday from National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Russia and China also rejected Bush's approach.

Religious Groups Concerned

Howard's support has not gone completely without opposition at home.

The Australian Catholic Social Justice Council said in response to queries Tuesday it was concerned about statements it saw as "labeling whole nations as enemies, and vilifying entire countries."

"It was also disturbing to hear leaders using such language or supporting it uncritically," said the ACSJC's national executive officer, Sandie Cornish.

"This irresponsible rhetoric has the potential to fan the flames of racial and religious intolerance rather than encouraging broad cooperation to combat terrorism."

The ACSJC earlier called for captured Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners being held by the U.S. to be "tried in an open process by an impartial tribunal." It also opposed last year's bombing of Afghanistan, on the basis that "it does not conform to the conditions for a morally legitimate use of force."

One of the conditions the Catholic body believes must be met to ensure such legitimacy is that military action must be taken as a "last resort after all non-violent means have been exhausted."

Keysar Trad, spokesman for the Islamic mufti of Australia, said by phone from Sydney Tuesday many Australians would be disappointed.

Howard's comments gave the impression that whatever statements were made by the U.S., Australia would immediately follow suit.

"This sort of warmongering talk is not conducive to global peace," Trad said. "As Australians we stand in a unique position. Because we are of such diverse backgrounds, we're in the position of being potential emissaries for peace throughout the world. This is what we should be working for.

"When the prime minister makes these statements he doesn't appear to be representing the wishes of all his constituents."

Trad said he was concerned about the effect on Muslims in Australia.

Australians with a Muslim background, and particularly Iraqis and Iranians, had been victims of a "backlash" since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., he said.

"Comments like [Howard's] just make people more apprehensive of dealing with people of those nationalities," Trad said.

Main parties, public onboard

Politics professor Murray Goot of Macquarie University in Sydney said Tuesday he doubted there would be a serious negative reaction to Howard's stance, either in the political arena or among the wider public.

Howard's ruling coalition would obviously back him, and the official opposition Labor Party would be unlikely to disagree, although some individual lawmakers may dissent, he said.

"Labor has been very wary of distancing itself from the government on these sorts of issues after Sept. 11."

Smaller, liberal parties such as the Democrats and the Greens may oppose Howard's position, he said, but in the absence of strong mobilization from them, "I imagine most of the public would fall into line."

Howard's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has attempted to distance Australia from the comments regarding Iran, a country Canberra has been trying to engage.

But Dr. Michael McKinley of the department of political science at the Australian National University described the attempt as a "mild" one mostly related to Iran's role as a trading partner.

The difference would not be sufficient to cause a rethinking of the government's position, he added.

"There is almost nothing the United States can do which Australia will not support, in the area of security. The UK and Australia are almost competing to become the most enthusiastic supporter" of the U.S.

McKinley said he could not see anything happening to prompt moves toward a change of the pro-U.S. policy short of "some massive reversal which cost Australia a great deal" in the security area - "and I can't foresee anything like that happening."

He also did not envisage the situation changing much if Labor were to return to power.

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See also:
Australian Forces May Take Part In Anti-Terror Ops In Somalia, Yemen (Dec. 19, 2001)
Australian Special Forces Join Hunt For Al-Qaida Terrorists (Nov. 22, 2001)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow