The Deputy Sheriff Speaks

12 February 2007

The Deputy Sheriff Speaks

By Gwynne Dyer

Some people are born with so great a talent for brazen effrontery that they have no choice but to become politicians. One such is Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, who intervened in the US presidential race this week to warn Americans not to vote for the Democrats in general, and Barack Obama in particular.

Obama, declaring his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, said that US troops should be out of Iraq by March, 2008. John Howard, who faces an election campaign himself later this year, seized on Obama’s remarks to restate his own fervent support for the Bush administration strategy that created the Iraq quagmire in the first place.

He said that Obama’s Iraq policy “will just encourage those who want to completely destabilise and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and a victory for the terrorists in Iraq to hang on and hope for an Obama victory.” (Even in his mangled syntax, he sounds much like President George W. Bush.)

Thus far, however, Howard’s remarks remained within the bounds of normal political discourse. If some Australian voters believe that the invasion of 2003 did not already “completely destabilise and destroy Iraq and create chaos,” and that only a US withdrawal would bring about that outcome, then they are free to vote for Howard, and he is free to solicit their votes. He even stands a decent chance of winning, since the average Australian knows no more about the realities of the Middle East than the average Iraqi knows about Australian politics.

But then Howard continued: “If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats.”

Never mind the usual guff about “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” as if that particular strand of Arab radicalism dominated the resistance to foreign occupation in Iraq — indeed, as if the “terrorists in Iraq” were a cause rather than a consequence of the US-UK-Australian invasion of the country. The point is that Howard was telling Americans how to vote, and foreign leaders are not supposed to do that.

Nobody in the United States will lose much sleep over Howard’s intervention. Indeed, most Americans are probably unaware that Australia still has a token troop contingent in Iraq, and don’t even know John Howard’s name. The White House will certainly not rebuke him for urging Americans not to vote Democratic.

Besides, it is far too late for Howard to admit that the whole Iraq fiasco was a blunder and still hope to survive politically. Like Bush in Washington and Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, he has nailed his colours to the mast (though it is far from certain that he will voluntarily choose to go down with the ship).

What is truly interesting is Obama’s response to Howard’s rant, and what it reveals about Australian defence policy. “I think it’s flattering that one of George Bush’s allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced,” Obama said. “I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops on the ground now, and my understanding is that Mr Howard has deployed 1,400, so if he is to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”

Howard replied that the Australian deployment was a “very significant and appropriate contribution,” given the country’s small population. Really? The United States has about 300 million people; Australia has about 20 million, or one-fifteenth as many. So a “very significant and appropriate contribution” by Australia would be one-fifteenth of 140,000 troops (or 160,000, actually, since the United States is now sending another 20,000 troops into Iraq).

One-fifteenth of 160,000 American troops would be around 10,600 Australian troops, not 1,400. It’s all gesture politics and political posturing — but then, so is Australian defence policy in general.

The key turning point in modern Australian foreign policy was the realisation, some time in 1942 or 1943, that the British empire could no longer defend the country, and that the only big country that might be willing to assume that role was the United States. So the question became, and has remained, how to guarantee that the United States will come to Australia’s aid in an emergency, even if America’s own vital interests are not directly involved.

There is no good answer to this question, but it would obviously help if Australian troops show up to help whenever the United States gets involved in a war anywhere in Asia — and that includes the Middle East. However, this policy is too demeaning to national pride to explain clearly to Australians, so the various Australian military ventures abroad have to be explained in other terms — the “Communist threat” in Vietnam, the “terrorist threat” in Iraq. And the actual troop commitment is kept as small as possible, in order not to rouse public opinion against it.

Australians have fortunately never had the occasion to find out whether volunteering to be America’s “deputy sheriff” in Asia would really produce the desired US response if Australia’s own interests were threatened, but this notion remains at the heart of Australian defence policy. If the United States invaded Mars, Australia would send a battalion along to guard the supply depot.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 8. (“Thus…politics”;and “Nobody…ship”)