Byline: Hugh White (Hugh White is a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute of International Policy in Sydney, and professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.)
Last weekend, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard made a rare foray into U.S. politics, telling an interviewer that Al Qaeda leaders were "praying" for Barack Obama--or any other Democrat who favors a troop withdrawal from Iraq--to win the presidency next year.
Howard's statement broke a golden rule of diplomacy--never comment on an upcoming election in a friendly country--and earned him a sardonic rebuke from Obama, who pointed out that for all of Howard's tough talk, Australia has sent a mere 1,400 troops to Iraq. This uncharacteristic misstep from such a grizzled political operator had a fairly simple explanation: Howard is expected to call an election of his own, probably later this year, and figured taking a swing at Obama would play well in his staunchly, even uniquely pro-American country. Only he figured wrong; the normally self-assured Howard is becoming rattled, and it shows.
Ever since 9/11, Howard has built his popular appeal by looking tough on national security. His approach has been straightforward: to develop a very close relationship with George W. Bush. No other world leader--not even Tony Blair--has been more consistent and more effusive in his support for Bush's policies. Until recently, this strategy has played well at home. Australians, as a rule, are staunchly pro-American--much more so even than the British, despite all the talk of a "special relationship"--and want their country to stay closely aligned to the United States. And they don't seem to worry much if this leaves them out of step with the harshly anti-American trend of world opinion. As long as Bush and his policies remained popular in the United States, Australians--whom polls consistently rank among the world's most pro-U.S. population--largely ignored the bad press he received elsewhere.
But now Bush's popularity has fallen precipitously, and most Americans have lost faith with him on Iraq. Australians, recognizing this shift, are starting to wonder why they should stick with Bush when his own constituents are not. Iraq itself is a fairly minor issue in Australia; as Obama pointed out, the country's troop contribution is …