Howard's problem is not the distance between his position and Rudd's, but their similarity. Howard has 1400 defence personnel in Iraq. Rudd would withdraw 520 of them, those performing an "overwatch" mission in two peaceful provinces who reportedly have little to do. Howard has apparently refused US requests to move them to places where they would see more action, for fear of taking casualties.
You can see why Cheney may not mind if those 520 troops stay under Howard or go under Rudd. Australia's commitment to Iraq is nothing more than a symbol of political support for the Bush Administration, and from Washington's point of view 900 defence personnel is as good a symbol as 1400.
So what can Howard say that will revive Iraq as an electoral asset? He will recite the arguments used by Bush and Blair: that Iraq is a potential hotbed of global terrorism, that it is the central front in a global war between liberal values and fundamentalist obscurantism, that defeat in Iraq would be the first fatal step towards a global Islamic fundamentalist caliphate. But if he is sensible Howard will move over these arguments quickly, because none of them stands up to scrutiny.
He will dwell longer on three deeper arguments: that a coalition withdrawal would risk Iraq becoming even worse, would open the doors to Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf and would weaken the US as a global power. All are true and are the real reasons the US will not withdraw anytime soon. But they do not help Howard much, because they are all self-inflicted problems - products of the disastrous decision to invade.
14 Mar. 2007
Howard is planning a speech to mark the occasion. Hugh White wonders what he will have to say:
at 3:31:00 pm