SYDNEY: The timing of what should have been a little- noticed visit to a close ally could hardly have been worse. When Vice President Dick Cheney arrives here on Thursday he will find his country's relations with Australia being subjected to unusually close scrutiny.
Cheney arrives at a time when Prime Minister John Howard, who has been an even more faithful follower of U.S. policy on Iraq than Tony Blair, is lagging in opinion polls far behind the opposition Labor party's new leader, Kevin Rudd. More ominously for Howard, even the bookmakers' odds are now on Rudd, who favors a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Several issues have come together to raise local consciousness of the downside of following Washington too closely. The normally circumspect Howard attacked a potential Democratic contender for the American presidency, Barack Obama, suggesting that his call for a troop withdrawal from Iraq by 2008 would be cheered by Al Qaeda. Obama responded by suggesting that if Howard were so eager to fight, Australia should send another 20,000 troops.
That response hit a raw nerve. For all Howard's tough talk about the importance of Iraq in the global fight against terrorism, Australian troops have suffered not a single death from enemy action. The contingent of 1,400 troops in the region is mostly kept well away from trouble spots. The fact is that it is there for political, not military, purposes. The war has not attracted the same opposition here as in the United States or Britain. But Howard's attack on Obama has made it clear that the Australian leader is out of line not only with Democrats, but also with many Republican voices.
A second issue has been feeding resentment — the detention at Guantánamo Bay of a young Australian, David Hicks, who converted to Islam and was accused of fighting for the Taliban when he was arrested in Afghanistan five years ago. Public opinion has at last forced Howard to lean on Washington to put Hicks on trial before a military tribunal. The case has revealed Howard's eagerness to put relations with Bush ahead of an Australian citizen's right to a fair trial.
Howard has also been a close ally of the United States in refusing to sign the Kyoto protocol on carbon emissions and, like the Bush administration, was until recently in denial of the human causes of climate change. But a severe drought has enabled Labor to shift voter concerns from security to the environment.
No matter who wins the next election, the alliance with the United States will remain the bedrock of Australian foreign policy. Rudd himself is a former diplomat who knows full well that the Howard government is viewed as tougher on security and immigration issues. To be seen as anti-American is no way to win votes. But neither is being too-closely identified with George W. Bush. If Cheney thought that a visit here would shore up support for Washington's policy in Iraq, he will be disappointed.
It is never easy for a middling power to find a balance between self-assertion and support for its super- power ally. Because of its history and geographic position, Australia has a greater need than Canada to prove its loyalty to Washington. But the result of Howard's close alignment with a failed Iraq policy is likely to be that — even if he remains in office — Australia will shift to policies that place less emphasis on following America's lead.
That will translate into renewed focus on relations with Asia. Ties with China have flourished because of Beijing's need for Australian resources. But relations with the broader region have suffered from Howard's crass description of Australia as a "deputy sheriff" — his emphasis on Australia's non-Asian identity — and a tendency to follow the Bush administration's preference for bilateral over multilateral diplomacy.
This tendency has even extended to trade, with a free-trade agreement with the United States that many see as being driven more by politics than economics. Critics say Howard's government has weakened Australia's influence at the World Trade Organization and its ties with agricultural-exporting countries.
Support for the war in Iraq may gain Howard entry to the White House, but there is no sign that Canberra, or its 1,400 troops, exerts any influence on America's policies in the Middle East. Perhaps the lessons of both Iraq and the free-trade agreement are that the interests of both Australia and the United States would be better served if Canberra focused on the mutual interests of the two countries within the Asia/Pacific region, including security cooperation with Japan and India, and trade with Asean and Northeast Asia within a multilateral framework.