The real task for John Howard in Washington

John Howard & George BushOur Prime Minister is currently on a jaunt to Washington, Ottawa and Dublin – and in some position to regard himself, and his country, fairly smugly by way of comparison. But it is not quite as simple as that. His government has handed down a fairly successful budget – showing solid fundamentals, if not much regard for what makes them solid or fundamental. The success of the budget depends on US economic stability and US relationships with China. The US is becoming increasingly bogged down in Iraq, while simultaneously seeming to talk itself into fewer and fewer policy options short of war in Iran. Furthermore, the question of selling energy, not least uranium to India and to China, involves important foreign policy considerations for the Australian and United States governments respectively.

On the face of it, there could hardly be a better time to be paying a visit to the United States, firstly to inform oneself about the state of American thinking on the many important questions, and secondly to press strongly some of Australia's different views and interests. By visiting important and significant progressive 'middle-of-the-road' powers, with a view of the world somewhat different from our own, Howard further cements his standing and appeases some moderates.

Alas, all too often we see little of the exchange of experiences, and in the general bonhomie and routine ritual which John Howard seems to love, the primary result is enthusiastic Australian endorsement for whatever the US is doing, with only token acknowledgement of the differing Australian interest.

Even at the best of times, it has been hard to get any concentrated American focus on the problems of failed economies and collapsing polities in the western Pacific. The US, quite reasonably, regards most of these problems as being for Australia and the 'neighbourhood' to solve, and confines itself, when taking any notice at all, to ritual support of our initiatives, and, in the case of East Timor, a vague benevolence focused on helping to remind the Indonesians that they have no option but to get over the traumatic circumstances of its birth. Generally US policy does not contain much in the way of useful practical ideas.

But John Howard, in Australia's interests, should be concerned to let Americans – and for that matter the world -  know what is happening, if only to help avoid Australia's being painted as the villain when things get worse. And not only in the Solomons, where the farce of local politics is making it clear that there will be little progress to political or economic stability in the short term. Papua New Guinea is edging towards a precipice, and Fiji is also a major worry. Australian naval ships are on standby not far from East Timor, lest the situation deteriorate and we be asked for assistance.

Various ministers, including the Prime Minister, have made it clear that any intervention will be only at the request of the East Timorese Government, but the lack of consultation with East Timorese ministers in the positioning is ominous, and is likely to be so read in Dili. Perhaps it will also be seen as a form of pressure on the ruling party to get rid of its failing Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri. His departure would probably ease the internal tensions, but it will do Australia's standing no good if we are seen to have helped promote that result.

Only the mischievous would suggest that intervention or interference of any sort is in contemplation in relation to Papua. But the increased world attention to human rights violations there, and to the high-handed and colonial manner of its administration from Jakarta, as well as our own mismanagement of a confected refugee crisis, is also something that needs careful management, not least by the United States. It could play some role in allaying the genuine, if mistaken, fears that Indonesia has about the possibility of there being an agenda to push Indonesian atomisation - while making it clear that the world can not ignore its obligations under international refugee law. John Howard's own mismanagement of the affair, which has involved a humiliating and ethically questionnable stance on our refugee obligations, is now causing him problems even in his own Caucus.

Connected to this is Iraq, where, despite the ultimately successful selection of a Prime Minister, the security situation is worsening, factionalisation is increasing, and the occupying forces having fewer options that will allow for a dignified retreat, let alone anything George W. Bush could describe as success.

In the background is Iran. Officially, both Australia and the US are putting the resolution on Iran's nuclear testing in the charge of the United Nations, while making it clear that they have little faith in a successful outcome. If John Howard has anything like the personal relationship with the President of which he boasts, he ought to be cautioning him that American bellicosity is probably only stiffening Iran's resolve. He might also remind him that the history of the exercise of American (or coalition) military might in Iran would hardly be likely to give Iran pause. Or even a sense of moral, as opposed to physical, disadvantage.

Jack WaterfordJack Waterford is editor-at-large at The Canberra Times



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