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Will John Howard stay the course in Iraq?

The jig looks pretty much up on America's intervention in Iraq. The editorial in The New York Times is perhaps not the turning point, because the Times is ultimately a liberal organ and has for a considerable time been sceptical of progress in the war. But its formal defection, along with a number of hawkish Republican members, is a fairly sure sign that the American will to fight for a cause plainly lost is collapsing fast.

That determination, or even the preparedness to trust or support President George W Bush in spite of fears, is only a part of it, although it will be seized upon by United States military myth-makers. As in Germany after World War I, proof that the war was lost because of defection, dissension, undermining and treason at home. As with Vietnam, it will be insisted that American soldiers did not lose a single engagement. Perhaps, but in Iraq they have been defeated militarily as much as politically, and the fault lies as much with the military leadership as with the political leaders, except that the conception of the whole doomed enterprise lay with civilians.

There will be time enough for 'I told you so's', and for tracking the sequence of military and political mistakes. For the moment it is necessary to underline only that a war conceived of (or at least sold) as a war of liberation to free an oppressed people from a murderous and dangerous despot descended quickly into a civil war. Hardly any of the leaders who emerged from the various factions, tribes and ethnic groups, or whom the US pushed forward, showed any capacity to conceive of or defend any national interest ahead of a sectarian interest.

The propaganda supporting the invasion (quite apart from the misleading information about weapons of mass destruction) gave the public cause to understand that the fight was an important and necessary escalation of the war against terrorism. It was also an effort to plant the flag of a liberal sectarian democracy in the heart of the Middle East. This was an implicit challenge to the enemies of the US, including internationalist jihadist terrorists, and raised the stakes of the confrontation.

But George W has not been beaten primarily by those al-Qaedaists who flocked to Iraq in answer to the challenge; he has been defeated as much by Iraqis themselves, and by the incapacity of his occupation forces to assemble domestic coalitions with more force, more faith and more hope to offer than any of a number of combinations of the enemies of the occupation.

The war has been long failing; this was recognised even by the American electorate seven months ago. But domestic supporters of the war argued the consequences of formal failure or retreat were so great that it was worth persisting, even in a cause more likely than not to fail, because the moral effect of formal American defeat would be so devastating. Hence the 'surge' earlier this year; the latest round of defections, like the death toll lists, representing merely the demonstration that nothing about that strategy can save the occupation.

No one has argued the need to hang in louder than Prime Minister John Howard. No one has argued louder than he has that cutting and running would send a clear signal to the enemies of US and Western civilisation that terror could win. No one has argued more loudly that the allies of America must stand firm, lest America's leaders and the American people become dispirited by the burden of fighting for freedom and retreat into an isolationism that would be disastrous for world stability, not least in our own region.

John Howard must have been particularly angry at the stupidity (or ignorant would-be instinctive loyalty) of Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, last week, in referring to oil, and oil security, as a part of the parcel of reasons we stand beside America, albeit discreetly, in Iraq.

We should move on, for heaven's sake. The message from Howard, for quite a long time, has been quite clear. We are not there for the Iraqi people. We are not there for Iraq. We are, as we have always been, far too cynical about Middle Eastern politics to have much in the way of hopes or expectations about changing anything much for the better.

Rather we are there so as to stand alongside our ally, the US, a nation, very much like us whose existence (and presence in our region) is critical to broad political stability and our own security. We fear, with good reason, its isolationalist tendencies, and it is particularly because of these that we go out of our way to re-assure it that even in tough times we are its friend. Perhaps particularly in tough time, on the Paul Keating theory that a friend is someone who stands beside you when you are wrong.

This is not only because we like, or need, the assurance, so far as it goes, that America will reciprocate with aid and support if our interests are directly threatened by military means.

Direct military threats are fairly remote. But our interests are also greatly affected by the far from invisible hand of US commerce, aid, culture, and trade in our neighbourhood, and in most of the world. All the more does the fact that America has direct security interests of its own in the region (say, in Taiwan, Japan, the Malacca Strait and the Arabian Gulf) itself help set the temperature. These are interests the US does not have to much posture about; even its potential enemies take them more or less for granted, and would hesitate to challenge.

There is a sense in which Australia's instinctive loyalty is more valuable to the US when it is isolated, besieged, or being criticised by everyone else. Indeed that it's almost the only time that the US is likely to notice us. At the official level, that is. It can take rather more for the US electorate to notice anything.

Despite the Howard Government's prominent role in Iraq, and as a member of a tiny Anglophone coalition of the willing, hardly any US accounts of events since September 11, 2001, mention Howard or Australia at all, and the most recent British account, by Tony Blair's confidant and adviser, Alastair Campbell, does not mention Australia, or Australian politicians at all in any discussion of Iraq or terror.

It puts me rather in mind of what a US statesman repeated to me 20 years ago that America, when determining what was in its national interests, thought of Britain and its interests about as often as Britons, in consulting their interests, thought of the Isle of Wight.

As Barack Obama tartly commented when Howard criticised his calls for withdrawal from Iraq, Australia might be more worth listening to if we were making a greater contribution, or even if we were putting more of our tiny (by US standards) contribution in actual harm's way.

There are arguments about standing by the US first and last, not least in terms of the impact that it has on our standing, in our region and the wider world. Loyal friend can look very much like obedient poodle. It makes harder the arguments of Brendan Nelson in China this week that we have our own national interests, by no means entirely consonant with those of the US, which we are prepared to assert.

But if Howard is right in putting the alliance above all, he might be right, in terms of making the contribution count in American minds, to stay to the bitter end. In theory anyway. He insists that if we left now, or loudly set a timetable for leaving, we would attract, in the US, more attention as a deserter and fair-weather friend than we have had credit for being there in the first place. In much the same way that even a good many Australians know the identities of a few people who fell in the futile defence of the Alamo, Americans might remember us better, and more favourably, if we collapsed alongside in a last-ditch fight. Perhaps particularly if the Brits, now under Gordon Brown, showed signs of panic before us.

But it might not tell that way in the Australian electorate. Heaven knows, Australians have an amazing appetite, and liking, for being involved in comprehensive military defeat. But our legend of ourselves is that we win in the end. It is hard to imagine how Howard's pitching any further involvement in this disaster could be a necessary stepping stone to national triumph.



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