In the wake of President Bush’s setback in the recent mid-term Congressional elections, the Howard Government’s unflinching support for the Iraq War is likely to be severely tested.
John Howard has had an extraordinary run of political luck since he decided to join the U.S.-led Coalition of the Willing in March 2003.
Whereas 2,850 military from the United States have been killed during the so-called “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, and Britain has had 125 military killed since the conflict began, Australia, with its much smaller contingent, has had relatively few casualties.
The U.S. forces have been hit further by generally unreported “non-mortal” casualties which now number more than 21,000.
The only Australian personnel who have died in Iraq are Private Jake Kovko, who was killed in barracks, and an Australian airman who was serving with the British Air Force.
Of course, the Coalition of the Willing actually comprises many more nations than the three usually portrayed in the Australian media – and many of these others have already pulled out.
However, there is no doubt that the U.S. greatly values Australia’s contribution, and President George W. Bush himself has singled out Prime Minister Howard’s unflinching loyalty to the cause.
The Iraq conflict has certainly cost Australia financially – around $1.8 billion at last count; but it has rarely become a key voter issue, even through some of the disastrous mistakes such as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse.
However, this may be about to change and the winds of political change in the U.S. and Britain are not good omens for Mr Howard.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been virtually forced by his own Labour Party to formally announce that he would resign within a year.
And the American voters have dealt a similar body-blow to President Bush at the recent mid-term Congressional elections, though the U.S. leader will remain in office until early 2009.
Whatever the fate of President Bush, clearly the war no longer has the support of the American people.
The Democrats have gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and have forced an immediate change of policy on Iraq.
They are likely to use their majorities in both houses to pursue key figures in the conflict and to investigate both spending on the war and abuse.
President Bush’s stocks have been further seriously undermined by the abandonment of the Iraq War by some of its principal architects – i.e., the very people who strongly encouraged him to go there in the first place.
In an extraordinary series of interviews for Vanity Fair magazine, entitled “Neo Culpa”, some of the war’s neoconservative boosters have turned against the Bush Administration.
The group, which included leading neoconservative Richard Perle, argued that their grand ideas of liberating Iraq and igniting a chain reaction of democratisation of the Middle East had failed.
Moreover, they blamed President Bush himself for the failed war.
Change of direction in Iraq almost certainly means the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops – though how this will be done, without further undermining President Bush’s reputation, is difficult to assess.
In some ways, John Howard has been the strongest advocate of the war. Even after the U.S. election results were having their impact, he was playing down Tony Blair’s first tentative steps toward seeking a “peace settlement”.
Mr Howard has maintained the line that an early troop pullout would harm Australia’s long-term interests by weakening the United States’ prestige, and boosting the stocks of the terrorists.
He said any early pullout would be portrayed as a defeat.
Mr Howard is now maintaining that those predicting an early pullout will be surprised.
But the Labor Opposition – under each of its recent leaders, Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kim Beazley – has maintained all along that the war would end up disastrously, and their predictions are beginning to look correct.
Kim Beazley, who is thoroughly immersed in Middle East politics and national security, has consistently argued that Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place with the wrong strategy.
More and more, Labor’s stance appears to be proved correct.
A recent all-party vote in the Senate (sponsored by Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce), calling for justice for Guantanamo Bay prisoner David Hicks, is a further sign that Australia’s unflinching support for the Bush Administration is beginning to unwind.
However, it is still highly unlikely that Mr Howard will move away from the Bush line on Iraq.
But that trust in the wisdom of the Bush strategy, which has been the hallmark of the Howard Government for the past six years, is likely to be severely tested.