Two months ago I was standing in front of the war memorial dedicated to the Royal Australian Regiment in Sydney. An RAR corporal had laid two wreaths, movingly inscribed with hand-written tributes, in memory of friends killed in action. He would be in his 60s or 70s today. His friends died 51 years ago in Korea fighting alongside Americans, Brits, and others in the U.N. force.
Korea is not the only war listed on the memorial. Among the others in which the RAR fought are Vietnam, Iraq, and World War II. Aussies were among the first soldiers to join the U.S. in Afghanistan. They are stationed today in Iraq.
Few of us honor the injunction “lest we forget” as faithfully as the RAR corporal. But Americans should know that Australia can claim to be their most reliable ally. The island-continent has fought alongside America in every U.S. war of the 20th and 21st centuries. And a firm American-Australian alliance has been in place since 1941, when Canberra transferred its primary loyalty from Britain to the U.S. following the shock of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese advance southwards through Asia.
That alliance has been the cornerstone of Australian policy since. It has had the consistent bi-partisan support of both Labor and (conservative) Coalition governments. And it has the broad support of most Australians–except for the kind of querulous anti-American Left that exists everywhere, even in the U.S. itself.
Many people expected that for the first time the American alliance would be a major controversy in Saturday’s Australian general election. Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch conservative, had taken the country into the Iraq war alongside the U.S. against strong domestic opposition. Left-wingers in politics and the media blamed the terrorist bombings in Bali and Jakarta that killed Australians on his decision. The new Labor leader, Mark Latham, a feisty politician who once broke a taxi driver’s arm in a quarrel, announced months ago that he would withdraw Australia’s troops from Iraq by Christmas. And the ground was set for a donnybrook.
It hasn’t worked out that way at all. Iraq has scarcely been an issue. Howard has stuck firmly to his pro-Iraq guns, but he has campaigned mainly on domestic issues. If anything, he has gained more from his clear support of the popular U.S. alliance than he has lost through the unpopular Iraqi “troubles.” And he looks like a strong, competent leader as a result.
For his part Latham has tried to put the Iraq issue to sleep. He has not withdrawn his pledge to bring home the troops, but he keeps very quiet about it. He sensed that moderate voters are worried and so he soothed them by appointing respected right-wingers like former leader Kim Beazley to run Labor’s foreign and defense policies. They in turn quietly remind people that Labor has been a bulwark of the American relationship since the Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin, forged it in 1941. And one Labor front-bencher recently remarked that the U.S. has been unambiguously a force for good since 1945–a remark that would scandalize European social democrats.
Instead of giving the voters a battle royal over Iraq, both parties have been promising them all sorts of economic and social goodies in a competitive fiscal giveaway. Usually left-wing parties have a natural advantage in such an auction–and Latham has fought a shrewd and lively campaign on economic and environmental issues.
But Howard has an advantage of his own: the economy is booming. In the last 20 years, Australia has undergone an economic revolution, deregulating, removing protective tariffs, holding down taxes, developing new industries such as financial services, and upgrading its traditional industries (as connoisseurs of Australian red wines will happily confirm). It has also benefited more recently from the rise of the Chinese economy, with its vast appetite for raw materials. As a result, the country has enjoyed the longest boom in its history. But there is no gratitude in politics. Like people in other successful countries, Aussies now take their prosperity for granted. Howard is running up against the feeling of “time for a change.” And despite his economic success and reputation for strong leadership, the polls are tantalizingly close.
If Howard were to lose on Saturday, the White House would have to shoulder some of the blame. Not because of Iraq, but because of the recent U.S.-Australian free trade deal. Howard had taken big political risks to help Bush over Iraq. Aussies in general thought that a tough political pro like Howard would get some solid political reward from Washington in return. But the trade deal was scaled down under pressure from the domestic U.S. agricultural and sugar lobbies. And what Howard got in the end–though containing decent concessions–was very far from being a triumph. Indeed, Latham was able to score points off the prime minister for surrendering more to the U.S. over pharmaceuticals than he had won over farming. It took the shine off what might have been a strong electoral appeal for Howard.
That could turn out to be a mistake for Bush as well as for Howard. A defeat for Howard on Saturday would be interpreted in most of the world as a defeat for the U.S. and a repudiation of Australia’s involvement in Iraq. It would reinforce the impact of the Spanish election: Two leaders who backed Bush would have lost power. Above all, it would embolden the Islamist terrorists to think that their enemies were falling like ninepins and their cause succeeding–which in turn would strengthen their appeal in the Islamic world.
Subtle distinctions get lost in international politics. Whatever the truth about Labour’s support for the American alliance–and Latham might conceivably move leftwards in the flush of unexpected victory–the U.S. needs the Australian people to endorse their Iraqi commitment. Howard is the one who will make sure that happens.
And that is not all. Strategic necessity may be the main reason for wanting a Howard victory. But sentiment cannot entirely be excluded–not when Australian war memorials commemorate all our own wars and when old men don’t forget.
–John O’Sullivan is editor of The National Interest and an editor-at-large of National Review. He can be contacted through Benador Associates at www.benadorassociates.com.