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The steadfast climb up Mount Arrogant

March 23, 2007

I’ve watched Barack Obama with increasing interest over these last few months and one of the things that has really struck me about the man is his quick-witted ability to size things up in an instant and deliver a succinct sentence or two that cuts to the heart of whatever he’s talking about. John Howard felt the full brunt of Obama’s ability to do this about a month and a half ago when he proclaimed that terrorists in Iraq supported Obama and the Democrats in the US. Of course, Howard’s remarks were made in the context of his unwavering assertion that civilization will come to an end if the US and Australia pull out of Iraq. Upon hearing Howard’s remarks, Obama quipped back that if Howard was so “ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, then perhaps he should send 20,000 more Australians to the war. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.” And there you have it. That’s all it is. If Howard is so committed to fighting terrorism, then why are Australian troops stationed in the relatively peaceful south of Iraq and not in the middle around Baghdad where the hotbed of Iraqi resistance, insurgency and terrorism is happening? If Howard is so committed to fighting terrorism, why do we have a total of only 550 troops in Iraq? I noticed Alexander Downer saying this week that the Governemnt will never surrender to the terrorists in Iraq. Surrender? Our forces aren’t even in Baghdad fighting them Alexander – surely you know that. Of course you do – your whole goal is to whip up hysteria and fear in the electorate.

Howard is caught between a rock and a hard place in regard to Iraq. On the one hand, he can’t desert his mate George W. Bush and admit that he was wrong to support this absolute disaster of a war in the first place. On the other hand, he can’t really back up his thunderous claims with more troops because he knows how deeply unpopular the war is in Australia. So what does he do? In the classic slimey Howard way, he attempts to play the electorate with fear and a steadfast projection of himself as the wise captain at the helm, always knowing what is up ahead and steering us poor ignorant voters to safety.

But is this washing with voters anymore? I’m not so sure. Polls, as we all know, usually aren’t very good signifiers of anything unless there’s a marked trend over a time of about six months or more. However, looking at the polls over the last six months it seems as though this trend is happening and support for Howard’s government as well as the popularity of the man himself is slipping. Interestingly enough, one of these polls suggested that 68% of voters believe that Howard is arrogant. In response, Howard said: “I don’t feel very arrogant, I don’t behave in an arrogant manner”. No! Of course not. Why would voters think that someone like Howard, who thinks the Vietnam War was justified and right, even with the benefit of hindsight, is arrogant? Why would anyone think that Howard who has said this week in regard to Iraq that “I accept that I may be, on this issue, swimming against the tide of public opinion” is arrogant? Then again, perhaps Howard is telling the truth in saying that he doesn’t feel very arrogant, because he knows that everything he’s saying on Iraq and terrorism is “empty rhetoric”. And thus we return to Obama’s nail on the head summary. It’s all a bunch of empty rhetoric – everything that Howard has said on Iraq and Afghanistan is.

The point was again highlighted this week on Radio National Breakfast by Professor William Maley, director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the ANU when Fran Kelly asked him about Afghanistan and the dire situation there:

“Alright, so how do we combat this? Is it simply more troops? I know that certainly that’s what the Australian Government and the US Administration have been calling for.”

To which Professor Maley responded:

“Yes, I think it’s actually very disappointing that the Prime Minister, in his speech last night to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute didn’t take the opportunity to announce a further deployment of cutting edge troops to Afghanistan. It actually highlighted for me that the speech was much more about the Australian election than about the well being of the people in Afghanistan.”

And there you have it again. Obama sized it up and said it straight away a month and half ago and Professor Maley has echoed his summary this week. Howard has scaled to the very top of Mount Arrogant over the last few years and is now bellowing out in every direction to make it look like he was right to do so. All the while, the truth is that he is precariously stuck on the summit. I wonder what form the rescue helicopter is going to take. It’s only a matter of time before the Government whips up another distraction lie. The question is whether it will work again this time. I’ve said it before and many others have been saying it for some time now: it’s going to be a very interesting year in Australian politics.

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