John Howard’s $700,000 world trip has been described by some cynics as a “victory lap”. That’s unfair to the Prime Minister: in no respect can the war in Iraq be described as a victory.
When John Howard boards an international flight, he can’t help stopping over in Washington for a photo op with George Bush. This was his second visit to Washington in a year and he stayed for five nights. At what point do these jaunts stop being the visit of a close ally and start constituting stalking?
This time, of course, John Howard’s loyalty was finally rewarded with all the trimmings of a State visit – the marching bands, the banquet and the rest. And it’s not surprising the White House pulled out all stops. Ahead of the US midterm elections, John Howard must be the only politician Bush’s cronies can get who’s willing to be seen with Mr 32 per cent these days. President Bush’s figures make Kim Beazley’s look good.
Bush praised his ally’s trustworthiness, saying “you can take it to the bank” when Howard tells you something. Australian voters might be tempted to protest that the bank you take the PM’s promises to will still raise interest rates twice.
Bush also predicted Howard would outlast him, which most pundits took to mean the PM would last until at least 2008. Not so. Given the growing mood in favour of impeachment in Washington and Rupert Murdoch suggesting that Howard quit while he’s ahead, neither may be there at the end of this year.
Iraq loomed over the self-congratulatory affair, giving the leaders an air of fiddling while Baghdad burned. The most significant moment in the backslapping festival came when the PM reiterated his commitment to keep troops in Iraq.
And no matter how strongly public opinion swings in favour of withdrawal, Australia’s continuing involvement in Iraq is one commitment President Bush can take to the bank.