Time for the Deputy Sheriff to turn in his badge?

George Bush hasn’t got many mates left. You can’t count Dick Cheney, whose idea of friendship seems to involve shooting people. Even his fellow Republicans have done their best to distance themselves from him. Leaving John Howard as just about the only friend he’s still got in his corner. And, as we’ve seen so often before, there are no bounds to our Prime Minister’s devotion to the President who indulges him like a patronising elder brother. Which is about the only reason I can think of why he’d want to get into a slanging match with Barack Obama over Iraq.

It’s quite unlike Howard to get drawn into a stoush like this. In recent years, he has become quite a dab hand at statemanship, tending to rise above these sorts of controversies by saying he’s not a commentator, relentlessly playing down any hint of a story. But he seems to be losing his cool lately, whether through age, the multitude of political problems on his horizon, or Kevin Rudd’s strong polling. Okay, so John Howard was never cool – bad choice of words. But he’s a lot less invincible than he seemed in 2004.

Obama is not even his party’s nominee, so it would have been all too easy to just play down any questions about his stance on Iraq by highlighting his inexperience – the Senator’s greatest political liability. But Howard took the bait, and served up the same old tripe about emboldening terrorists that we’ve heard the likes of Dick Cheney use before to try to shut down debate. And you can tell just how well it plays with Americans these days when you recall that the electorate has already dumped the Republicans from both houses of Congress, and Cheney – seen as the main architect of the war – has an approval rating of 29%. Even Howard’s not doing that badly. At least, not yet.

Instead, a world leader has taken the greenhorn Senator seriously enough as a potential President to criticise his policy. No wonder Obama says he feels flattered. And his comments about the tininess of Australia’s troop deployment only highlighted his pitch to the American people that he’s concerned about how many lives are at risk. If Howard was trying to influence Americans not to vote for Obama, he will have had the opposite effect.

Howard’s comments were certainly intemperate, telling Sunday that “If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.” And really, second-guessing whether terrorists would prefer a Republican or Democratic administration, and whether they’d rather there were Coalition troops in Iraq or not, is a spurious exercise. The sight of American troops all over the country is the best recruiting tool the insurgents could hope for, surely, and it’s quite possible that if they left, it would help the moderates by making them seem less beholden to the Americans.

Besides, if I was Osama bin Laden – just to illustrate the strangeness of trying to see things from his perpective – I’d be a huge fan of George Bush because he allowed himself to get distracted by Iraq instead of putting his resources into killing me.

I find the talk of emboldening terrorists particularly ridiculous. Really, how much bolder could the terrorists get? They’re already comfortably winning. Is there a extra boldness gear that we don’t know about? Because the Rumsfeld formula of invading without adequate preparation or enough troops to get the job done is what has done the most to build up terrorist networks in Iraq.

Besides, even if we could get AC Nielsen to accurately poll the terrorists’ political wishes, surely that wouldn’t be any basis for policymaking. The American people showed in November that their overwhelming interest in all this is the safety of the 140,000 troops in harm’s way, and the more than 3,000 that have already died. At this point, what happens to Iraq is very much a secondary consideration in American politics. So it’s hardly surprising that people like John Edwards are advocating an immediate withdrawal.

John Howard is so closely associated with Iraq that I suppose he has to try and win the argument on staying the course. Given Kevin Rudd’s promise to withdraw Australian troops, it is an election issue here. But the Liberals are going to have to come up with more convincing arguments than these. “Vote Republican or the terrorists win” may have cut it in the 2004 election, but it didn’t work in 2006. John Howard’s finally going to have to answer for the debacle Iraq has become, and this lame, Cheney-style rhetoric isn’t convincing anyone.

Dominic Knight