Australia PM Howard Censure Motion Over Barack Obama and Iraq

The war of words between Australian Prime Minister John Howard and US Presidential candidate Barack Obama spilled over into the Australian Parliament on Monday and culminated in a censure motion against the Prime Minister.

On the Nine Network’s Sunday program, Mr Howard slammed Senator Obama (D-Ill.) and the Democratic Party the day after Mr Obama officially announced his bid for the US Presidency and declared that, if elected, he would withdraw all US troops from Iraq.  “I think that would just encourage those who wanted completely to destabilize and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory,” said Mr Howard. “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.”

Senator Obama wasted no time returning fire at Mr Howard’s “cowboy rhetoric”.  “I think it’s flattering that one of George Bush’s allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced my [presidential] candidacy,” said Sen. Obama. “I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1,400. So if he is ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and send them to Iraq, otherwise it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”

On Monday, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer told ABC Radio, “That would be half of our army. Australia is a much smaller country than the United States and so he might like to weigh that up.” Australian Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd condemned the Prime Minister’s remarks and moved a censure (vote of no confidence) motion against Mr Howard, citing his “false statement” that terrorist network al Qaeda would be hoping for a Democratic candidate to win next year’s US presidential election.

“To accuse the Democratic Party of being the terrorist’s party of choice, this is a most serious charge,” said Mr Rudd. “To accuse the party of Roosevelt, to accuse the party of Truman, to accuse the party of Kennedy and Johnson … of being the terrorist’s party of choice?” The censure motion also took aim at Mr Howard’s “gross insensitivity” for lecturing the US on whether or not to withdraw its troops, when more than 3,000 US troops had lost their lives in Iraq. The motion, which was defeated along party lines, further accused Mr Howard of damaging the Australia-US alliance by playing partisan politics.

“Mr Howard must not allow his personal relationship with President Bush to impact on Australia’s long-term alliance relationship with the United States,” said Mr Rudd. “The alliance … has prevailed with such strength and certainty because it has always been above party politics.” Senator Obama also rejected claims that a US withdrawal would increase the threat of terrorism, noting that the Bush administration’s “own intelligence agencies have indicated that the threat of terrorism has increased as a consequence of our actions over there.”

According to an October 2006 poll conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, this is a view shared by the majority of Australians. It found that 84 per cent of Australians believe the Iraq war has done nothing to lower the threat of terrorism.  Two-thirds of respondents disagreed that the war would lead to the spread of democracy in the Middle East, and 91 per cent said they believed that the Iraq war had worsened US relations with the Muslim world.

Executive director Alan Gyngell said the poll showed a strong trend in the attitudes of Australians toward the Iraq war. Referring to the Australian public’s long-standing skepticism about intelligence used in the lead up to the US-led invasion, Mr Gyngell told ABC Radio, “The debate seems to be over about the reasons that we went into Iraq, that is 84 per cent disagree with the statement that the threat of terrorism has been reduced by Iraq. There’s pretty strong agreement that is hasn’t worked.”   He also said that, “There’s a very strong view that the US has too much influence on our foreign policy.”

These sentiments were expressed by Mr Rudd yesterday in the Australian Parliament, when he said the Howard Government had spent too long following the lead of the Bush administration. “Mr Howard and Mr Downer as well have become followers, not leaders, when it comes to international affairs. And when it came to Iraq in particular, they just followed the American lead rather than doing the responsible thing for Australia and the world,” said Mr Rudd. Prime Minister Howard is seeking a fifth term in office later this year and, like President Bush, he is beginning to experience a powerful backlash from the electorate who want a deadline set for withdrawing Australian troops. And like the November mid-term elections in the US, the unpopular Iraq war is shaping up to be a determining factor in the looming Australian federal election.

Mr Rudd, who has pledged to withdraw Australian troops from combat roles if he is elected, has said that “being a good ally … doesn’t mean that you have to comply with everything the United States says”. He added that he would not “leave our ally immediately in the lurch” and would act only following “clear-cut consultations with the Americans”. An AC Nielsen poll published on Monday gave Mr Rudd’s Labor Party a 16-point lead over the Howard (Liberal-National) Government, with Labor leading 58 per cent to 42 per cent on two-party preferred terms. Mr Rudd’s personal approval rating registered at 65 per cent – the highest by an Opposition Leader in decades.



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