Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist
A low blow from Down Under
In the United States right now, the concept of political news is pretty much defined by the very next thing Barack Obama does, whatever...
LOS ANGELES — In the United States right now, the concept of political news is pretty much defined by the very next thing Barack Obama does, whatever it is. He's the first-term Illinois senator who has suddenly transformed himself into the Cinderella of American presidential politics. He's all news all the time.
Part of the reason for his newfound prominence has to do with the U.S. press corps. It gets easily bored, and Obama is the new flavor of the month.
Another factor is that Obama is but the third black U.S. senator since the Reconstruction era, and this goes back to 1877 or so. Another reason is that, unlike most U.S. politicians, Sen. Obama tends to take unequivocal, even controversial public stands. Bravo! This means he's not at all like nomination-competitor Hillary Clinton, who on really tough issues is practically a walking fudge factory in pumps.
And now Obama's most outspoken stand has lodged under the skin of a prominent Asian-Pacific leader. That's John Howard, now seeking his fifth term as the prime minister of Australia and facing judgment in November. Many voters don't like Australia's continuing support of the U.S. war effort in Iraq.
Personal disclosure: I have almost never met an Australian I don't like, Howard included. So let's give him his due by quoting in full his high-profile criticism of Sen. Obama's call for the removal of U.S. combat forces by March 31, 2008.
"I think that will just encourage those who want to destabilize and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory," he told Australian Nine Network television over the weekend. "If I were running al-Qaida in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats."
Foreign observers were struck by the over-the-top verbal entry of the ordinarily cautious Down Under leader into the U.S. presidential circus. Certainly, Howard's decision to attack Obama for endorsing date-certain Iraq withdrawal has to raise eyebrows. After all, Obama was not the first to float this idea, not at all.
In August 2005, prominent Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold offered a date certain for withdrawal (Dec. 31, 2006). Feingold was then regarded as a potential presidential candidate. Later that year, Pennsylvania's Democratic Rep. John Murtha called for an immediate Iraq pullout. Then, in June 2006, before his everlasting White House ambitions disintegrated in thin air, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry proposed removing all U.S. combat troops by July 1, 2007.
More recently, Democratic Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak, talented and probably a political comer, called for terminating the U.S. troop commitment in Iraq by the end of this year.
To be sure, few people ever regarded Kerry's second candidacy as credible, except perhaps Kerry. But Feingold is no joke at all, and Sestak has a perch on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. That Howard chose to ignore these prior "put-a-circle-around-the-date" "pro-al-Qaida" American politicians is probably due to Obama's increasing plausibility.
Obama got the full brunt of a Howard slap shot precisely because a lot of people feel this tall, attractive figure has a real shot at the White House, though perhaps more probably on tier two of the ticket. What's more, Howard, having chipped in 1,400 Australian soldiers to Iraq, is feeling the heat in his own campaign from voters who are unhappy about their prime minister's slavish support of the American president's foolish war.
Alas, Howard's attack may raise other issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia's critics ever-ready to find fault will point out that of all the American politicians who have called for withdrawal on a date certain, the Australian leader chose only to attack the one politician who was non-white.
Australia is too fine a place and its many minorities on the whole only too happy to live there for such an ugly insinuation to stick for long. But this is not the first time a prominent Australian political figure has said something that is bound to revive old claims.
I wish Howard had kept his peace, rather than saying his piece. Obama should lose no sleep over the attack, but Howard might find that he will.
UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.
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