Kurt Campbell is an expert on Asia and security issues who is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. He served in the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, in charge of Asia/Pacific issues, and earlier taught at Harvard. Campbell has written widely, for popular and academic audiences, about everything from Japan to nuclear policy.
Writing in the NY Times [not available on line unless a subscriber] Campbell, visiting Australia, reflects on the George Bush-John Howard friendship and politics in Oz in 2007:
"A recent family trip to Australia was a welcome reminder that there are still some places Americans can go in the world. Alas, there are fewer and fewer such places, where it is possible to hear a few admiring words about America and Americans. From Melbourne to the Great Barrier Reef our family was shown every hospitality, and there was still a smattering of goodwill from the many Aussies we encountered for what the United States still does for the world (notice the present tense). There was scarcely a reminder of the tragedy of Iraq, the abuses of Guantanamo or the indignities of our increasing global diplomatic isolation.
This underlying respect for the good old U.S. of A. is probably one of the reasons why President George W. Bush and his massive entourage decided to fly back from his secret visit to Iraq via Sydney, to pay a visit to his old mate John Howard, right, the Prime Minister of Australia. While the agenda in Australia also called for a meeting with 21 Asian leaders to discuss weighty policy matters like global climate change and to listen attentively while others opined — just the kind of venue the President dislikes and performs so poorly in — the real purpose of the visit was to try to bolster Howard as he heads into what may be his last general election in the coming months.
President Bush has spent much of the summer bidding farewell to his closest political advisors here at home, including Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett and now Tony Snow. But he has also lost several of the remaining stalwart friends on the international scene that stood by him and the United States through 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. Prime Minister Blair handed over the reigns of power to Gordon Brown earlier in the summer and Prime Minister Koizumi turned over power in Japan to an increasingly besieged Prime Minister Abe last year.
John Howard is in many ways his last remaining friend in the world.
Howard has been an extraordinarily successful politician and has remained on top of the brutal rugby scrum that is Australian politics for over a decade. He is somehow an unlikely leader to American eyes, combining the public charisma of Dick Cheney and the moral rectitude of Jimmy Carter with the instinct for the political jugular of Tom DeLay. You get the picture.
Yet he has stood with and by Bush every step of the way even before the onset of the war on terror. Howard was with President Bush in Washington when the planes slammed into the twin towers and Pentagon on 9/11, helping to forge a personal bond that endures. Howard was proud to subsequently describe Australia as America’s “deputy sheriff” in Asia, a calling card that did not sit particularly well with many Australians and most Southeast Asians.
He has presided over strong and sustained economic growth in Australia and has also managed to make the most politically from the modest military contributions to both Afghanistan and Iraq. Howard alone among world leaders from the armed coalition that went into Iraq at the outset understood that it was important to get in fast, and then leave first. Australian Special Forces served with distinction early on, but then most of their military left the direct fray of post-conflict operations in and around Iraq after the “Mission Accomplished” banner was unfurled. Australia continues to provide support in a variety of endeavors in the region but, remarkably, has taken no combat casualties since the onset of the war.
Still, Australia and John Howard have a special place in the goodwill of official Washington, and President Bush seemed more than pleased to fly half way around the world just to see a friendly face. Sydney was shut down for days by the security establishments of the Australia and the U.S. inconveniencing millions to give the two men a little quiet time together. But the only real disconnect in the carefully orchestrated get-together between two old political friends was the President’s slip that we were “kicking ass” in Iraq, a line eerily reminiscent of his “bring it on” Texas showboating when the insurgency was just getting underway back in 2003. The President’s increasingly diminishing numbers of red state supporters still rally to such incendiary words, but even the most ardent Australian supporters of the U.S. and Bush were a little sheepish after this most recent example of Bush bravado.
Howard has faced down challenges from Labor leaders before, but he currently confronts a new Labor leader in Kevin Rudd. Rudd combines the countenance of an accountant with the youngish looks of a choir boy. At first glance he would appear to be the least likely challenger to the wizened and crafty Howard. However, a new poll taken in Australia during Bush’s visit had Rudd nearly 15 points up on Howard, virtually insurmountable in Australian politics. Most Australians now say that “it is time for a change” in their politics, another matter on which many Australians and Americans agree. As President Bush climbed back aboard Air Force One for the long flight home, he turned to wave farewell one last time. It was easy for any onlooker to see that he was waving goodbye not just to lovely Sydney and to friendly Australia but to his old mate John Howard, possibly his last friend in the world."