- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

MELBOURNE, Australia — Prime Minister John Howard remained defiant yesterday in the face of criticism of his attack on Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, who called for the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Mr. Howard, who endured daylong criticism from the opposition benches in parliament, refused to apologize for saying over the weekend that the terrorist group al Qaeda would be hoping for Mr. Obama to win the 2008 election in the United States.

Appearing on a national radio news program, Mr. Howard said any early U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would have implications for Australia, which has troops participating in the international coalition there.

“My deep concern is that, if America is defeated in Iraq, an humiliated, enfeebled America might withdraw its interests in our part of the world,” he said. “And it would be a catastrophe for the West if the United States were defeated in Iraq.”

Mr. Howard, whose strong support for the American-led war helped carry him to a fourth three-year term as prime minister in 2004, is finding the conflict less of an asset as he approaches another election in the last half of this year.

Kevin Rudd, the recently installed leader of the opposition Labor Party, leads the prime minister by 48 percent to 43 percent in the latest opinion poll, indicating Labor would coast to a solid parliamentary majority if the election were held today.

Mr. Rudd labeled Mr. Howard’s attack on Mr. Obama a “grave error of prime ministerial judgment during parliamentary debate yesterday.” It was “not just an attack on a single U.S. senator, but an attack upon an entire political party,” Mr. Rudd said.

Even some members of the ruling Liberal-National coalition worried privately that the prime minister had overplayed his hand. In particular, they expressed concern that Mr. Howard’s remarks would reinforce perceptions he was putting his close personal relationship with President Bush ahead of the broader Australian national interest.

While the comments are unlikely to damage the U.S.-Australian alliance, Mr. Howard “may have gone too far,” said Liberal backbencher Malcolm Washer.

“We’ve got a Western alliance … where we must have some solidarity in how we approach these matters,” Mr. Washer said. “Spreading [criticism] to the Democrats probably wasn’t such a good idea. There are a lot of good Democrats who probably don’t feel the same way, but the Western solidarity has got to be the same.”

The Australian, a pro-government newspaper, noted that “national security has been an electoral positive for Mr. Howard during his decade-plus in power. He has managed to override public concerns over issues such as Iraq to win status as a strong leader who voters trust to look after Australia’s interests.

“But there is a view among some Liberal [lawmakers] that national security is not the trump card it once was.”

The anti-Howard newspaper, the Age, said the prime minister had “the right to speak his mind” and noted “it is undeniable that Mr. Howard and Mr. Bush have a close relationship.”

But, the newspaper concluded, “By his comments, Mr. Howard has aligned Australia with one side of American politics — the Republicans. In doing so, he has belittled this nation’s sovereignty.”

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