- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

Whatever the perception might be down under, there’s little speculation about how Saturday’s Australian election will be viewed in the United States. Prime Minister John Howard, who is seeking a fourth term, is a staunch supporter of President Bush’s foreign policy, particularly in Iraq, in much the same vein as British Prime Minster Tony Blair. Labor candidate Mark Latham has chosen to challenge his country’s Iraq policy in a way that his counterpart in America, John Kerry, might recognize.

At stake is whether the 850 Australian troops stationed in Iraq will remain there. Since the war in Iraq began last year, the prime minister has stated that the troops should remain as long as necessary — much as Mr. Bush has in the case of American forces. Mr. Latham’s position is that the Australian contingent should be out by Christmas. While small by comparison with the U.S. deployment, the Australian one serves as an important symbolic statement of the strength of the U.S.-led alliance against terror.

Following the acquiescence by Spain and the Philippines to terrorist demands, the possibility of an attack disrupting the Australian election looms ominously. But the Australians, like their American allies, have already experienced firsthand terrorism’s painful consequences. In 2002, a horrific car bomb in Bali, Indonesia killed 88 Australian tourists, and last month terrorists bombed the Australian embassy in Jakarta. The reality is that, as a Westernized nation, Australia’s very presence is inimical to Islamist terrorists in the region. The country will remain a potential target regardless of the government’s relationship with Washington at any given time.

It is also possible that even if Mr. Latham wins on Saturday, there would not be a dramatic change in Australian foreign policy. Political reality has already forced him to backtrack on some of his more extreme positions. When the polls indicated his opposition to American policy would be a losing proposition, Mr. Latham brought in the highly respected and pro-American former defense minister Kim Beazley as his defense spokesman. Some Australian commentators have argued that foreign policy has been taken off the list of contentious campaign issues since both candidates more or less hold the same position.

That remains to be seen. An editorial in The Australian, while sympathetic to this view, coincides with our own: “The only outstanding question is what would Mark Latham do if the US president asked for Australian troops to serve against terrorists who were our declared enemies, but were a long way from our region. And on this crucial question John Howard is a step ahead.”

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