SYDNEY, Australia — Australian Prime Minister John Howard has tied his political future to President Bush‘s unpopular war in Iraq, and he is on the verge of being ousted by a feisty war opponent.
Nationwide polls show the prime minister, in office for 11 years, lags 18 points behind Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, who has vowed to withdraw about 1,600 Australian troops from Iraq if he wins the election, set to take place before the end of the year.
But Mr. Bush’s ally — who first met the president on Sept. 10, 2001, and whose bond with him was forged the next day — refuses to draw back, calling Mr. Rudd’s proposal to scale down the Iraq force “objectionable.”
“Firstly, it misreads the needs of the Iraqi people, and secondly, at the present time, a close ally and friend such as Australia should be providing the maximum presence and indication of support to our very close ally and friend in the person of the United States,” Mr. Howard said as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Bush.
The prime minister is still in office after other major leaders of the original coalition — Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain — have been replaced with skeptics of the war. Like a majority of Americans, Australians have become frustrated with the war, and political commentators each day harangue the prime minister for what they call blind obedience to the U.S. juggernaut.
Although he continues to support Mr. Howard, the president met today with Mr. Rudd. The unusual move appeared to be driven by Mr. Rudd’s election prospects. Mr. Bush set aside 20 minutes for the meeting and, unlike his sessions with Mr. Howard, did not allow reporters into the room afterward.
Mr. Rudd sees his antiwar stance as the key to victory, and has made clear his differences with the prime minister, whom he ties regularly to the U.S. president.
“Mr. Bush and Mr. Howard have their views on Iraq,” he said before Mr. Bush’s arrival for an Asian economic summit. “We have a different view on Iraq. Our policy is that we need a negotiated, phased withdrawal of Australian combat forces from Iraq, and that is what we intend to proceed doing.”
Mr. Rudd said after his meeting with Mr. Bush that their discussion would be kept off the record, at the president’s request. He said the talks lasted 45 minutes and that they had “a wide-ranging, good-natured, very open discussion.”
He acknowledged that the prime minister and the president are close friends. Asked whether he thought he could develop a similar friendship with Mr. Bush, Mr. Rudd replied: “I’m a friendly sort of guy.”
Mr. Howard is clearly aware of the downside to his apparent coziness with the president and has sought to walk a fine line: He opted to attend a sports awards ceremony in Sydney on Tuesday night, leaving a lower-level official to greet Mr. Bush when he arrived at the airport.
“I have got to get my priorities right. No disrespect — he’s my good friend, but this is rugby league,” the prime minister said from the Dally M Awards that night.
Mr. Bush has remained true to his ally and close friend, telling reporters at a press conference yesterday: “I wouldn’t count the man out. As I recall, he’s kind of like me: We both have run from behind, and won.”