December 10, 2007
American politicians are not universally celebrated as adroit observers of international affairs. Indeed, a picture from the 2000 election of Governor George Bush reading The Economist seemed a more affected photo-op than Michael Dukakis’s disastrous tank ride in 1988. Smart-aleck journalists revel in flummoxing presidential aspirants by posing such annoying questions as “Who, sir, is the prime minister of Uganda?”
Some are better at this cat-and-mouse game than others. In 1999 Andy Hiller, a Boston-based political reporter, made quite a splash when he asked Gov. Bush if he could name the leaders of Chechnya, India, Taiwan, and Pakistan; “W” could only summon up “Lee”, for Taiwan’s Lee Teng-hui. As of late, Fred Thompson fared slightly better when pressed to identify the current PM of Canada; “Harper” was his pithy reply.
However, given recent events, there is, mayhap, one foreign politician whose name should be well known to that motley gaggle seeking to assume the leadership of Bush’s War Party: John Howard, Australia’s ex-Prime Minister. There are also lessons that could be gleaned from his November 24th sacking, though they are unlikely to be absorbed by any of the perpetually deluded top-tier Republican candidates.
All things being equal, Mr. Howard, leader of the centre-right Liberal Party, should have routed his opponent, Kevin Rudd, and the opposition Labour Party. Instead, Labour won its largest vote share in sixty years; Howard’s bio has earned an ignominious footnote, as he is now only the second PM in Australia’s history to lose his parliamentary seat (the first was Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929) in a general election; and Peter Costello, Howard’s would-be successor, has made it explicitly clear to party regulars that the cup of leadership for this vanquished party can be passed to another.
This, quite simply, was not how things were supposed to have unfolded for Mr. Howard.
Take Kevin Rudd, for example. A capable politician though he may be, Mr. Rudd seems to be cast from the standardized mould of Baby-Boomer politicians: keenly intelligent, but patently flawed. In the months leading up to the election, it was revealed that in 2003, Rudd, whilst in New York on diplomatic business, and an associate, deep in cups, meandered their way to a local strip club and caused such a ruckus they were asked to vacate. When queried about the incident, the married Rudd responded that the effects of drink were such that a retelling of the evening’s escapades was simply not on. The Aussies guffawed and he went up four points in the polls.
The shifting sensibilities of the public aside, the most compelling reason why, at any other time, Howard should have soared to victory is the economy—it is abounding, and shows no immediate signs of letting up. Australia is experiencing its 17th year of uninterrupted growth! Eleven of those years were steered along under Howard’s premiership. And no government Down Under has ever been voted out in prosperous times . . . till now.
What, then, was a major factor contributing to this loss? It’s simple: ‘twas the war, mate.
Mr. Howard, an inveterate cricket-watching Tory, was a conspicuous and faithful member of the Coalition of the Willing (COW). An eye-witness to the horrors of 9/11—he was in D.C. on that fateful day—Howard pledged, early on, his personal and national support to the primus inter pares of the English-speaking world, George Bush. When the U.S. let slip the dogs of war in Iraq, and “old Europe” was being deprecated by the matinee idol of the blue-haired set, Donald Rumsfeld, Australia’s troops (1,400 at its acme) slogged their way through the trenches of Mesopotamia.
Unfortunately for Mr. Howard, the Australian people, a solicitous and generally pro-American lot, proved unwilling to brook this specious police action. Mr. Rudd—who ran a plain-as-vanilla campaign, employing such clichés as “New Leadership” and “Fresh Ideas”—managed to tap into the anti-Iraq war sentiment at home. When addressing foreign policy questions, he euphemistically stated that, under his leadership, Australia would “lead” and not just follow. In bolder moments, Rudd pledged that he would return the remaining 550 troops back to their native land by mid-2008.
Now, thanks to his tin ear on Iraq, Mr. Howard—a thoroughly competent and genuinely conservative public servant—has been forced into early retirement, and he’s not alone. Howard now joins league with other conservative foreign leaders given the boot because they chose to play along with America’s war games. To greet him on the lucrative lecture circuit for yesterday’s man will be his fellow COWs , Jose Maria Aznar Lopez (Spain’s former President, whose centre-right People’s Party was voted out in 2004) and Silvio Berlusconi (Italy’s past Prime Minister, whose centre-right Forza Italia party was voted out in 2006). The results for social conservatives in each country (for instance, opponents of gay “marriage” in Spain) have been catastrophic. But hey, at least we had a “coalition of the willing.” That has to count for something….
The lesson here for politicians in the United States to heed is too obvious to state. Nevertheless, the Republicans (save for Ron Paul)—who excel in their waking moments to giving credence to the late Samuel Francis’s tart assessment that the GOP is the stupid party—are most certain to miss it.
Nicholas Sanchez is a professional fund-raiser and conservative activist. After having worked for several years at the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C., Mr. Sanchez now resides in Manchester, NH. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.