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Domestic politics shape Australian foreign policy

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007


Foreign policy has not been a strong point of the Howard Government. These past few weeks have seen that illustrated by Howard’s new Iraq policy and diplomatic pressure applied by India to fast track uranium sales made possible by the Dr Haneef fiasco.

Howard is planning to pull the bulk of Australian troops out of Iraq over the next six months beginning in the month in the run up to the election.

The leaking of the confidential letter from Howard to Iraqi Prime Minister, Maliki, has the hallmark of having been done so deliberately.

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In the world of international diplomacy Howard did not have to write to Maliki, there are other forms of diplomatic communication which are just as effective if not more so; for instance Howard uses the phone when he wants to communicate on matters of importance with George Bush and that of course has the benefit of avoiding leaks.

The message that Howard is losing patience with Maliki and the Iraqi Government was meant primarily for Australian domestic consumption.

We know by now that a primary modus operandi for Howard is to proceed as if he proposes no change but to drop hints that he might. When questioned he denies planted rumours and reiterates that change is not anticipated.

Getting out of Iraq will be for Australia the reverse of getting in; we can expect the full panoply of lies, half truths and strategic leaks until the moment of the announcement of the staged withdrawal which will be close to the date Howard calls the election.

He is desperately chasing votes and if polling suggests that Iraq is a vote changing issue then it is safe to assume he will do whatever it takes to try and claw back those votes.

But as we have come to know and dislike he will be too disingenuous and tricky by half, so that any electoral benefit that might accrue from withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq will be lost because of his lack of honesty.

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No doubt he will have cleared the withdrawal with Bush, who will have been briefed on the parlous political prospects of his loyal ally. Bush is no doubt contemplating the timing of his own announcement of withdrawal.

The Australian military presence in Iraq was symbolic; our withdrawal will not alter the military balance. The issue surrounding an Australian withdrawal was always about face saving but as Howard becomes more desperate, face saving has come second to vote grabbing.

Howard has had his plan for withdrawal in the pipeline for about six or eight weeks but held off in the hope that the polls would pick up. They haven’t so he now feels compelled to make the move and has run his first signal up the mast through his strategic leak, which is unlikely to be investigated by the AFP.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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