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ANZUS at 70: The Howard government and the alliance

Posted By on September 3, 2021 @ 12:42

The American alliance, of which the ANZUS Treaty is part but far from the whole, is based fundamentally on shared interests and values. How it operates is also influenced by personalities. It transcends particular US presidents and Australian prime ministers, but it’s also true that individuals have an impact on its functioning.

During the Vietnam War era, Lyndon B. Johnson and Harold Holt were famously close. It was the opposite with Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon. John Howard had a personally cool relationship with Bill Clinton and an extremely close and warm one with George W. Bush. Howard has written in his autobiography, Lazarus rising, ‘We were closer friends than any other two occupants of the leadership positions we once respectively held.’ It’s fascinating to speculate how things would have gone if Howard had won the 2007 election, after he had suggested that year that al-Qaeda would be praying for Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election (something he later privately regretted saying).

Rather like Scott Morrison, Howard arrived in office after a political career built on domestic politics and policies, rather than any wide expertise or sustained interest in foreign policy. Circumstances, however, dictated that his international stance would be a significant and defining part of his prime ministership. He took Australia into our longest war, in Afghanistan, and also into one of our most controversial, in Iraq. Both engagements were driven by Australia’s commitment to the alliance.

Howard was the first (and so far the only) prime minister to invoke the ANZUS Treaty, after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. This was primarily to underline Australia’s declaration of solidarity with America and its people, rather than for any operational purpose. But as Allan Behm, from the Australia Institute, told me, the treaty’s invocation was in vastly different circumstances—a terrorist attack—than the more conventional military threats that were in the minds of its drafters.

Howard from the start brought to his prime ministership the strong commitment to the alliance that marks Australian leaders, especially from the Liberal side of politics. He wanted to reinvigorate the links with traditional friends, after the Labor Party’s emphasis on building Australia’s connections with Asia. John McCarthy, the Australian ambassador in Washington when the Howard government was elected, recalls conveying an offer relating to military training assistance in Australia (which didn’t go anywhere at the time).

But there’s no doubt—as Howard himself attests—that being in Washington on 9/11 gave a deep emotional element to that commitment, symbolised by bringing ANZUS into play. He had already been impressed with Bush (whom he had contacted during the Clinton presidency) in their talks the day before the terrorist attack. But the shock and immense impact of that frightening day and its aftermath put the relationship on another, highly bonded, footing.

The initial commitment of Australian forces to the Afghanistan war was an easy one (to the extent that any decision for war can be easy), for Howard and for Australia. America’s allies, and many other countries, were appalled by the attacks and uncertain and apprehensive about what might follow. There was a demonstrable justification for removing the terrorists’ safe haven in Afghanistan, and a broad coalition of nations joined the effort. Few would have predicted, however, that the war would drag on so long, and that Australian forces would be there for most of it. The conflict cost the lives of 41 Australian soldiers in theatre and injured or deeply scarred many more. For the most part, after the initial phase, the Australian public seemed to pay little attention to the conflict.

Given the strength of their relationship, Bush could rely on Howard supporting his attack on Iraq, although this was problematic in strategic terms, didn’t enjoy bipartisan support in Australia, and sparked large anti-war demonstrations here as well as in other countries. Howard was cautious, however, in how he handled Australia’s role; Australian forces were deployed in a way that minimised the risk to them. As a result, there were no combat losses. There was also no reference to ANZUS.

While the commitment in Iraq was a measure of the Howard government’s loyalty to the alliance, it took a toll (albeit temporary) on support for that alliance. In 2007, according to the Lowy Institute poll, that support was at 63%, which was the lowest point in the poll’s history (lower than during the Donald Trump presidency, which also brought a dip).

Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, wrote in The Australian [1] on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion that Howard had made it clear that:

alliance considerations were prominent in his thinking in 2003. That is appropriate. An alliance is a serious matter. It requires that you support your ally when it is in the right, even in the hard cases … There is no point in being an ally in name only. Indeed, our reliability as an ally contributes to our access and influence in Washington.

But our alliance does not require us to support our ally when that ally is in the wrong … The Iraq war made the US weaker, poorer, less respected and less feared. Given that we rely on US power for our own security, this is something that Australians ought to regret.

The Iraq decision didn’t cost Howard votes in 2004. In the election before that, in 2001, national security and alliance politics clearly played to his advantage. There were other factors in his defeat of Labor’s Kim Beazley, including the stand-off over the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter that had tried to land hundreds of asylum seekers (mainly Afghans) whom it had rescued, but the aftermath of September 11 was crucial.

Howard recounts in Lazarus rising a conversation with Bush in 2008. By then a former prime minister, he was in Washington, and Bush hosted a dinner for him. The president had an imminent meeting with new PM Kevin Rudd, and asked Howard about him. ‘I remarked, “He’ll stick by the alliance”.’ It was an assertion of the alliance’s strong continuity, although at a personal level the Rudd–Bush relationship went sour.

Howard was an alliance man to his bootstraps. His loyalty to the alliance took him, and Australia, well beyond what was required.

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[1] wrote in The Australian: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/we-stood-by-the-us-as-it-erred-grievously-in-iraq/news-story/be9afe2a8135530748c6f4ef1b3f21a8

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