He thinks we're idiots
It's clear to me that British PM Tony Blair's announcement to withdraw 1,500 British troops from Iraq has backed John Howard into a corner. Where all along Howard has vehemently criticised calls for Australian – or any other of the allied forces' – troops to be withdrawn as handing a 'victory to terrorists', now Britain – the leading partner in the coalition of the willing and in charge of the south-east of Iraq – is planning just that.
It is the height of hypocrisy for Howard government ministers to support the move – Foreign Minister Downer said it "makes good sense" – when they've resisted to discuss Australia's exit strategy. They're claiming the British move is not a withdrawal but a troop reduction, and that it shows that the coalition (or the British) has been successful in southern Iraq.
Both Canberra and the White House insist they were not surprised by the British move, saying they'd known for a while and that military US and British military commanders have been planning for this for a while. Surely then it made bad sense for Howard to attack Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd for his call for Australian combat troops to be withdrawn – saying that such a policy would "destabilise Iraq and threaten the security interests of this country through a defeat of the United States in Iraq," when a week later the British Prime Minister was going to withdraw 1,500 (with another possible 500 by late northern summer)!
This makes Howard look very bad. It says to me that either Howard didn't know about the planned British withdrawal (what does that say for Australia's 'special place' in the coalition?), or he did know but was stupid to attack Rudd and not expect the British move to hurt him.
Alternatively, considering Howard's reputation for calculation and out-manoeuvring opponents, is the more unsavoury conclusion that Howard didn't care – that point-scoring against internal opponents (Rudd) was more important than a clear and considered approach to managing Australia's and the rest of the coalition's military commitment in Iraq.
It says to me that Howard doesn't care what we, the public, think in Australia – that it isn't important whether we may wonder why withdrawing Australia's 500 combat troops would "destabilise" Iraq, while Britain's withdrawal of 1,500 is "good sense".
Besides Howard thinking we are idiots that won't see through him, the heart of Howard's militaristic machismo approach to Iraq is that Australia's experience of the war is quite different from both the US's and Britain's. We have not had one Australian combat casualty in Iraq, while the Americans and the British are haemorrhaging young men in a war that's growing increasingly unpopular in the US and Britain. There will be a peace rally in London calling for the troops to be withdrawn from Iraq this Saturday, 24 February at Trafalgar Square.
Meanwhile, the war is far away for so many of us in Australia, and it is a struggle to keep our attentions on it. If, however, Australian soldiers were returning from the Middle East in flag-draped coffins on midnight flights, perhaps Howard wouldn't dare try this tact. (Or wouldn't dare attack US Presidential hopefuls for wanting the US troops out of Iraq).
It is worth seeing if Howard's stuff-up causes more than the ripple the government is hoping it will remain. Whether the war and Howard's handling of the war will become an election issue.
Interestingly, the Danes have also announced that they would remove their 460 odd troops from Iraq by August (replacing them with 50 to look after four observational helicopters). Perhaps it is to do with the British strategy, or perhaps it is more to do with the fact that 64 % of Danes think "completely or predominantly wrong for Denmark to continue to have troops in Iraq". I haven't heard anyone say that Iraq is about to slide into chaos (isn't it already?) because of it.
As Kevin Rudd said on Lateline last night, "If the British now have a withdrawal strategy from Iraq, why doesn't Australia have a withdrawal strategy from Iraq?"
[Image 'R.I.P' by fotologic, who says: "This photo of a British soldier who had died in Iraq was displayed on the war memorial in the grounds of Worcester Cathedral."]