When Barack Obama goes Down Under

My following article appears in the Huffington Post:

The arrival of the new American Ambassador to Australia was breathlessly welcomed by the Australia media pack in late 2009. Jeffrey Bleich, an American lawyer from California, assumed his position in Canberra and was introduced to the country through an interview on the public broadcaster ABC.

After the reporter Leigh Sales congratulated Bleich on his appointment, he was treated to softball questions and allowed to outline, unchallenged, the Obama administration’s agenda.

Sales and Bleich joked over the ambassador’s Elvis obsession but substantive questions were almost absent (or follow-ups probing Bleich’s non-answers). No comments about Obama’s continuation of Bush administration policies towards indefinite detention of terror suspects and warrantless wiretapping.

On the eve of Obama’s first visit to Australia in late March, the Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher informed his readers that, “the remark by the US ambassador to Australia that his kids are brushing up on their Wii skills is a marker of the rejuvenation of the alliance.”

Hartcher wrote:

“By bringing his family, Obama will give a new generation of Australians a sense of connection with their country’s chief ally… Where the relationship between [former Australian Prime Minister John] Howard and [George W.] Bush was forged in the fire of September 11 terrorism and the Afghan and Iraq invasions that followed, [Australian Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd and Obama have developed a post-crisis partnership.”

Both leaders would be able to “share satisfaction in the early progress of the new strategy in Afghanistan.”

The American/Australian alliance has always been built on supporting Washington’s wars, despite public opinion often opposing these engagements (such as the current Afghan deployment).

After the humanitarian and military disaster in Iraq, the only reason to maintain Australian troops in Afghanistan is to try and regain Washington’s credibility; a difficult task when civilians continue being killed. Australia’s objective has therefore nothing to do with bringing freedom and democracy to Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Australians troops are suspected of committing war crimes in the country and military lawyers are inadequately trained to assess possible breaches of humanitarian law in the field.

A senior Australian Army media adviser who served in Afghanistan and Iraq accused the Australian government of a culture of excessive spin and unnecessary secrecy, lying about local engagement with the civilian populations and obscuring the mission’s purpose.

There is little discussion in the corporate media over what Australian troops are actually doing in Afghanistan. Instead, the public are mostly treated to articles advocating military escalation. Take this recent piece by Rupert Murdoch columnist, Greg Sheridan, arguing that, “a serious ally would take the lead in a province, as we did in Vietnam.” Public opinion, or morality, is damned.

America has consistently thanked Australia for its reliability. George W. Bush awarded John Howard the Presidential Medal of Freedom in early 2009. Bush said that, “He [Howard] never wavered in his support for liberty, and free institutions, and the rule of law as the true and hopeful alternatives to ideologies of violence and repression. That’s why I called him a man of steel.”

Howard was a full backer of Bush’s “war on terror”, including Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition.

Britain’s Tony Blair and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were also awarded at the White House ceremony.

Managing the alliance between America and Australia takes little work or imagination from Washington. They have a country desperate to keep on its good side, able to offer its own thoughts but likely to fall into line, no matter what. Washington rightly believes that Australia watches over the Pacific, influencing and pressuring small nations heavily reliant on foreign aid.

Some mainstream commentators have suggested that Obama’s upcoming trip should allow serious discussion about China and energy co-operation.

But Obama’s fortunes are dwindling in America and key policies, on health and climate change, are stalled with little positive resolution expected any time soon. Although a senior Australian minister claimed last week that Obama’s visit would “generate a great deal of interest from the Australian public“, I know of a number of anti-war groups who will peacefully protest America’s ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and support for Israel.

Australian backing for America isn’t automatic and requires constant massaging by embedded journalists. The Australian-American Leadership Dialogue is a regular and private gathering of the political elites from both countries. Senior journalists, most of whom never disclose their participation, regularly return from meetings praising American initiatives.

As far as I know, there has never been a comprehensive article in the mainstream press that debunks the agenda of the Dialogue or the opinion-shapers involved. Instead, we are treated to occasional references without context.

Australia has long suffered from an inferiority complex towards its super-power boss. Disagreements aren’t unknown between Washington and Canberra – Kevin Rudd refused to help re-settle released Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay despite a request from the Obama administration – but Australia is far more comfortable seeing America as an irreplaceable friend who supposedly shares the same values. China is only a vitally important trading partner.

There is no doubt that Obama himself remains popular in Australia – his allegedly charming demeanour is still profiled in gossip magazines – but the mainstream media reports the torturous progress of the Democrat’s health care bill and the political effectiveness of the Tea Party movement.

Obama’s upcoming visit will be primarily an opportunity for Kevin Rudd in an election year to bask in the glow of a President whose popularity is diving in America but remains buoyant globally.

At a time when America’s ability to shape events in vast swathes of the world are in decline, including throughout South America and the Middle East, Obama will be pleased to visit an unquestioning ally.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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