US-Australian Ties Firmer Than Ever, But an Election Looms

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, September 06, 2007

US-Australian Ties Firmer Than Ever, But an Election Looms

( - President Bush has been enjoying a warm reception in Australia from close political ally Prime Minister John Howard, but on Thursday, he held talks with the man who hopes to replace Howard in upcoming elections -- and plans to shift direction on Iraq if he does.

Opposition leader Kevin Rudd met with Bush in Sydney, where the president will attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit with 20 other leaders this week.

Rudd says he strongly supports Australia's alliance with the U.S., but not "automatic compliance" with U.S. foreign policy. He has made it clear that, as prime minister, he will oversee a staged withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Iraq.

Details of Thursday's discussion were not made public, but Rudd described them as good-natured.

Bush said ahead of his four-day visit to Australia that he would use his meeting with Rudd to "remind him that, as far as I'm concerned, that leaving Iraq before the job is done will cause an enemy that attacked us before to become emboldened."

"I will remind him that the best way to conduct policy is based upon conditions on the ground; that success is important, that conditions ought to be driving troop deployments," he told reporters.

Changes of leadership in Britain, Spain and Italy have left Howard as the surviving member of a small group of foreign leaders who rallied around Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Australia provided the largest military contribution to the U.S.-led mission after Britain. Despite opposition at home to that decision, Howard not only survived re-election in 2004 but won an increased parliamentary majority. He has now served for 11 years -- the second-longest term of any Australian prime minister -- and has seen the Labor party change leaders five times during that period.

But with national elections due again before the end of the year, Howard faces an uphill battle. Rudd and his center-left Labor Party have a double-digit lead in opinion polls over the conservative ruling coalition.

Bush said he believed Howard could yet win another term, comparing the Australian's situation to his own in 2004.

"I wouldn't count the man out," he said. "As I recall, he's kind of like me. We both have run from behind and won."

Bush praised Howard, calling him a man of courage and honesty. He also said the relationship between Americans and Australians had been "forged through tough times" and was "bigger than any individual in office."

Howard this week reiterated that now was not the time to be scaling back Australia's contribution to the Iraq mission and said during a joint press conference with the president that he had told Bush the troops would stay in Iraq at current levels as long as they were needed.

Bush and Howard also announced a further enhancement of already strong defense ties, including a treaty that will simplify processes for sharing equipment, information and technology between the two governments and between Australian and U.S. defense companies. Bush signed a similar treaty with Britain last June, shortly before Tony Blair stood down as prime minister.

Bush and Howard agreed on providing additional support for joint training by American and Australian forces in Australia, and to develop intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

On Saturday, the two leaders will hold a breakfast meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the first such meeting between the leaders of three countries engaged in a deepening security alliance widely seen as aimed at containing China's growing regional clout.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is also in Sydney for the weekend APEC forum, and held talks with Bush later Thursday. Bush earlier described the U.S.-China relationship as "complex."

Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.