On Monday, President Bush will visit Australia to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The White House is using the trip to try to influence the Australian election, where Bush’s good friend John Howard is pitted in a contest against Labor leader Kevin Rudd.
Howard was an early supporter of the Iraq invasion and has remained one of Bush’s few solid foreign allies. Prior to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Howard weighed in, claiming a Bush reelection was needed in order to “stay and finish the job” in Iraq.
Now, the Iraq war is dragging down Howard’s chances of being reelected. 57 percent of Australians want to end the war. Rudd, who leads the Labor Party, has “made it clear he will withdraw the Australian combat forces from Iraq by the middle of next year.” Recent polls indicate Labor leads Howard’s coalition by 14 points. Howard has yet to set a date for the election, but it is expected to occur later this year.
The White House appears to be using Gen. David Petraeus as a PR flack to assist Howard’s reelection effort. Petraeus offered a one-on-one interview with The Australian, timed to coincide with Bush’s visit. In the interview, Petraeus said Bush’s Iraq strategy is working:
General Petraeus told The Australian during a face-to-face interview at his Baghdad headquarters there had been a 75 per cent reduction in religious and ethnic killings since last year.
The Australian reports, “In a general sense, this success will help the Howard Government.” But as numerous reports have indicated, these claims of success are specious. Sectarian and ethnic killings remain very high, running at almost double the rate of last year.
Dennis Shanahan, the Australian reporter who spoke with Petraeus, said there were attacks directed at the U.S. embassy during the interview. “So for [Petraeus] to be talking there about security in Iraq, there was a certain irony attached,” Shanahan said.
For his contribution, Bush granted an interview to Australian Sky News to laud Howard as “a man of steel.” Bush “refused to accept” that his key Iraq ally was heading to defeat.