With anti-war Socialist's rise in Australia, a test for U.S. ties

Posted in Other | 08-Apr-04 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: The New York Times

SYDNEY - A candidate for higher office in Australia, especially one hoping to be prime minister, is rarely taken seriously until the home-born international media magnate Rupert Murdoch shows interest.

So when the spirited new leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham, 43, who is now ahead in the polls against the long-serving conservative incumbent John Howard, turned up for supper at the Murdoch ranch, people took notice. That it was Murdoch's son and likely business heir, Lachlan, who was conducting the scrutiny did not matter. The Murdoch clan's curiosity was enough of a signal.

But that was before Latham announced that, if elected, he would bring home Australia's troops in Iraq by Christmas. In making such a pledge, Latham touched on the nature of Australia's more than 50-year relationship with the United States, a bond that during the Howard and Bush era has become exceedingly cordial.

And it raised another troubling question. With elections due sometime this year, with a popular young Socialist candidate doing well against a conservative incumbent, with Al Qaeda threatening reprisals for the country's support of the United States in Iraq - a war that most Australians opposed - is Australia poised to become the next Spain? Will it become the next country to abandon President George W. Bush?

The answer is "probably not," because of the peculiarities of Australia's history and place in the world. But it could become something like SpanishLite.

Australians often feel bedeviled by what they call the "tyranny of distance." Down Under may be an amusing phrase for the movies, but for many Australians it also connotes being away from the center, of being isolated at the bottom of Asia with no one to protect them - except Washington.

"Australia even under a Labor government is not going to be a France, or Germany, or a new Spain," said Hugh Mackay, a prominent social researcher and author of books on Australian society. "Most Australians would say New Zealand's independence is stupid. They would say we've got to keep our links with the United States. It runs deep."

Australians like to think of themselves as kindred spirits of Americans. They tend to interpret American history as akin to their own: a matter of conquering a rough frontier. Australians maintain this idea of a common thread, even though the two frontiers bred some rather different characteristics.

By American standards, for example, Australians are a bibulous lot. "Having a glass of wine at lunch in Washington I felt lonely and sinful," said Owen Harries, an Australian who spent many years in the United States and founded the policy journal National Interest. By Australian standards, the United States is an extraordinarily religious country.

These quibbles aside, Australians of English or European descent who discount the geographic reality of Australia's proximity to Asia seek comfort in similarities with America, with little regard for who is in the White House.

This is a vein that the patrician Howard - who also puts a premium on Australia's still existing ties with the British monarchy - taps into as he justifies his energetic support for the Bush administration's Iraq venture.

"They do have a lot of values and attitudes that we share, and I'm a great believer that you should have close relations with the countries whose way of life is closest to your own," Howard told a radio interviewer recently.

Moreover, the belief in the promise by America to fulfill its obligations to Australia remains firm. A Pew survey last year showed that a remarkably large number of Australians - 83 percent - trusted the United States to keep its commitment to defend Australia if it were to come under attack.

That may explain why in the latest polls, taken after Latham vowed to pull out of Iraq, his personal approval rating dropped 14 percentage points, to 52 percent. Remarkably, support for the United States holds up even though, according to a survey in The Sydney Morning Herald, 66 percent of Australians believe a terror attack is likely in their faraway land within the next two years.

Despite this ostensible resolve, Latham's announcement on the troops in Iraq served to underline hints of ambivalence toward the alliance with the United States. If Australians respect the United States as a strong protector, they also resent what they describe as "American imperialism" and a corresponding loss of Australia's sovereignty, Mackay said.

Given these conflicting currents, Latham is likely to forge a foreign policy that tries to ensure that the Australian alliance with Washington remains largely intact but with a little more distance, a little less dependency. But he will stop far short of threatening a confrontation with Washington.

Latham is scheduled to make his first major foreign policy speech this week, and he is expected to stress regional security arrangements over the American alliance. How that will play with a Bush administration that demands fealty from its allies remains to be seen.

The American ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, a Texan who is a friend and former business associate of Bush, warned there would be "serious consequences" if Latham became prime minister and pushed ahead with troop withdrawal. Secretary of State Colin Powell was reported to be disturbed by Latham's apparently independent streak.

No one can say for sure how Australians would react to a major terrorist event on their shores, just as no one can predict the outcome of the July elections. Perhaps the strongest indication of changes to come is in the behavior of the canny Murdoch, American citizen and Australian media owner, who is known to like a winner.