At Surfdom, Ken Lovell writes that Howard’s decision to send an additional 70 Australian troops to Iraq makes no apparent sense. Ken does concede that the decision can only be political, contradicting as it does many of the Dear Leader’s previous statements (but when has that ever stopped him?):
But of course it’s fantasy to think the decision’s got anything to do with the welfare of Iraqis. As soon as it was announced Howard was getting stuck into Kevin Rudd for opposing it. Except that seems pointless too, because the polls suggest the majority of Australians agree with Rudd.
But it’s not pointless at all.
Howard knows that the commitment to Iraq is deeply unpopular. What he’s fashioning is a weapon to use against the “phased withdrawal” strategy recently lauded by Rudd and Labor foreign affairs shadow Robert McLelland. That’s premissed on setting benchmarks for the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, and progressively withdrawing combat troops. The number of troops fall, but a rapid response deployment is still possible to support Iraqi forces. This is the Iraq Study Group proposal, embodied in legislation proposed by Barack Obama.
Hence the trap for Rudd – Rudd’s argument is premissed on the Iraqis taking responsibility for their own security. Howard can now point to an inconsistency in Rudd’s position. Rudd, he argues, opposes measures which seek to achieve just that.
Howard doesn’t care that his own position is unpopular. It’s a clear message, and it’s supposed to reinforce his image as a leader prepared to take a decisive stand in the face of public opinion if he thinks it’s right. He’s trying to fragment Labor’s position on Iraq, taking advantage of the opening Rudd gave him by talking up consultation with the Americans, as opposed to Beazley’s “just get the troops out” stand. The Obama debate last week also put pressure on Rudd to articulate his own position on Iraq, which he’s now done. This is an outcome Howard welcomes, as he’s now found the wedge he was looking for.
The comparisons with Simon Crean made last week are an object lesson. Howard’s strategy is to paint Rudd as having a confused and contradictory position. Crean lost much credibility among anti-war voters through having a complex take. Howard’s game plan is to trap Rudd between appearing “responsible” on national security and muddying the antiwar message. If this wedge works, it could knock some primary vote support off Labor, as left voters return to the Greens. It’s also no coincidence that the government have been highlighting Rudd’s “all things to all people” approach, pointing to his rightward moves on a large range of issues. Howard’s hope will be that as Rudd moves right to try to win over swinging voters, the ALP’s base and the left will start to bleed off Labor. Expect more moves in this direction from the Dear Leader.
Despite the polls, this election ain’t over by a long shot.
The other political benefits are a sop for Cheney, and probably blowing water off the front pages at a time when, as Chris Sheil suggests, water is Rudd’s message of the week.
It’s a cunning play. “Rat cunning” is an expression which springs to mind.