When Barack ‘Rockstar’ Obama came to town
When Barack Obama met the Australian Cabinet on Thursday morning, Julia Gillard introduced Peter Garrett as “a former rock star”.
The president, who had obviously never heard of Midnight Oil or its bald front man, broke into a big grin.
“Most of us end up in politics because we fail to become rock stars,” he said
But, as he demonstrated during his brief visit to Australia, rock star magnetism is a significant part of Obama’s political success.
The way he wowed a thousand Aussie troops in Darwin was pure showbiz brilliance. After his landmark speech to Federal Parliament, the House of Representatives became a mosh pit.
At the state dinner on Wednesday night, Parliamentarians from the left and right, and from all parties, were crowding around like teenagers to get his autograph.
And Obama’s star quality and popularity were central to the success of his visit.
If John Howard and George W. Bush had agreed to base 2500 marines in northern Australia on a semi-permanent basis there would have been anger from at least some Labor MPs and an outcry from sections of the community.
But when Obama and Gillard did it within hours of the president’s arrival in Canberra, there was hardly a peep of protest except from the Greens—and even they didn’t seem to have their hearts in it.
Obama is so widely liked in this country that the alliance with the US has become a much less contentious issue than it was during the Bush era. Gillard could be confident that even ardent Labor lefties would cop it sweet.
Similarly, Obama’s landmark speech to Parliament proclaiming a full-scale US re-engagement with the Asia Pacific would not have been greeted with anything like the same almost universal enthusiasm had it come out of the mouth of his predecessor.
Previous US presidents who addressed our Parliament—George Bush senior, Bill Clinton, and Bush the younger—said all the right things about the importance of the alliance.
But Obama went much further. His speech was directed, not only at Australians but at the world. It announced a serious rebalancing of US foreign policy.
The exposition of America’s new focus on the Asia Pacific and its determination to play a major part in shaping the region’s future will be spoken of in years to come as the Canberra Declaration.
And Australia was the appropriate place to deliver it because the Australian Government played a key role in its development.
Within months of becoming prime minister, Kevin Rudd began pushing for a new regional body for the Asia Pacific region which would involve the US.
It should, he said in a June 2008 speech, “engage in the full spectrum of dialogue, co-operation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security”.
There was criticism, including from the opposition in Australia, but the then prime minister persisted. In another speech December 2009 he suggested that the East Asia Summit (ESA) might be able to do the job if the US became a member.
In mid-2010, at a meeting of top-level foreign policy and defence officials in the White House Oval Office where Australia’s views figured prominently in the discussion, it was decided that America would join the ESA. The meeting Obama is attending in Bali this weekend is the result.
Australia’s aim from the start was to get the US back in the region in a major way after the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama Doctrine unveiled in Canberra—signalling that America is here to stay, despite the growing military and economic power of China - shows the plan succeeded handsomely.
A speech Rudd gave as Foreign Minister to the Asia Foundation in San Francisco two months ago looked like the final push. It was titled “The case for American engagement in Asia—the Australian perspective”.
With the US out of Iraq and winding down its Afghanistan commitment, Rudd argued, “It is now imperative to intensify focus on the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean so that the strategic stability underpinning long-term economic growth can be sustained into the future”.
Rudd also proposed that money no longer needed by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan should be used to shore up American military spending in the Asia-Pacific region.
That worked too. In his Canberra speech, Obama duly promised that—while overall military spending will be reduced to help Washington make Budget savings—the Asia-Pacific will be quarantined from cuts.
Rudd began and kept pushing the process that led to Obama’s historic declaration. Gillard, through the friendship she has developed with the president, brought it to fruition.
And John Howard, who did plenty himself to bolster the Australia-US Alliance, was in Canberra to see it happen. In fact, he got to meet the president he once deeply offended.
In 2007, when the would-be Democratic presidential nominee pledged a quick withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Howard claimed that Al Qaeda would be praying for an Obama victory.
At the time, the then-Senator Obama fired an angry broadside back. But he has now apparently decided to let bygones be bygones. At Wednesday night’s dinner, US ambassador Geoffrey Bleich invited Howard to “Come and say hello to the President”.
They shook hands. Obama remarked amiably that support for the alliance in Australia went across party lines. “Sure does,” Howard replied, adding: “You’ll find everyone is friendly.”
And no-one mentioned the former prime minister’s ill-advised intervention in US domestic politics.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.His column appears every Saturday in News Ltd papers.
Even his strongest supporters must wonder what gets into Tony Abbott at times. Surely they were embarrassed by his injection of partisan domestic politics into the occasion of President Obama’s address to the Australian Parliament.
Here was a big, bipartisan event—one so important it should have been above party politics. But Abbott could not resist sniping at the government over uranium sales and the mining tax in his speech welcoming the president.
It was the political equivalent of breaking wind in church. An American official was quoted as commenting: “Pettiness of the worst type”.
As if that wasn’t enough, Abbott referred approvingly in his speech to Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American. Widely regarded as an anti-American book, it portrays US innocence and idealism as destructive.
Abbott seemed to understand this, telling President Obama: “Not for nothing did Graham Greene say of his Quiet American that he had never met a man with such good intentions for all the trouble he caused”.
Yet the opposition leader uttered the line as though it was somehow flattering to Obama and America.
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