Mixed messages continue to emerge from the Iraq debacle. On the one hand, Alexander Downer loyally puts the increasingly bizarre line that withdrawal would be “abandon[ing] the Iraqi people” and would “hand a spectacular victory to the terrorist movement worldwide.”

Similarly, George W Bush is being wheeled out to campaign for Republican candidates in next week’s congressional elections, on the basis that a vote for the Democrats is a vote for al-Qa’eda.

On the other hand, the US administration is still desperately searching for a way to cut itself loose from Iraq. Prominent neoconservative Elliott Cohen, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, reviewed the options under the general heading of “Plan B”.

Cohen says that “the most plausible” of a bad set of options is what he calls “Let the generals have it”: a military coup to replace Iraq’s incipient democracy.

This is not a new idea; back in August, Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times suggested that American policy was heading in that direction.

As Laurie Oakes comments in this week’s Bulletin, that “would mean that the war was simply about replacing one dictator with another.” He doubts that things will actually come to that, but he points out that “both Bush and Howard no longer seem to emphasise the creation of a flourishing democracy as one of their key objectives.”

Amid Oakes’s trenchant verdict on Iraq – “a bad idea badly executed” – there is a sense of puzzlement that John Howard has so far escaped the political fallout that both Bush and Tony Blair have suffered. Other commentators have expressed similar surprise.

But perhaps the answer was given last week by Peter Brent at Mumble:

A characteristically chippy Australian delusion has our man up there with Bush and Blair as one of the three big foreign cheeses in Iraq, and marvels at Howard’s domestic political stenchlessness compared with ‘the other two’.

The comparison is ludicrous; the rest of the world knows the number is not three but two – plus lots of bit players like Mongolia, Australia, Poland, Azerbaijan, El Salvador, Albania, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia etc etc. Comparisons should be with leaders in those countries.