A visit by an important American politician would normally be a good way to start an election year. Pictures of a Prime Minister shaking hands with the great and powerful can do wonders for the image.
With the visit next month of US Vice President Dick Cheney the evidence is not so clear cut. The Vice President is on the verge of becoming a figure of fun within the political elite of his own country. “I can understand how you might confuse Dick Cheney with Tony Soprano” writes one columnist. “Appearing more pained than usual, scowling like Jabba the Hutt getting a root canal” says another.
The chief promoter of the war in Iraq is not exactly the man you want to be seen standing beside when public opinion has turned towards supporting a withdrawal of existing troops rather than supporting the sending of more.
Not surprising therefore that Iraq got just one little mention in PM John Howard’s press release announced the Vice Presidential visit. Expressing his pleasure at seeing Mr Cheney in Sydney from 22-27 February, Mt Howard said:
The Australia-US alliance is of enduring importance to both countries and makes a significant contribution to international security. Australia and the United States continue to work together toward our common goals. We are cooperating closely to fight terrorism, address global environmental challenges and enhance energy security, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and promote an open international economic order. Vice President Cheney’s visit will be an important opportunity to reinforce the strong bilateral relationship between the United States and Australia and to consult on major international issues such as regional security challenges, Afghanistan, Iraq and the war against terrorism.
Now the task for Mr Howard will be to ensure that the Iraq word continues to be played down when Mr Cheney is actually in the country. Certainly he will have to resist any attempt to get Australia to put any existing, or extra, troops into positions where they might get shot at.
Only the absence of deaths among the Australian contingent has prevented Iraq becoming the vote losing issue that it now is for Howard’s peers George Bush and Tony Blair.