“Empty rhetoric.” That’s how Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama describes John Howard’s comments on the Sunday program that the Illinois Senator’s Iraq plans “would just encourage those who wanted completely to destabilise and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists”.

“I think it’s flattering that one of George Bush’s allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced,” Obama has said.

“I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq, and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1400, so if he is… to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq,” Barack added. “Otherwise it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”

Empty rhetoric – but who for? Barack may have responded, but the Prime Minister’s comments are aimed squarely at a domestic audience. He was trying to put the heat on Labor – but Kevin Rudd’s approach to Iraq has been very different from Mark Latham’s “home by Christmas”.

Even Republicans have criticised Mr Howard for interfering in US domestic affairs. “I would prefer that Mr Howard stay out of our domestic politics and we will stay out of his domestic politics,” Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn has said.

Two crucial election issues are largely beyond Howard’s control – interest rates and Iraq. Especially Iraq.

Forgetting this is a major lapse on the PM’s part. Republicans other than Cornyn may yet cause him intense embarrassment over Iraq – Republicans from George W Bush down.

Peter Fray

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