What is happening to the Prime Minister’s political antennae? He could have hardly chosen a worse person to attack for their views on Iraq than Barack Obama.

The Illinois Senator might be a newcomer to Washington, but he was a member of the Illinois state house when America went to war. And this is what he said then:

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida.

I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

“Senior Liberal sources” tried some desperate – and dizzying – spin yesterday. They claimed the PM’s remarks had focussed debate away from the environment and on to national security, a Coalition plus. This is unadulterated crap.

Iraq has become “a dumb war”. Obama has targeted Howard where he is most vulnerable with his comment “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.”

Iraq remains Australia’s only overseas military commitment where we have not taken a single combat casualty. This is a reflection of the scope and nature of the deployment of our troops. And this also explains why Iraq has not caused the same sort of pain for John Howard that is has inflicted on George W Bush or Tony Blair. Does the PM support Bush’s “surge” – and what does that mean for our commitment to the war? That’s Obama’s question.

Iraq is a mess. We have followed the United States into a war gone wrong. We can either pull out or continue to follow America’s lead. Either approach has its dangers – political and in security.

The Prime Minister has to navigate them. Alexander Downer can get away with hyperbole because voters think he is an idiot. John Howard can’t. Particularly when lives are at stake.