US vice-president Dick Cheney, regarded by many as the most powerful man in the world, arrives in Australia tomorrow for what looks like being a low-key visit. The Howard government has evidently decided that emphasising this particular aspect of the American connection would not be a political plus.

Yet the government still seems happy to use the American alliance as a campaign issue. Perhaps Howard is seduced by the 2004 experience, when commentators assured him (despite the lack of evidence) that Labor was hurt by Mark Latham’s promise of “troops home by Christmas”. More likely, he just takes it for granted that the charge of “anti-Americanism” will work against the opposition.

But making it stick depends on keeping the electorate confused between two quite different things: the friendship, and the alliance.

I had always considered myself a strong supporter of the American alliance: I lived in the US for several years and am very attached to it. Then I read The Latham Diaries, and realised I was mistaken.

What I valued was the American friendship – the close economic, social and cultural ties between the two countries. The military alliance, which in practice turns out to be Australia taking its obedient place as a cog in the US machine, has many fewer obvious benefits.

Yet we are constantly being told we must bend to America’s wishes in order not to threaten “the alliance”. Or else – what, or else they won’t let us participate in their wars? Such timidity hurts not only Australia’s interests, but ultimately America’s as well.

The American determination to project overwhelming military force around the globe is not making the world safer; it is weakening the US economy and alienating the country’s friends. Witness the huge demonstrations in Italy, another long-time sentimental ally, against expansion of a US base.

No doubt Australians want to be friends with the US, but they may be smart enough to tell the difference between friendship and subservience.
As Doug Bandow pointed out on Monday, “A Lowy Institute poll last year found that 69% of Australians believed that their government paid too much attention to Washington’s wishes.”

If we really are America’s friends, we should tell its vice-president in no uncertain terms that he is headed down the wrong track.

Peter Fray

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