One of the minor mysteries of Australian politics is the way otherwise intelligent people seem to take Alexander Downer seriously. We are periodically told how he has “matured” in the job – which seems to just mean that since he’s been there so long, surely he must have learned something?

Well, no. Downer’s biggest problem is his urge to defend the indefensible. Other players who know they have a losing hand will stay quiet, but Downer will bet the house on it.

One example is Labor’s Iraq policy. As Dick Cheney helpfully pointed out back in February, Kevin Rudd’s plan to withdraw Australian troops poses no threat to the American alliance. That’s confirmed by a report in this morning’s Fin Review on Rudd’s visit to Washington, where American officials are quoted saying that the Iraq policy is “not a problem”.

But Downer can’t leave the issue alone; against all the evidence, he somehow still thinks he can make Iraq a political positive for the government.

This morning he’s at it again. Yesterday, British ambassador (or “high commissioner”) Helen Liddell told the National Press Club that the Iraq war was not part of a “war on terror”: “Our raison d’etre for our involvement in Iraq has not been about terrorism”.

Downer promptly leapt in to defend the view that pretty much everyone outside of Bush and Cheney has abandoned: that violence in Iraq is driven by al-Qa’eda, that it’s all part of the same global conflict, and that “if there was a western coalition US defeat [sic] in Iraq it would be a massive victory to terrorists”.

It’s a prime example of Downer’s technique. Other ministers know that the war is going badly, that “war on terror” is at best an obsolete metaphor, but that the government is too firmly committed to say so. So they do the only sane thing in the circumstances, and just ignore it.

But fools rush in where angels fear to tread.