There were some journalists who thought the Obama-Gillard kickabout in the Oval Office and banter about Vegemite wasn’t quite, well, appropriate. Perhaps they were missing the days of George W. Bush and John Howard, when middle-aged white men got together to fantasise about how to re-align the Middle East, and sent thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to the grave in doing so.

South Australian MP Jamie Briggs wondered about how much things had changed. “Bush endorses Howard and there is outrage from the left, yet Obama does the same to Gillard and not a word, hypocrisy?” he tweeted.

Well, Obama didn’t quite intervene directly in Australian politics in the manner that the Bush Administration did when Mark Latham was a clear and present danger as Opposition Leader, but Briggs very much has a point. The middle-aged white men might have all been behind the cameras rather than in front of them, but there was the Australian Prime Minister, backing our American allies to the hilt, and received generous praise in return, just like old times.

Obama praised Australia’s commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan, a war responsible now only for wretched headlines, and none more so than this week. Robert Gates himself, following US commanding General Petraeus, apologised to Afghanistan Kleptocrat-in-chief Karzai for the slaughter of nine kids, aged 9-15, in a US helicopter air strike last week while they gathered firewood in the Pech Valley. “This breaks our heart,” Gates said.

One suspects not as much as it breaks the hearts of the families of those boys, Secretary. But there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity, if for no other reason than such incidents are enormously effective at turning Afghans against the foreign presence in their country.

Little wonder the Obama Administration barely bothers to disguise the haste with which it wants to get its combat forces out of Afghanistan any more.

The government’s enthusiastic co-operation with Washington extends well beyond Afghanistan. The AUSMIN talks in November included options for “enhancing” the US presence in Asia, possibly via a presence in Australia. Asked by Phil Coorey about US bases in Australia on Monday, the Prime Minister — who until a couple of years ago was seriously accused of being some sort of raving socialist — said:

Look, it’s a question of discussion between great mates with two militaries that co-operate every day. We fight side by side in Afghanistan in terms of our new platforms for our Australian military. We are getting platforms overwhelmingly that can operate with American platforms — the Joint Strike Fighter is just one example of that. We are well used to joint facilities on Australia, we have them now. We are well used to American visits, including visits by ships. We’re well used to joint exercising, and so we are enthusiastic and I believe the United States is enthusiastic about looking at ways we can further that cooperation into the future.

Briggs is correct, if not exactly in the way he intended. If John Howard had made similar remarks he would have copped a drubbing for further expanding the access our imperial overlords have to Australia. But a Labor Prime Minister says it, and it sinks without trace.

Still, since AUSMIN, Gates has announced he’s looking for $78 billion worth of cuts in spending, so don’t start planning any protests outside new US bases just yet.

Gillard also gets to address to a joint meeting of Congress. It’s a nice bauble for a vassal state, although one now rather tarnished through overuse, given the President of Latvia, the President of Liberia, the King of Jordan and Bertie Ahern of Ireland have all graced such gatherings in recent years. But American minds might be trifle distracted from the Prime Minister’s address by the problems of the Middle East, and particularly Libya, where the self-imposed Western limitation to hand wringing may yet see Gaddafi retain power, albeit power over a mass grave.

As an act of moral cowardice, the West’s behaviour toward the Libyan uprising won’t be quite of Rwanda proportions, but it should be quite sufficient to silence the hypocrisy of our incessant prattle about human rights for some years to come.

Such thoughts presumably occupied the mind of Kevin Rudd as he continued his way through the Middle East, this morning jointly calling for a no-fly zone with the Gulf Co-operation Council, and telling CNN “we failed as an international community in Rwanda; we failed as an international community in Darfur; by-and-large we were very too late in Srebrenica.  Let us be mindful of the lessons of history here and not see it repeated in Libya.”

Expect the backgrounding against Rudd from within DFAT to grow. This must be driving them up the wall. You can tell what the DFAT line on the Libya would be — Gaddafi, however unpleasant a source of stability, partner in counter-terrorism, opposition forces unknown quantity, may contain elements opposed to Western interests, call for restraint, watching brief, oil price … But Rudd is, infuriatingly, his own man and there’s no one within the government capable of telling him to pull his head in. He told the Americans the WikiLeaks cables (another issue on which Gillard has stood shoulder to shoulder with Washington) were their fault, he insisted that Julian Assange would be afforded proper consular support when the Prime Minister and Robert McClelland were talking rubbish about “illegality” and charging him, and he’s been well out in front of virtually every other Western foreign minister in demanding a no-fly zone to shut down Gaddafi’s air superiority.

Rudd, his giant ego and his equally giant brain are, if not off the reservation, then rampaging awfully close to the fences. It’s great to see.

And all the more so because the foreign policy establishment must hate every minute of it.

Peter Fray

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