He came (for less than 40 hours), he saw (only invited dignitaries), he conquered (Australian soil, thanks to 2500 US Marines soon to be based near Darwin). Barack Obama’s first visit to Australia as president may have been brief, but the media coverage was not. And thanks to the announcement that US Marines will soon be training and living on Australian soil, the implications for Australia’s relationship with the US and China will extend long past Obama’s quick trip.
Obama addressed federal parliament with a speech outlining how the US is re-orienting itself towards Asia, after years of costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“As president, I’ve therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends,” Obama told parliament.
“We are in the midst of a major realignment of American foreign policy,” writes Michelle Grattan in The Age. And the constant cheek kissing and best friend antics of Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard simply illustrated it, says Grattan:
“Gillard did not come out with a pat line to encapsulate the alliance. But the kissing (through a couple of international conferences as well as on Obama’s arrival) and the arms around each other’s backs as they left Wednesday’s news conference became the new version of ‘all the way with LBJ’.”
The message from Obama rang loud and clear, says Lenore Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“For Australia and the Asia Pacific, President Barack Obama’s message is “we’re back”. The US is refocused on this region. For Americans his message is that this China-dominated region of economic growth can be a vehicle for America’s economic recovery, rather than a threat to it.”
Obama’s speech was heard far beyond the walls of parliament, notes Paul Kelly in The Australian:
“In his address to the national parliament, Obama spoke not just to Australia. He spoke to the region and to the world in one of the defining geostrategic speeches of his presidency.
He spoke to the powerful and the oppressed. He spoke to Beijing and to Washington.”
Obama might have been speaking to Beijing, but no Chinese representatives were there to hear it, reports The Age:
“…there was a diplomatic stir in Canberra after China was not represented in the audience for Mr Obama’s speech – an event attended by almost every other diplomatic mission.
A Chinese embassy spokeswoman last night told The Age a Chinese diplomat had asked to attend the speech in place of ambassador Chen Yuming, who is away on leave in China, but that Australia had refused the request.”
After months of Labor being linked to the Greens — largely thanks to the carbon tax — the Obama trip has helped Gillard move away from that, says David Penberthy in the Adelaide Advertiser:
“Labor, hamstrung for the past year by its relationship with the Greens in minority government, is now revelling in the fact that both the APEC conference and the Obama visit have provided a brilliant opportunity for some much-needed product differentiation.”
The timing of Obama’s visit suited both leaders perfectly, notes Laura Tingle in the Australian Financial Review:
“As to the alignment of the stars on the US-Australian alliance and the Obama visit, consider how things might have turned out if the President had visited at either of the two times he was scheduled to do so in the past 18 months.
The eventual timing of the visit has suited Gillard big time. Would Australia and the US have unveiled a plan for US forces to be based here 18 months ago? No, even though it has been an idea in gestation for some time.”
But an embarrassing security breach could have threatened the trip. Yesterday morning Age journalist Dylan Welch stumbled across an interesting scoop: lying in the gutter of a street just 100 metres from Parliament House was a folder containing highly classified details of Obama’s Australian visit. It revealed step-by-step details of security surrounding the entire trip, reports Welch:
“The 125-page booklet is classified ”In-Confidence” and its cover states the information it holds ”is not to be communicated either directly or indirectly to any person not authorised to receive it”.
More than 120 pages are dedicated to a minute-by-minute description of Mr Obama’s schedule, and it even reveals which limousine door the President will use at events…
… It also lists the ”seating arrangements” for the presidential motorcade, the world’s highest-security convoy.
It lists the exact breakdown of Mr Obama’s Secret Service presidential protective division, including its ”Counter Assault Teams” a ”comms vehicle”, an ”intel car” and the ”Hammer Truck” (Hazardous Agent Mitigation Medical Emergency Response). It is the Secret Service team that provides emergency medical treatment.
Then there are the dozens of mobile-phone and landline numbers for senior Australian and US military and civilian staff. The phone numbers included the mobiles of the US deputy ambassador Jason Hyland and the US consuls-general in Victoria, Sydney and Perth; a marine major who works as an embassy attache; three Australian air force wing commanders in Canberra and Darwin; and the Federal Police co-ordinator for foreign dignity protection.”
The NT News — which devoted many pages of its to coverage of Obama’s visit to Darwin — wrote in its editorial that Obama’s visit could change Darwin’s future:
“Understandably, the visit of US President Barack Obama to Darwin caused great excitement — and a fair bit of surprise. But the presidential stopover will have a more lasting effect than fond memories. In some ways, it will change the face of Darwin.”
But despite all the pro-American sentiment, Crikey‘s Richard Farmer places Obama’s praise of Australia into context. As he writes on The Stump:
“Those spoil sport Canadians! The Toronto Globe and Mail has this comment about President Barack Obama telling us that ‘the United States of America has no stronger ally than Australia.'”