Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:17 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:17 | SYDNEY

Things I have changed my mind about this year


Hugh White

14 December 2009 09:31

At the start of the year I thought Rudd would face real, public pressure from Obama to send a lot more soldiers to Afghanistan, and allow them to do more dangerous tasks there. But it has not happened. No one seriously believes that Australia is making a significant military contribution in Afghanistan, and yet Obama has not pushed us to do more.

I don't understand why.

My reasons for thinking Obama would press Rudd were simple. This was now Obama's war, and he could not withdraw from it. To sustain a credible effort he would need to send a lot more troops of his own, and Americans would not like that. They would dislike it less if he pushed allies to carry more of the load too. And one of Obama's strengths was that, with all his charm, he was meant to be better at getting allies to help then Bush had been. 

Moreover, while Bush had a genuine soft spot for Howard, Obama owed Rudd no favours, and seemed to have no reason not to put the screws on pretty hard. And it would be easy for Obama to do – a few gentle words uttered in public to the effect that he would really appreciate a bigger effort from Australia would put Rudd under pressure that, in the context of Australian politics, would be impossible to resist.

I think Rudd reached the same conclusions, which is why he pre-emptively sent another 500-odd troops last April. And I'm not for a moment saying Rudd has been wrong not to send more than that. In fact, I'm very sceptical about Afghanistan. But Obama's failure to push harder opens a puzzling window into the dynamics of the alliance today.

So what is the explanation? Obama has been similarly gentle with other allies, which suggests it tells us more about Obama than about Rudd. And here is where I think I went wrong. I had thought that beneath Obama's charming exterior was a tough, ruthless and very unsentimental operator who would smilingly do whatever it takes to get ahead and stay there. After all, he had beaten the Clinton machine. But instead he seems to be, well, rather weak. Perhaps he's just too nice to push Rudd to do something that Rudd would rather not do. That suggests he's too nice for his job.

There is, however, another possible explanation. Just possibly, the Obama Administration has worked out that, vexing though Afghanistan might be, it is a second or third order issue in America's strategic future compared with the rise of China. The Administration may have realised that the relationship with Australia could be quite important to them as they work out how to respond to China's challenge to their primacy in Asia, and that to risk alienating Australia over Afghanistan might not serve America's deeper interests. 

That would be a smart calculation, but I won't risk being wrong again by putting my money on it.  

Photo by Flickr user, used under a Creative Commons license.