Bush Reinforces Friendship With Australia

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

President Bush laid out all the trappings yesterday for visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard: the marching bands and troop review on the South Lawn, Australian flags along Pennsylvania Avenue, meetings in the West Wing, a black-tie dinner in the State Dining Room.

When he escorted Howard into the East Room to meet reporters, Bush called him "an ally and a friend and a good strategic thinker." He cracked jokes at Howard's expense and did everything but give him a nickname. "He may not be the prettiest person on the block," Bush said as Howard guffawed, "but when he tells you something, you can take it to the bank."

Little wonder the president lavished such attention on his counterpart from Down Under. When it comes to Bush's "coalition of the willing" partners, Howard is virtually the last man standing. For one reason or another, Bush's best friends from the start of the Iraq war in 2003 are dropping off one after the other. The party of Spain's prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, was ousted in 2004 by voters upset in part by troop deployments in Iraq. The prime minister of Portugal, who stood next to Bush days before the invasion, resigned months later for another job.

The leaders of Poland and Ukraine, which had sizable units in Iraq, were both replaced in elections by successors who pulled out some or all troops. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps Bush's strongest supporter in continental Europe, lost reelection last month. Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, often cited by Bush in stump speeches as one of his best friends abroad, plans to step down in September. And even British Prime Minister Tony Blair appears poised to resign next year.

"The people who supported the president, particularly on Iraq, in almost every case were doing so against their domestic public opinion and they paid a price," said James B. Steinberg, deputy national security adviser under Bill Clinton and now dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Not all of them lost their jobs as a result, Steinberg added, but the turnover deprives Bush of the allies he had grown to rely on overseas: "Presidents on the whole, it's just easier to do business with people you can trust."

It also has sapped the multinational coalition in Iraq, leaving fewer partners for U.S. forces struggling to quell an insurgency. Overall, the foreign contingent in Iraq is down to 20,000 from a peak of 25,000, with more leaving soon. Just last week, South Korea began pulling out the first of 1,000 troops set to withdraw from its 3,250-member force by the end of the year, a plan announced even as Bush was visiting Pusan last fall.

Italy -- the third-largest partner, behind Britain and South Korea -- plans to pull out all 2,900 remaining troops by year's end under the newly elected Romano Prodi, who opposed the war. Even Australia, which contributed 2,000 troops to the assault on Iraq, today has just 900. Washington counts 28 remaining members of the coalition in Iraq, but that includes countries such as Albania, which according to the U.S. Central Command Web site has contributed "one officer and one non-commissioned officer."

Against that backdrop, Bush was eager to welcome Howard to the White House. Bush values personal relationships with foreign leaders, and aides have long said that Howard ranks among his favorites, along with Blair and Koizumi. He has picked up another friend in newly elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, bonding with her during two recent White House visits and promising to tour her home town while in Europe next month.

By contrast, Bush's once-warm friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has cooled in the past two years, he has found it hard to connect with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and he does not really get along with French President Jacques Chirac.

In a White House that has been stingy on black-tie dinners and the like -- even making Hu settle for a business-attire luncheon -- Howard got the full works. Bush even returned from Camp David early on Sunday to go to the Australian Embassy to plant some trees with the visiting prime minister.

"I admire John Howard's understanding that the war on terror still goes on and that we've got to be steadfast and firm if we intend to succeed in defeating the terrorists," Bush said in the East Room. He added, "The prime minister is capable of not only seeing the problems for today; he's capable of looking down the road."

Asked if he would get along with a successor should Howard not run for reelection next year, Bush said, "I suspect he's going to outlast me, so that is a moot point." Then he joked, "Somebody said, 'You and John Howard appear to be so close, don't you have any differences?' And I said, 'Yes, he doesn't have any hair.' "

Howard good-naturedly went along with the presidential ribbing, even though he has been criticized at home for being too close to Bush. And most important to the president, he vowed to stay by Bush's side in the terrorism fight even if others drift away: "Those who imagine that somehow or other you can escape it by rolling yourself into a little ball and going over in the corner and hoping that you're not going to be noticed are doomed to be very, very uncomfortably disappointed."

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