The Coalition of the Unwilling

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Bush: Seeing eye to eye, but not really.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Bush: Seeing eye to eye, but not really. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Last September, President Bush flew down to Sydney and urged Australian voters not to reject the leader he dubbed his "man of steel," Prime Minister John Howard.

"I wouldn't count the man out," Bush said. "He's kind of like me: We both have run from behind, and won."

Australians weighed that advice and, two months later, emphatically dumped the conservative prime minister in favor of Labor leader Kevin Rudd -- who had promised to sign the Kyoto accord on global warming and pull troops out of Iraq.

Now it's time for Rudd's revenge: a chance to meddle in domestic American politics the way Bush meddled in Australian affairs last year. "Consistent with my commitment to the Australian people, we are changing the configuration of our involvement in Iraq," he told an audience yesterday morning at the Brookings Institution. "Our ground combat troops will be withdrawn."

The prime minister's hosts left little doubt that they hoped for a domestic repeat of Rudd's success in Australia. Brookings Chairman John Thornton, praising Rudd's embrace of the Kyoto accord and his "forward looking leadership," said in introducing Rudd: "I'm hoping that in our own country we get the same thing coming out of the election this fall."

Rudd finished his speech, then ducked into a private room for a half-hour talk with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The prime minister, who gave his backing to Clinton last year on Australian TV, emerged to pronounce her his "good friend."

Bush may be a loathed figure in much of the world, but one group owes him a debt of gratitude: the many opposition leaders who came to power after Bush-friendly ruling parties were voted out. Howard took his place alongside Jos¿ Mar¿a Aznar of Spain (whose party was dumped in 2004), Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (tossed out in 2006), and Britain's Tony Blair (stepped aside in favor of a Bush-skeptical understudy in 2007). Ruling parties in Poland and Japan also paid for their leaders' friendships with Bush with big defeats.

Bush's pariah status has turned his Coalition of the Willing into a retirement community and given the president an unusual role in the domestic affairs of other countries. In Australia, one of Rudd's predecessors as Labor leader, Mark Latham, got the top job after describing Bush as "the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory." He further described members of Howard's government as a "conga line of suckholes" to Bush.

Howard, in turn, expressed a view that al-Qaeda terrorists would be praying for a 2008 victory by Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular.

Bush enjoyed this mutual affection. "I can tell you, relations are great right now," he said last year in Sydney, which was all but shut down by security measures needed to keep him safe.

Relations are perhaps not quite so great now, but Bush put on a brave face as he welcomed Rudd to the White House Friday. He called the 50-year-old premier a "fine lad" and even praised Rudd's decision to pull out of Iraq. "I always like to be in the presence of somebody who does what he says he's going to do," Bush reasoned.

Rudd, touched by Bush's manner, said he was designating the president as "an honorary Queenslander," after the prime minister's home state.

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