The Coalition of the Unwilling

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 "Our ground combat troops will be withdrawn."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.

A reporter asked if Bush would transfer the "man of steel" moniker to Rudd.

"Heck, yeah," the magnanimous Bush replied.

At Brookings yesterday, Thornton used his introduction of Rudd to celebrate his rejection of a prominent Bush/Howard policy. "The very first act as prime minister was to ratify the Kyoto protocol, which had been sitting dormant too long," he said.

Rudd, a former diplomat, was more subtle. He reminded Americans that Australia is "the 15th-largest economy in the world," with a stock market "three times the size of Singapore" and a military budget that is "the 11th largest in the world." He then suggested that Australia would be doing more leading and less following. "For too long," Rudd said, "our voice has been too quiet in the wider councils of the world."

As an early test of that philosophy, Rudd was about to insert himself into the American presidential race. At the close of the prime minister's speech at Brookings, Australian officials advised the cameras to stick around -- the better to catch Clinton stepping from her motorcade to meet with the prime minister.

The two were planning to talk for five or 10 minutes, before Clinton traveled to Harrisburg, Pa., for a campaign event. But after half an hour behind closed doors, the pair emerged smiling and whispering for the cameras.

Rudd had declared his support for Clinton last year, on the show of Australian comedian Rove McManus, which also included the question "Who would you turn gay for?" Now prime minister, he had to be more circumspect (he also scheduled a meeting with John McCain and a phone call with Obama). When an Australian reporter asked if he is still endorsing Clinton, Rudd would only say "I'm a good friend of Senator Clinton's."

In a reference to the rigors of the campaign trail, the prime minister also confided that he had "every sympathy for Hillary."

But Clinton, trailing Obama in delegates, the popular vote and opinion polls, took a broader interpretation of the prime minister's pity. "I need all the sympathy I can get," she said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company