HAVING SENT a contingent of troops to Iraq, Australia is having its own debate about the merits of intervention. A week ago, 43 former diplomats and military chiefs denounced the prime minister, John Howard, for fighting a war over weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist; Mr. Howard retorted that, during the time leading up to the war, his critics accepted the reports of Iraq's sinister arsenal. All of which may sound drearily familiar to American ears -- except that the language used was rather fruitier. "I think we have to ask the question, these doddering daiquiri diplomats, would they have done any different?" demanded De-Anne Kelly, the parliamentary secretary for transport.
Even though Teresa Heinz Kerry has a feisty turn of phrase and Vice President Cheney got caught recommending an anatomically impossible act to a Democratic senator, the American striving to be "bipartisan" engenders different rules of courtesy. Different not just from Australia, what's more. China's leadership excels at pungent put-downs. It called Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, a "liar," a "snake," a "prostitute," a "tango dancer," a "sinner of 1,000 years" and a "turtle egg," concluding that, in view of the above, he was "condemned for a thousand generations."
Britain, the country whose world view may be closest to that of the United States, is also known for bruising rhetoric. Winston Churchill described Clement Attlee as "a modest little man, with much to be modest about," and "a sheep in sheep's clothing." Denis Healey, the Labor Party's 1970s finance minister, sneered that criticism from one bland opponent was as frightening as "being mauled by a dead sheep." The Labor leader Michael Foot described another Conservative as "a semitrained polecat."
What can the United States offer to match that? There have been some good jabs from politicians not noted for wit, as when Gerald Ford observed that Ronald Reagan's hair was "prematurely orange." But the truth is that America's political system would convulse if there were too much of this. No other country takes the principle of separate powers to such extremes. As a result, nothing gets done in Washington unless its protagonists are at least outwardly polite. The flip side of gridlock is un-Australian civility.