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Is Obama's Race a Factor in Howard's Attack? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Is Obama's Race a Factor in Howard's Attack?

Why would Australian Prime Minister John Howard separate out Barack Obama from all of the other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination -- and from all the prominent Democratic and Republican critics of President Bush's dangerous foreign policies -- for attack as the favorite son of the terrorists?

Why would Howard, suggest that the Illinois senator's candidacy will"encourage those who wanted completely to destabilize and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory"?

What was Howard thinking when he claimed in an interview on Australiantelevision that: "If I was running al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats"?

Is Howard, arguably the truest believer in the Iraq War this side of Dick Cheney, so supportive of the Bush administration that he is ready to attack anyone who challenges the president? No, that's not the case. In fact, Howard has in recent days gone out of his way to tell Australians that he did not intend to "generically" criticize American Democrats; rather, he clarified, he was specifically attacking Obama. "I don't apologise for criticising Senator Obama's observation because I thought what he said was wrong," explained Howard.

But Howard, a savvy student of US politics, is unquestionably aware that many prominent Democrats -- including figures such as John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, who are far better known in Australia than Obama -- have criticized both the war in Iraq, which Howard continues to support unquestioningly, and the general approach of the Bush Administration to the so-called "war on terror."

So why the full-force assault on Obama, who has gained more global attention because he might be the first black presient of the United States than because of his stance on the Iraq War?

Perhaps some comments from a 2005 debate in the upper house of the parliament of the Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, will clear things up. After racial violence erupted in several suburbs of Sydney in the fall of that year, Howard dismissed concerns about the motivations behind the violence, despite reports that they had been provoked at least in part by neo-Nazis who targeted immigrants and people of color. "Every country has incidents that don't play well overseas," mused Howard, whose response provoked outrage on the part of civil rights campaigners in Sydney and the rest of Australia.

That outrage led to a parliamentary debate on the subject of "Racism and Prime Minister John Howard."

During the debate, Sylvia Hale, a representative from the Sydney area, explained that, "Racism has preoccupied this House and the community over the past week. It is pertinent now to re-examine the Prime Minister's contribution to the rise of racism in this country. John Howard's primary political strategy has been to divide and rule this nation. He has consistently pitted one section of the community against the other, whether it be wharfies, Aborigines, the unemployed, refugees, academics, welfare recipients or tradeunionists. By identifying a minority and telling the majority that they should fear and loathe it because it is a threat to the way of life of the majority, the Prime Minister has had electoral success, but he has also created the social division that we all now confront."

"Undoubtedly," Hale continued, "the most destructive aspect of the strategy has been his pandering to the fearful, racist element in the Australian community. John Howard consistently denies that he does so but, as in so many other matters, when you examine the facts you see that the Prime Minister does not speak the truth. Examine his record and his message becomes clear. During his first term as Opposition leader, John Howard saw potential electoral advantage in playing racial politics. His comments in July 1988 promising a reduction in Asian immigration if he became Prime Minister established his credentials as a politician willing to play the race card if he thought it would win him votes. He was widely condemned forthose comments and forced to withdraw them, but the lesson he learned was not that this sort of politics is destructive and wrong. Rather, he learned that his appeal to racism had to be more subtle."

When a supporter of the prime minister interrupted Hale with a point of order that attempted to shut her up, she was ruled to be entirely in order. Hale finished by explaining that, "I am accusing the Prime Minister of fostering a situation where racist tensions can increase."

It was hardly the first time that Howard faced such withering criticism. Howard came to prominence in Australia as a outspoken critic of multiculturalism and moves to respect and foster diversity. In the 198Os, he pointedly criticized moves to challenge South Africa's apartheid system. In the 199Os, he stirred anti-immigrant sentiment, taking stands that would make US "border wars" politicians like Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo wince. The Bangkok Post observed at the time that, "Australian Prime Minister John Howard may moan and whine about how he personally abhors racism, as he did this week, but few people will believe him."

Australian author and political commentator Greg Barns described Howard's 2001 attacks on refugees, as a "racist outburst" that came as part of "a disgraceful campaign of the Howard Government in 2001 to demonise the wretched and the weak who sought sanctuary on our shores."

Concerns about Howard's penchant for exploiting and exascerbating racial divisions for political purposes are so widespread in Australia that it the issue was the topic of a well-reviewed book by one of the nation's most prominent academics -- Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australian Politics, by Andrew Markus, a former head of the School of Historical Studies at Australia's MonashUniversity, where he currently directs the Australian Centre for the Study of Jewish Civilisation. The premise of Markus' bookis that racial issues have become disturbingly prominent in Australian public life during the Howard years.

Now, with his over-the-top attempt to associate Obama with terrorism, Howard has turned his attention to public life in the United States. Of course, John Howard will deny that Obama's race was a factor in his decision to loudly and aggressively attack just one of more than a dozen Democrats who are actively campaigning or considering a presidential run -- most of whom are war critics.

But, as Sylvia Hale suggested with regard to the prime minister: "Examine his record and his message becomes clear."

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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