Bush visits his stalwart but parochial Aussie 'sheriff'

Australia's John Howard welcomes his US counterpart Wednesday, as the island nation focuses on its own backyard.

On the eve of his departure for Southeast Asia, President Bush praised an increasingly interventionist Australia as the region's "sheriff."

But Prime Minister John Howard received the rhetorical badge of honor as if it were a scarlet letter, denying that his government had "any kind of enforcement role in our region."

And while he is expected to welcome Bush warmly Wednesday as he arrives for an overnight visit to Australia, Mr. Howard will be working to limit his nation's involvement in the far-flung engagements of the war on terror.

"Australia is realizing more and more that its security priorities lie here," says Elsina Wainwright with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. "While there is an element in Australian foreign policy of joining global efforts to combat problems at their source, the Bali bombing of Oct. 12 last year, underscores the importance of this region to Australia."

Howard's preference is to take on security problems nearby while nudging Bush to look to other allies for support in the Middle East and elsewhere. That requires a balancing act of telling the US that backyard deployments to places like the Solomon Islands demonstrate Canberra's commitment to fighting terrorism, while not leaving the impression domestically and in the region that the interventions are enforcement of Washington's will.

For countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, which view Australia as the cat's paw in the Southeast Asia, the "sheriff" tag was yet another confirmation that this island nation downunder really belongs in the Western bloc.

"That comment [by Bush] is bad news for Howard, and one that he will find very hard to live down," says Greg Fealy, research fellow in Indonesian politics at the Australian National University. "As it is, [Southeast Asian nations] feel less and less need to pay any particular heed to us, as John Howard has shown in the past that our foreign policy is tied firmly to the US's."

During a speech to the joint houses of parliament, Bush is likely to push for a free-trade agreement and put forth his views on the war on terrorism. But his focus is expected to be on thanking Howard for support during the Iraq war.

As a member of the coalition of the willing, the prime minister sent about 2,000 Special Forces to Iraq in defiance of public opinion. When most troops returned home after official hostilities ended, as per his agreement with the US, his popularity grew to 58 percent, from 47 percent before the war, according to Newspoll.

The early show of support in Iraq makes it easier for Howard to resist calls for further troop commitments, say experts.

"It was dextrous policy and good planning on Howard's part, but it was also a recognition of Australia's niche capability - the US had valued the job that the Special Forces had done in Afghanistan and was grateful to have them again," says Ms. Wainwright.

But just as helpful to Howard's case was his increased willingness, in the wake of Sept. 11 and the Bali bombings, to intervene when neighboring states fail.

This summer, an Australian-led intervention force entered nearby Solomon Islands to stop the chaos of warring militias.

The prime minister linked the deployment to the antiterrorism struggle. "Failed states can all too easily become safe havens for transnational criminals and even terrorists," he said.

In short order and with minimal violence, Solomons outlaw Harold Keke has surrendered, militia groups are voluntarily handing over their arms, and children are returning to school.

While military troops there are to be recalled in a few months, Australian police are expected to stay for many years. Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, hailed the police action as a model for the world.

Although Howard's aggressive new approach appeared to be in tune with that of the US, the Australian prime minister had in fact been working through existing regional forums to persuade, rather than force, compliance by the Pacific archipelago.

The Australian-led intervention force, which included troops from New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, was approved by the South Pacific Forum and sent to the UN for notification. Australia made it clear that the force was going in at the behest of the Solomon Islands government.

"It appeared as though Howard was echoing London and Washington and their neoconservative stand towards Iraq, but in actuality in Canberra, there is a pragmatic appreciation of the limitations of the Australian Defense Force and the fact that Australia does not have limitless resources," says Sinclair Dinnen, an expert in politics at the Australian National University in Canberra. "That's partly the reason for their success."

Australia has spent about $208 million on the Solomons this year - on top of the costs in Iraq and the ongoing military presence in East Timor.

Boosted by the success in the Solomons, Australia is now looking to send police and government advisers to its former colony, Papua New Guinea. But PNG leaders are being cautious before allowing in the regional power.

"We have many questions for the Australians," says Renagi Lohia, the high commissioner of PNG to Australia. "Certainly we do not want it to be perceived as a neocolonial attitude by the people in our country."

While Australia continues to wield its power, there are concerns that Australian police are quickly becoming overstretched.

Hugh White, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, recommends that Australia set up a 2,000-strong specialist police unit to be on standby to restore law and order in failing states in the Pacific. During a speech at the National Press Club, he said that Australian forces should remain structured to focus on regional threats rather than being reshaped to support US-led coalitions.

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