Bush's 'man of steel'

In his memoirs, John Howard describes his time as Australian PM and the reasons for his staunch support of Israel.

Peres and Howard 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Peres and Howard 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
By John Winston Howard
512 pages; $59.99
The autobiography of John Howard, Australia’s second-longest- serving prime minister, provides a deep insight into the mind of a man who not only set records for political longevity domestically, but who also strengthened his country’s alliance with the United States and was seen as one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the international arena.
The title of the book, Lazarus Rising, refers to Howard’s ouster as opposition leader in 1989, when – seven years before being elected prime minister – he said that returning to the leadership of the centerright Liberal Party would be “like Lazarus with a triple bypass.” But while so much of this book focuses on his rise to power and on the domestic political issues of the day, such as taxation reform, indigenous affairs and illegal immigration, Howard also devotes ample space to foreign policy and to describing the many personalities he encountered in his more than 11 years in the top job.
Howard, who by pure coincidence happened to be in Washington when the twin towers and the Pentagon were attacked on 9/11, recalls how it felt to be the only world leader sitting in the gallery during a special session of Congress following the attacks.
“I received a standing ovation [from the US legislators], and felt deeply moved by that reception; I was quite emotional about being able, at that time, in those circumstances to be in the capital of the United States to convey the sympathy and support of the Australian people,” he writes.
Howard’s close personal relationship with George W. Bush was the source of much derision from the Australian prime minister’s critics on the Left, so it is no great surprise that he devotes an entire chapter to the former US president. Calling Bush “highly intelligent” and intensely loyal to those who stuck by him, Howard says, “He had no pretensions to being an intellectual. In fact a lack of pretension was a Bush hallmark.”
He adds that Bush “frequently engaged in self-deprecation... Asked once why he called me a ‘man of steel,’ he replied that he had simply drawn on ‘my extensive vocabulary.’ To use an Australian expression, he did not take himself too seriously.”
Unlike Bush’s recently released memoir Decision Points, which was widely criticized for being too casual and for not tackling the important issues, Lazarus Rising presents a chronological, clearly written summary of Howard’s long career in politics, taking readers from his childhood in suburban Sydney to his 33 years as a member of parliament, his four terms as the nation’s leader and his ultimate defeat in the 2007 elections. Throughout, Howard explains in great detail the reasoning behind his most important decisions, sharing the lessons he took from each case, imparting advice to aspiring politicians and occasionally admitting his own fault.
In a lengthy chapter on Australia’s participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq, Howard admits that he lost sleep over the protracted UN Security Council vote on the invasion (which was eventually rejected) and that he “did not like one bit” the fact that Australia committed forces to battle without the support of the opposition Labor Party.
“Supporting George Bush over Iraq made the Australian public uneasy... If the invasion were protracted, with greaterthan- expected casualties, then the public reaction would be hostile. Understandably I would then wear the blame,” he writes. Howard reveals the role that he played in the US’s decision to seek another Security Council resolution after the first was rejected, writing that Bush rang him for advice about the next steps on Iraq, and that he told the president that he “owed it to [such] an old and close ally” as Tony Blair to go back to the UN to provide the British prime minister with “valuable domestic political help” in pushing the case for the invasion.
Although the book is littered with constant references to his determination to prioritize the US alliance following the “seemingly Asia-only foreign policy focus” of his predecessor Paul Keating, Howard also gives considerable attention to his dealings with regional powers. Japan and India feature prominently in the book, as does the often-tense relationship with Australia’s close neighbor Indonesia, and of course the growing economic links with China, which fueled Australia’s economic boom in the last decade.
Israel also receives a few mentions, which is not surprising given that Howard was regarded as one of the Jewish state’s strongest supporters. His close relationship with the Australian Jewish community is first mentioned in memories of his Sydney University days, where as a student he was influenced by professor of international law Julius Stone, “an erudite English Jew.”
Howard recalls that toward the end of his law degree, Stone held a public lecture on the legality of Israel’s kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, which the impressionable future prime minister attended with three Jewish law school friends.
“After the lecture, the four of us stood on the steps of the hall, locked in furious argument about what Stone had said. Despite his understandable sympathy with the Jewish cause, Stone had applied his customary juridical objectivity to the issue,” Howard writes, adding, “I fully agreed with what Israel had done.”
Unwavering support for Israel was to remain a constant during Howard’s premiership, as his government continually voted against one-sided resolutions at the UN while most Western countries abstained. It is a mark of his affinity for Israel that Howard came to the country this past March for his fourth visit – this time as a private citizen.