U.S. shouldn't take its friends for granted

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No matter which party is in power, we Americans seem to pay a lot of attention to our enemies and take our friends for granted. I thought of that unhappy fact of international life last week as President Bush visited Australia, which has been a loyal - and mostly ignored - U.S. ally for most of our shared history.

In my last Foreign Service assignment (1992-94), I was the public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Australia's capital city, Canberra, and that was the highlight of my 28-year diplomatic career. We have much in common with the Aussies, who are warm and outgoing people with an affinity for all things American, except some of our foreign policies. But even when they differ with our policies, they try to understand us rather than attacking us as aggressive imperialists, as do so many of our alleged "allies."

President Bush was in Australia to attend a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization (APEC), which is increasingly important to the world economy. As he flew into Sydney last Monday, the president faced criticism suggesting that the U.S. has disengaged from the Asia-Pacific region.

After noting that Bush's 30-car (that's right, 30) motorcade had paralyzed traffic in downtown Sydney, a leading newspaper, The Australian, reported that "Chinese President Hu Jintao's decision to become the first foreign leader to arrive in Australia, and spend a week traveling across the country ... was interpreted as a sign that China would be the main force at the summit." That didn't happen, however, as media attention focused on Bush as soon as he arrived in Sydney.

Following the resignation of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australia's conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, has become Bush's most vocal international supporter. Australia, with a population of approximately 20 million, continues to supply troops to the multinational force in Iraq in numbers far beyond what might be expected from such a lightly populated country. Last week, Howard promised Bush that there would be no reduction in Australia's 1,600-strong troop contingent in Iraq as they announced a new bilateral defense agreement that will make sensitive American military technology available to Australia.

Despite occasional grumbling on the left about U.S. "hegemony," most Aussies admire our country. Just last Wednesday, respected Australian political columnist Janet Albrechtsen wrote that the U.S. "has been an overwhelming force for good" in the world.

Australia has been a loyal ally of ours for many years and especially since World War II, when the U.S. Navy defeated a Japanese expeditionary force in the hard-fought Battle of the Coral Sea. The Aussies still celebrate that historic battle every May and showed their gratitude by erecting a monument in honor of American armed forces at the entrance to their Ministry of Defence in Canberra.

Our embassy's annual "Country Plan" for 1995 tried to convince Washington that it was worth spending modest amounts of money to maintain a significant official U.S. presence in Australia. This was after my superiors had decided (unwisely, in my opinion) to eliminate an American position in Perth, the thriving capital of Western Australia; that was like eliminating the U.S. Consul General in Vancouver, Canada. Here's an excerpt from that 1995 Australia Country Plan:

"American and Australian principal foreign policy interests generally coincide, the overall health of the relationship is excellent ... and Australia is still the loyal and reliable southern bulwark of our Pacific defense/security arrangements." We also warned Washington against taking Australia for granted. "Despite heavy annual flows of tourists in both directions," we wrote, "misunderstandings and misperceptions persist. Ubiquitous Hollywood sitcoms and tell-all talk shows often distort ... intellectual and cultural perspectives on the U.S. and the American people." That was a prelude to requests for modest budget increases to strengthen our information and cultural programs, such as the venerable Fulbright educational exchange program and an effort to establish American Studies courses in Australian universities.

Things haven't changed all that much since 1995. Although Australia is still a reliable partner on Asia/Pacific defense and security issues, like the War on Terror, Washington rarely notices what's going on Down Under, preferring instead to concentrate on problem countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan. I suppose that's only natural in foreign policy circles but in the long run, we ignore our friends and allies at our peril because some day they may not be there when we need them the most.


The federal government suffered a near-fatal legal blow last week when Las Vegas Federal Judge Roger Hunt ruled that the state of Nevada can shut off water needed for bore hole drilling at the proposed toxic waste dump site. Hunt said the U.S. Energy Department couldn't ignore the state as it continued to drill test holes near the Nye County repository site. Chalk up a major victory for states' rights and our new Attorney General, Catherine Cortez Masto. Well done!

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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