Australian leaders affirm U.S. alliance

Times Staff Writer

Despite Australia’s decision to withdraw all 550 combat troops from Iraq and the ouster of a government closely allied with the Bush administration, the new defense and foreign ministers said Saturday that there was no chill in U.S. relations and pledged not to remove any of their soldiers from southern Afghanistan.

After a full day of talks with their American counterparts, the Australian ministers said the U.S. remained their most important alliance, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith calling it “indispensable” to the country’s security.

“The alliance relationship transcends a Labor or Liberal government here, or a Democrat or Republican administration in the United States,” Smith said at a news conference after meetings at the Australian Parliament with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte. “It’s served both nations very well for 50 or 60 years.”

Although the Iraq war remains unpopular in Australia, the level of anti-American sentiment here has not risen to levels seen in other close U.S. allies such as Britain. Analysts have said the loss in November by Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal government to Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party was as much the result of domestic political issues as Howard’s close embrace of Bush administration foreign policies.


Still, officials traveling with the U.S. delegation said they believed the annual meeting of defense and foreign ministers would help gauge the Rudd government’s enthusiasm for maintaining close security ties with Washington.

Smith and Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon expressed a desire for continuity in bilateral relations, and Smith said that though Australia had no plans to increase troop levels in violence-plagued southern Afghanistan, where it has deployed 980 combat troops, the new government would look for other ways to assist the struggling Afghan government.

“When it comes to Afghanistan, I wouldn’t be quite so underwhelmed about the Australian contribution: almost 1,000 troops, in some of the toughest areas,” Smith said. “And I make no bones about saying that there are other nation-states whose contribution is not nearly as profound, in as nearly hard-charging areas.”