Senate hopeful Harold Ford, Democrat congressman from Tennessee -- described as "one of the sensations of the mid-term elections in the U.S. and a reason why Democrats have a good chance of winning back control of the Senate" -- has just made make the front pages and a number of the most widely read websites in Australia. Unfortunately, this sudden antipodean fame is not for anything good, nor is it earned for anything that raises confidence in his competence as a Senator.
At a news conference of 27 October, Ford, apart from stumbling into gaffes regarding North Korean nuclear testing, simultaneously mentioned Australia with rogue nations planning to get nuclear weapons and thus posing a threat to the United States. It seems that, according to Mr. Ford, Australia has an interest in nuclear weapons and is part of the broader nuclear threat to the U.S.
"We are in a world today where more countries have access to nuclear weapons than ever before," Ford is reported to have said. He added that when he left college in 1992 he thought the nuclear age had come to an end and that "America would find ways to eliminate the number of chances that a rogue group or a rogue nation would get its hands on nuclear material.
"Today nine countries have it -- more than ever before -- and 40 are seeking it, including Argentina, Australia and South Africa." Ford went on to state that this made the U.S. less safe because "more countries have nuclear weapons today which means the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands has increased dramatically."
The reference to South Africa is, incidentally, also false. South Africa probably had a nuclear weapons program under the Apartheid regime but has since broken it up. He claimed North Korea had conducted two nuclear tests, the first of which he said occurred on July 4. This apparently confused the ballistic missile tests then with the October nuclear test. It is, however, the reference to Australia that is grossly outrageous.
President Bush's verbal gaffes have been seized on by the left with glee. Will we see them taking up this either utterly ignorant or utterly irresponsible -- or simply destructive -- insult to an ally?
Australia has no nuclear weapons program, though there is evidence that it considered one briefly in conjunction with Britain in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Possibly one product of this, before the project was shelved, was the amazing Canberra bomber, bought by the U.S. Air Force and still in service in some specialist roles.
Australia today does not even have a nuclear-power generating capacity, though more and more people are coming to think it should have. It has just one nuclear reactor, which is used exclusively for scientific research.
However, what makes Ford's words particularly offensive to many Australians is that Australia since attaining independence in 1901 has always been America's absolutely loyal ally, and not in the rather special sense that Pakistan or Saudi Arabia may at times be called allies.
Australia has probably supported the U.S. in the United Nations more than any other country. It has a number of formal treaties and alliances with the U.S., including the ANZUS treaty.
Moreover, it has supported the U.S. with considerably more than words. Militarily, since World War II it has committed troops to the U.S. side more often and consistently than Britain, Canada, or New Zealand. Australia's aircraft were probably the first into action on the allied side in the Korean War. It sent 50,000 troops to Vietnam (unlike Britain), with about 5,000 casualties, it sent forces to the first Gulf War, and at present has troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and helps maintain the naval patrol in the Gulf. In operation Anaconda in Afghanistan Australian Special Air Service forces played a crucial part in aiding a cut-off and surrounded US formation.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington on 9/11 and practically his first statement was: "This is no time to be an 80% ally!" He immediately committed Australian help. Unlike New Zealand, Australia has always welcomed visits by U.S. nuclear-powered warships. It was the Australian Navy that joined the U.S. in going to the aid of the Asian tsunami victims while the United Nations conferred. The U.S. uses Australian training grounds and bombing ranges, and has regular joint exercises and exchanges of military personnel.
The Australian government has received a good deal of abuse from some of the U.S. left, and of course from the domestic left, as being Bush's poodle, or a U.S. deputy sheriff in southeast Asia.
But perhaps Mr. Ford had it confused with Austria, which was, after all, the birthplace of Hitler, who was not really a committed US ally and who did try to get nuclear weapons if not very effectively.
It was reported in the Australian media by journalist Geoff Elliott that "[Ford's] gaffes were lost on the audience and he was given a rousing standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans alike. Any chance of clarifying Mr. Ford's remarks with the man himself was impossible as minders shielded any international media from asking questions
"'You don't win us any votes,' said his spokeswoman. And she might have added that it also means he is insulated from pesky questions probing his limitations on enunciating a foreign policy involving a trusted ally."
No, the Australian media won't win him any votes. But maybe revelations like this by Mr. Ford could have other effects.
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