WASHINGTON – Australian Prime Minister John Howard pledged to President Bush Tuesday that his country remains committed to supporting a lengthy war on terror.
"The war against terror will go on a long time," Howard said in a joint White House news conference. "I think we have to accept that."
Bush said he appreciated Howard's commitment of Australian troops in Iraq even as times get tough. He also said he appreciated their personal friendship, and he put it on display by poking fun at the visiting leader.
"Somebody said, `You and John Howard appear to be so close, don't you have any differences?"' Bush said. "I said, `Yeah he doesn't have any hair."'
Howard chuckled at that, and Bush kept teasing.
"He may not be the prettiest person on the block, but when he tells you something you can take it to the bank," Bush said.
Australia maintains about 1,300 troops in Iraq and the Middle East. The country announced last week it would send an additional 240 troops to Afghanistan to help a Dutch-led reconstruction effort.
Five years ago, Bush and Howard met each other at the White House on Sept. 10, 2001 — the day before America's worst terrorist attack. "Our nations have stood together on every day afterwards," Bush told Howard earlier at an elaborate welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn.
While many of Bush's foreign allies in the early days of the war are either gone or on their way out of office, Howard has stayed politically strong, even as Bush's popularity has plummeted.
Analysts say Howard has managed to achieve a rare feat in current international relations, cultivating strong ties with America's beleaguered president while successfully managing criticism of those bonds at home.
As a reward for his loyalty, Howard received an elaborate welcome in Washington, including a fancy dinner with the city's political and social elite.
"The administration is feting him in a way that's almost unique," said Kurt Campbell, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior Asia specialist at the Pentagon. "I don't think there's any country globally that punches as far above its weight as Australia does."
The high ceremony of Howard's visit belies Bush's domestic struggles, as lawmakers from both political parties, keen to build momentum as November elections approach, increasingly question his policies.
The pomp also underscores Howard's position as one of a dwindling number of foreign leaders Bush can rely on to support an increasingly bloody struggle in Iraq.
Jose Maria Aznar of Spain has left office. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi was defeated in recent elections. Britain's Tony Blair has reshuffled his Cabinet in a bid to cling to power following disastrous local elections. In Japan, Junichiro Koizumi remains popular but has pledged to leave office in September.
Evidence of the importance that U.S. officials accord Australia's support has been seen in the effusive public demonstrations of gratitude bestowed on Howard during his trip to Washington.
At a ceremonial planting of two trees from the White House grounds at the home of the Australian ambassador on Sunday, Bush told Howard: "I can't thank you enough, John, for your strong support of the liberty agenda (and your) deep desire for the world to be a peaceful place."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Howard on Monday at a State Department luncheon, saying "that any time the United States is on the front lines in the defense of freedom, Australians are by our side. And for that, we thank you."
Howard, in his reply to Rice, said Australia is at the forefront of countries that "urge greater rather than lesser United States involvement in the affairs of the world."
Howard has maintained his political strength in the face of critics who have questioned such strong ties to the United States. In 2004, he soundly defeated an opposition party that promised to bring home Australia's troops in and around Iraq if it won.