GEORGE W. Bush was an intelligent and likeable man, Prime Minister John Howard said today ahead of the US President’s arrival in Australia.
Large parts sections of central Sydney have been cordoned off with a 3m security fence amid predictions of violent protests to coincide with Mr Bush’s visit to the APEC leaders’ summit.
Protesters are keen to target Mr Bush over the US-led involvement in the Iraq war and his perceived failure to address climate change.
But Mr Howard today had only praise for Mr Bush, saying the US President had a “special position” as the democratically elected leader of Australia’s most important ally.
“He has his critics,” Mr Howard said during an unusual appearance on Channel 9’s Mornings with Kerri-Anne.
“I like him. I find him an intelligent, likeable man to deal with on a personal basis.”
Mr Howard promised to stick by Mr Bush because he would “never” walk away from a friend.
“I don’t care how much they’re criticised. You form a view of somebody and their character and I tend to stick with them,” Mr Howard said.
“It may not always enjoy total support, but I do it in a way that doesn’t damage the interest of my country.”
Mr Howard said a strong relationship between Canberra and Washington was crucial to Australia’s security.
“It’s in Australia’s interest to have a close alliance with America – not always to agree with America, we disagree with America on a lot of things,” he said.
“But overwhelmingly America remains a force for good, it is our security guarantor, and that alliance with the United States is fundamental to our future.”
Mr Howard said he accepted that the Iraq war was not popular with Australians.
But regardless of what people thought of the original decision to join the US-led invasion, it would be wrong to withdraw Australia’s few hundred personnel at this point, he said.
“I accept that the Iraq war’s not popular and I accept that George Bush has his critics,” Mr Howard said.
“I believe we were right to go into Iraq, I think we’d be very wrong to pull out now. What would happen if the Americans pulled out now, the place would just descend into total chaos, the terrorists would have a huge victory and that would be a major setback for our cause.
“So that’s why I’m perservering with our policies.”
There were signs that the recent surge in US troop numbers in Iraq was helping to turn things around, he said.
America’s top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, will next week deliver a report to Congress on the security situation in Iraq, including the effect of the boost in US troop numbers.
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd has promised a Labor government will bring home Australia’s 550 combat forces from southern Iraq at the end of their current rotation – about the middle of next year.