Gates Meets Australia's Center-Left PM

A visit to Australia by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates tests the tone of U.S.-Aussie relations. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd campaigned on a promise to pull Australian troops out of Iraq. But he doesn't want to sour ties with America.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Australia today. He is the first senior Bush administration official to visit Australia since a new center-left government took over.

The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, campaigned on a pledge to pull most of Australia's 850 troops out of Iraq by summer.

But as NPR's Guy Raz reports now from Canberra, the change in Australia's government hasn't necessarily strained relations with Washington.

GUY RAZ: The town of Bungendore, Australia - population 1,600 - is a little like Missouri. It's a bellwether. And the people of Bungendore have picked the winner in virtually every Australian election over the past century. Now, last November, the voters here kicked out the conservatives and helped install the center-left Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd.

The election was mainly about domestic issues, but 33-year-old Deb Ashcroft(ph) says people were also fed up with the cozy relationship between then Prime Minister John Howard and President Bush. And so before the election, she went to a lot of anti-Iraq War rallies.

Ms. DEB ASHCROFT (Resident, Bungendore, Australia): That was something a lot of people didn't feel that we should have gone into.

RAZ: The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, plans to withdraw all 550 Australian combat troops from Iraq by midsummer. But he's decided to keep about 300 others in the country to help with the training and stability operations. And Deb Ashcroft says she actually has no problem with that.

Ms. ASHCROFT: I think most people were resigned to the fact that that alliance has already been made. And I think, you know, no one agrees in cut-and-run either.

RAZ: Defense Secretary Robert Gates was here for an annual bilateral meeting known as AUSMIN. It's a chance for the U.S. and Australia to talk about diplomatic and strategic ties. But in some ways, it's also a chance for leaders from both countries to outdo the other in effusive praise.

Here's Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon:

Mr. JOEL FITZGIBBON (Defense Minister, Australia): Today, we further strengthen the relationship and the friendship and, of course, the reliance. And can I say I was delighted and privileged and honored to be part of it.

RAZ: And here's Secretary Gates.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of State): Our meetings today prove once again that our friendships endure across generations and across different administrations in both of our governments.

RAZ: That is largely true, according to Australian defense writer Graeme Dobell, a reporter with Australian Broadcasting.

Mr. GRAEME DOBELL (Reporter, Australian Broadcasting Corporation): The Rudd government is trying to walk away as quickly and as silently as it can from the Bush administration. But it is trying at the same moment to put its hands as firmly and as solidly as it can on the U.S. alliance.

RAZ: Australia's government, he says, is already looking ahead to next January and a new American administration. And though Australia is moving away from Iraq, the new government here is firmly focused on helping out in Afghanistan and keeping its 1,000 troops there firmly in place.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Canberra.

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