Vladimir Putin has been a thorn in America’s side, but he has also won a few admirers in the land of the free. Comparisons between President Obama and the Russian leader have left many pundits and commentators wanting more of the macho head of state. Well-known former New York mayor and conservative candidate for president Rudy Giuliani said the Russian leader was decisive, a quality that made him more of a leader than the American president. For Giuliani and other conservatives, anyone except Obama might be a good alternative, even if the alternative is a tyrannical Russian president and former KGB officer who invaded a sovereign nation, has been described as “in another world” by Germany’s Angela Merkel, and has access to nuclear weapons despite seeming a bit unhinged. But on the cusp of the G20 economic forum in Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has offered a very decisive alternative to the often shirtless Russian. In fact, Tony Abbott (who is also often photographed shirtless) and his robust stance on Putin has shown himself to be a leader American conservatives can believe in without any disadvantages whatsoever.
First of all, there is the fact that Abbott has not invaded anywhere and been apparently involved in the shooting down of a civilian plane. In fact, that issue is exactly what pits Putin and Abbott against each other and creates a wide variation of sympathy for the Aussie contender. When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down, many Australians died as a result, leading the Aussie prime minister to be directly at odds with the uncooperative Russian. While Russian involvement in the tragedy is a difficult subject, Abbott has obviously decided that there is enough evidence for him to confront Putin. As he said in a press conference on Monday, he would “shirtfront” the Russian president about those Australians murdered by Russian-backed rebels.
Abbott’s strong words may need a bit of interpretation for Americans, but the concept of shirtfronting will be recognizable. According to the Australian press, a shirtfront is a strong hit in Aussie rules rugby meant to knock a player down. It is generally considered an unsportsmanlike move, but it is effective during a game and the prime minister, who is famously fit, used to play rugby, so the analogy was apt. In this case, football-loving Americans can believe in Tony Abbott because he is a leader on and off the field and is translating his experience in a beloved sport into diplomatic currency when it comes to Putin’s transgressions. Unlike the long-winded rhetorician Obama, Abbott is a man of action.
Still, there are some who are unhappy with the prime minister’s verbiage, not the least of which are the Russians. Once the context of the shirtfront remark was explained, diplomats stepped in to poo-poo the idea. The third secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canberra, Australia, reminded many that Putin has a black belt in Judo. “We admire the Australian prime minister. He’s very fit,” said the third secretary, “but the Russian president, he’s a professional judo wrestler.” That reminder set some in Australia wondering just who would win in a fight between the two world leaders, with many remembering that Abbott was a boxer in college and had laid a knock out punch on the now Aussie Treasurer Joe Hockey. The odds from the Vegas bookmakers are still being calculated, but it is obvious that the Russians are worried about a confrontation, otherwise they would not have sent someone as important as a third secretary to address the issue.
While American fans and Aussie punters are speculating about the odds, professional politicians in Australia are condemning Abbott’s comments, trying to give a balanced picture of the issue. Senator Jacquie Lambie, somewhat famous for her own press conferences, said that the prime minister exhibited bad manners with the threat to Putin. This made some observers feel uncomfortable, especially since Lambie has said on air that she was looking for a man with a big package. While the New York Times cited her as a credible commentator, Aussie outlets were led to make jokes about pots and kettles and the color black.
While Australians are feeling concerned about the manners and maturity levels of their politicians, American conservatives starved for a real leader are feeling elated at the prospect of Tony Abbott. He is just the kind of conservative they need. Except for the fact that he is Australian, American conservatives might just try to make him their 2016 presidential candidate. Unlike Putin, who has too many pesky problems to be a viable candidate for the conservative leadership, Abbott is a leader that Americans can believe in without feeling guilty about it, which is more than the Aussies who gave him a 40 percent approval rating can say.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury