Jerry Nockles is a research scholar with the ANU and was recently a Visiting Scholar with the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, GWU.

Wayne Swan has taken the bold step of weighing in to the US presidential election. Or has he?

Swan, in what was an otherwise fairly pedestrian speech at the Financial Services Council breakfast in Sydney this morning, identified the two key risks to the global economic outlook: Europe and the US. 'Despite President Obama's goodwill and strong efforts' said Swan, 'the national interest there was held hostage by the rise of the extreme right Tea Party wing of the Republican Party...Let's be blunt and acknowledge the biggest threat to the world's biggest economy are the cranks and crazies that have taken over a part of the Republican Party.'

Referring to foreign politicians as 'cranks and crazies' is extreme language indeed. One would have to delve back to the heady days of Mark Latham to find a more reckless and inappropriate comment on foreign leadership.

But it is doubtful that Swan overestimates his ability to sway a US presidential election, as much as he would like to. What he can do is generate some interest in Prime Minister Gillard's visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly next week. He can also shore up support among the far-left vote in this country. President Obama remains popular among the left and any criticism of the Tea Party and fellow travelers will always be well received. This is Swan's real target: the left vote that has leaked from the ALP to the Greens and back again.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, reaction comes from Washington.

The more interesting factor, however, will be comparisons to then Prime Minister John Howard's spat with candidate Barack Obama in 2007. Mr Howard had criticised Senator Obama's intention to draw down US troops from Iraq by March 2008, claiming that this would deliver a victory for terrorists and destabilise the region. Senator Obama fired back, stating:

I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced candidacy...I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1400. So if he is ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and send them to Iraq, otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric.

As a serving member of the ADF at the time, I found the statement extraordinary and insulting. While Obama's statement was clearly directed at Mr Howard, what was evident in his attitude was an undervaluing and ridicule of the Australian commitment to the war on terror. Two Australians died in Iraq. Thirty-eight have now died in Afghanistan with nearly three hundred casualties. Empty rhetoric?

Swan has risked drawing attention to a criticism of Australia's role in the war on terror that, incredibly, escaped scrutiny in 2007. In a finely balanced election campaign, Democrat strategists may not thank Swan — or Prime Minister Gillard — for dredging up an offensive comment that had hitherto passed unnoticed.

Photo by Flickr user Greens MPs.