Sydney Morning Herald

By Phillip Coorey and Nick O'Malley

ALMOST three quarters of Australian voters are happy with the US alliance, a far cry from the peak of the Iraq war.

With the US President, Barack Obama, to arrive in Australia tomorrow for a 26-hour visit, the latest Herald/Nielsen poll shows 71 per cent of voters feel the relationship is ''about right''.

Only 24 per cent feel it is too close, while just 3 per cent say it is ''not close enough''.

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Mr Obama, who will address a joint sitting of Parliament on Thursday before flying to Darwin, is expected to announce alongside Julia Gillard a vastly expanded US military presence in Australia. US marines will be rotated through an Australian base in the Top End and there will be more frequent joint training exercises and visits by US warships and planes.

The military build-up, which some analysts and the Greens warn could antagonise China and other regional neighbours, has the potential to affect the view voters have of the alliance.

The Herald last asked the question in a poll in June 2004, when the Iraq war was at its peak and the relationship between the then leaders, John Howard and George Bush, was a close one. The war in Afghanistan was in its third year and the Iraq war in its second. Australia was involved in both and a strong supporter.

The poll then found 46 per cent felt the relationship was too close and 47 per cent felt it was about right. Like the current poll, 3 per cent felt it was not close enough.

The chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Geoffrey Garrett, says Mr Obama's visit reveals that the US is committed to refocusing on the region, and the rise of China, after being distracted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

''What we are witnessing at the moment is an enormous foreign policy pivot by the United States,'' Professor Garrett told a briefing of journalists.

Mr Obama was determined to become the US's ''first Pacific President'', and was making this visit even though he was ''beleaguered'' at home, he said.

The Obama presidency ''until now has been about unwinding the Bush war on terrorism''. Mr Obama was determined to refocus his strategic attention.

''Here the personal symbolism should not go unnoticed,'' Professor Garrett said. ''Barack Obama is currently hosting the APEC summit in Honolulu, where he went to high school. He is then coming to Australia, of which he has very fond memories … from when he was transiting here from Indonesia. Where is the East Asia summit leaders meeting being held? In Indonesia, in Bali.''

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, who wants to meet Mr Obama, is a fan of the President but wants Australia to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

''The Greens value our friendship with America very highly but we do with all our regional neighbours as well, and we want to see this nation have an increasing independence of foreign policy,'' Senator Brown said.