Former prime minister John Howard was in excellent form at yesterday's press conference in response to the release of the Chilcot Report. He'd received so many media requests, he said, that he thought it was a better idea to address them all at once. So he was certainly not running away from what at first glance looks like an awkward issue (he was on Lateline last night too). Howard is tied by friendship and history to a president who made what is widely considered to be the most disastrous US foreign policy decision since Vietnam. Yet at yesterday's press conference he parried and thrusted effortlessly.
But really, why wouldn't he? Howard is on sure and certain ground when confronted with the question of whether his government lied about Iraq's WMD stockpiles. No, he replies indignantly, he did not lie. He relied on the best information available about Iraqi WMD, supplied by the cream of the Western intelligence services, and it turned out to be wrong. Governments make decisions with the information they have to hand, he argues, and without the luxury of hindsight.
In short, when Howard's motives are questioned, he has a strong rebuttal. But instead of asking whether Howard was honest in the way he presented the case against Iraq, we should be asking whether his decision to enter the war was right and reasonable based on what was known at the time. In other words, it's not a question of integrity but of judgment.
The Iraq war was illegal and immoral, in my view, and not because of its outcomes but in its inception. This was knowable at the time and was argued by those at the fringes of the mainstream debate. That the war was a strategic error is a more difficult judgment if we rely only on information available then. That Australia's involvement was a strategic error is a more difficult judgment still. After all, Australia risked very little in Iraq, suffered no combat deaths, and yet elevated its stature in the US alliance. Against that we must weigh Paul Keating's argument that Australia's involvement in Iraq has increased the terrorist threat to Australia.
But the true failure of judgment here is that the shock of the 9/11 overwhelmed Howard, Bush and Blair, causing them to vastly overstate the threat posed by terrorism — John Howard's speech to the Lowy Institute marking the tenth anniversary of the war illustrates the point, as does this video of Condaleezza Rice arguing with a student.
Al Qaeda was never an existential threat to any of those three countries, even had it been armed with chemical or biological weapons. Nuclear weapons? Well, that's different, but the chance that a terrorist group could build or acquire a nuclear weapon has always been remote. Nuclear weapons are in a class of their own in terms of destructiveness, and the fact that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons were conflated into a catch-all 'WMD' category in the lead-up to the war skewed the debate badly.
The bigger point here is that invading and occupying Iraq was a massive over-reaction to the serious but manageable terrorist threat. Bush, Blair and Howard should have known that.
Photo: Getty Images/Pool