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The Iraq war ten years on

Iraq War: It's been almost 10 years

Published 7 Mar 2013 09:17   0 Comments

Blogger and columnist Andrew Sullivan is marking the upcoming tenth anniversary of the Iraq War by reproducing some of his stridently pro-war blog posts of the time. Those of you who follow Sullivan's site will know that he has changed his mind completely about Iraq since those days, and he has been unusually open in his contrition. In fact, he's showing an almost masochistic willingness to lay bare his embarrassingly credulous endorsement of the Bush Administration's line leading up to the war.

It sets a good example. And in the same spirit, I place on the record my own support for the war at the time. My support was more hesitant than Sullivan's, and I recall having many doubts. But having served as a mid-level official in the Defence Department through the 'major combat operations' phase of the war (that is, before the real Iraq war kicked off), I also recall giving a farewell speech to colleagues before moving to DFAT and saying that we had done the right thing.

I was wrong for a lot of reasons — strategic, political, humanitarian — but the most important is that the Iraq War did not meet the basic test of a just war, which allows for pre-emptive military action against an imminent threat, but not preventive war designed to stop such imminent threats from even emerging. The Iraq War, to my mind, was clearly a preventive war and thus constituted a crime of aggression.

I don't suppose my support for the war mattered very much at the time, and although I now have a public forum to air my revised views, I doubt my change of heart matters much more now. I mention all of this only to encourage others to talk about their views of the Iraq War ten years after the invasion, and to tell readers what they continue to believe and what they have changed their minds about. Email me on

60 Minutes goes to Baghdad

Published 13 Mar 2013 10:53   0 Comments

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Sam Roggeveen has invited Interpreter readers to 'talk about their views of the Iraq War ten years after the invasion'. Several weeks ago, 60 Minutes invited me to Iraq to make a segment addressing this topic. After some discussion, I agreed. The segment was broadcast on 10 March.

Contrary to a previous unfortunate experience with this show, the crew were a delight to work with. They were truly professional in everything they did, they respected each other and the story, and they treated my contribution fairly. The vast experience of each and every one of them in previous conflicts and disasters gave me some hope that there would be an understanding of the complexities of Iraq over the last ten years.

We spent a week in Iraq and traveled widely, at least throughout Baghdad and environs. We spoke to an assortment of people. Hour-long formal interviews were conducted with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, a long serving National Security Adviser, and with me. Just about every aspect of the invasion and the war, its justification and its morality, were addressed. Visits were made to average middle class families, to inter-married Sunni and Shia families, a refugee resettlement centre, a wedding, an orphanage, an orchestra and a park. We even did a walk down a Baghdad street, drinking tea and eating flat bread.

Over that period, these professionals must have produced hundreds of hours of video and sound. But of course when the segment went to air, it was 14 minutes in length. My first feeling after seeing it was to check myself for knife wounds, but I was treated fairly. Finding no personal injury, I considered how the issue of Iraq after ten years was treated. [fold]

The segment was entertaining but I did not feel comfortable when the host journo, Michael Usher, opened with the statement that the war was based on a lie. That is an important opening judgment as it sets the tone. Part of the war's justification relating to WMD was undeniably wrong, but it has never been proven to be a lie. It was just wrong. And it was not the only justification.

Interestingly, when we put to Iraqi interviewees the judgment that the war had no moral basis because there were no WMD, at least three of them made the point that to Iraqis, WMD was irrelevant. What was overwhelmingly important for Iraqis was that Saddam was gone. Many of us in the West have no understanding of how evil Saddam actually was, and how his evil impacted daily on Iraqis of all classes and sects, and how happy Iraqis (including many Sunnis) are that he is gone.

The interview with the middle class Baghdad family, where the adult sister stated that 'things were better under Saddam because there was more electricity', offered viewers insufficient context. To my knowledge this was the only expression of 'things are not as good as they were under Saddam'.

The fact is, there is far more electricity being produced in that benighted country now than in Saddam's time. But Iraqis are also using much more electricity because they are free to buy things that use electricity. Also, Saddam ensured that his power base, the Sunni elite who ran the country and lived in Baghdad (in fact, the Sunni family of this woman), received electricity at the expense of the Shia, especially those in Basrah. The electricity being produced now is inadequate for a modern consuming society; it is just that the inadequacy is being shared by the whole country now, not just the Shia.

The interview with the National Security Adviser was fascinating. Consistent with many others, he said that no one ever wants to be invaded and occupied by the Americans, but Iraq had to get rid of Saddam and it was worth the war to do it. It is understandable but disappointing that a totally disproportionate amount of the 14 minute segment was taken up by the rope in the corner of the National Security Adviser's office that hung Saddam, when so much else he said was so important.

The report also lacked context in the way it addressed the level of violence in Iraq at the moment. That Iraq is still violent is an unchallengeable fact. On the day before we arrived there were ten car bombs in Baghdad which killed twenty people. The perspective that I think should have been there was that the violence in Iraq today is far less than during Saddam's time, unless of course you were a member of the 20% Sunni elite oppressing the 60% Shia and 20% Kurds. It is also far less than during the American occupation. Compared to Australia, the violence is appalling but by Middle East and Iraqi standards, one may arrive at a different judgment. In relation to violence, Iraq must be better off today. Not perfect or good, but better.

The 60 Minutes website has a section called 'Extra Minutes', where the host expands on a few points. In that section, we see Michael Usher giving some more context and making some judgments that perhaps could have been included in the broadcast segment. He says he has hope and optimism, that Iraq had changed for the better, that people are getting on with normal life, but that al Qaeda is alive and well in Iraq.

My 60 Minutes interview in Iraq went for about an hour. It covered my views on the reasons for the war, how you can judge success, the moral base of going to war and then in conducting the war, and the state I think Iraq is in. I will ask that 60 Minutes put this interview, along with the National Security Adviser's interview, in full on their website. These interviews balance the broadcast segment, give some context, and act as a handy reference for anyone who may want to get past the first level of the broadcast segment.

Photo by Flickr user Omar Chatriwala.

Reader riposte: 60 Minutes in Baghdad

Published 14 Mar 2013 13:18   0 Comments

Andrew Farran writes:

The anecdotal observations by Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan in his piece 60 Minutes goes to Baghdad cannot sugarcoat what by any reckoning was a disastrous, hugely costly and illegal war. Agreed that those who survived the war are better off than those who did not. Agreed that the political shape of Iraq has greatly changed whereby it is largely run now by Shias instead of Sunnis, with the result that Iran has gained an ally rather than an enemy, which in turn has strengthened the hand of Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

I hadn't realised that these were the objectives of the US/UK/Australian invasion, and that the fact that Saddam Hussein didn't have WMDs was neither here nor there in terms of the war's justification.

Your readers would be far better informed as to the state of Iraq today if they were to read a very recent publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies entitled Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism by Toby Dodge, a Senior Fellow of that Institute and a renowned authority on the Middle East and Iraq. They would get a very different picture indeed from that painted by the retired Major General.

Saddam a tyrant, but war was wrong

Published 15 Mar 2013 14:43   0 Comments

Tom Switzer is a Research Associate at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and editor of Spectator Australia.

One can greatly admire Major General Molan, as I do, and still profoundly disagree with his views about the Iraq war and its aftermath. Australian forces played an honorable role in both the invasion and post-regime occupation of Iraq. The fact remains that our Diggers should never have been sent to Iraq.

True, Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant who defied several UN resolutions. But any threat he posed could have been contained, as indeed it had been since the 1991 Gulf War. For Saddam, far from being an ideological fanatic in cahoots with al Qaeda, was a cynical calculator whose overriding concern was to hold onto power and exercise it ruthlessly over the unfortunate people of Iraq, especially the Shia majority.

Jim suggests that the Iraqi people enjoy a better life today than under the Baathist dictatorship before 2003. That assessment conflicts sharply with that held by many Iraqis themselves. Take Kadom al-Jabouri, who became the face of the demise of Saddam (he was widely photographed with a sledgehammer demolishing the huge statue of the fallen dictator). Speaking to the UK Observer (a liberal pro-war paper) last week, he said: 

I dreamed for five years of bringing down that statue, but what has followed has been a bitter disappointment. Then we had only dictator. Now we have hundreds. Nothing has changed for the better....Under Saddam, there was security. There was corruption, but nothing like this. Our lives were protected....Then came the killings, robberies and sectarian violence....And things seem to get worse all the time.

For a quirkier but nonetheless realist view, here's my column in The Age in Melbourne today.

Photo by Flickr user Ammar Abd Rabbo.

The Iraq Syndrome

Published 18 Mar 2013 15:06   0 Comments

One of the oddest parties I have ever attended was held at 'Ground Zero', the courtyard in the heart of the Pentagon so named because it was a key target for the Soviet nuclear arsenal in the event that the Cold War suddenly turned hot.

The military top brass, serenaded that afternoon by a country & western band and served ice cold lemonade, was in buoyant mood. Baghdad had fallen. President George W Bush, following his Top Gun touchdown on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, had declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over, before the now infamous banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished.'

'Stuff' was happening inside Iraq, as then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offhandedly acknowledged, after the scenes of mass looting in the capital. But this was very much a celebration, and an unabashed one at that. After all, there was a feeling that in the deserts of Mesopotamia, America's 'Vietnam Syndrome' had finally been put to rest.

Rarely in my BBC career had I delivered a piece to camera that was so at odds with the background mood. Was it not premature, I asked, to hold a victory party when Saddam Hussein had not yet been found, nor a single weapon of mass destruction? Often with television stand-uppers it takes a few tries to get a stumble-free take. With each rendition, I received more disapproving glances. But to us, at least, it seemed a statement of the obvious: the Iraq war was far from over, and the toughest challenges lay ahead.

Ten years on, the Iraq war inventory makes for grim reading. America's military dead number 4487, with an additional 31,965 military personnel wounded in action. The Iraq Body Count database estimates that between 112,000 and 122,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq. The mental cost, both for the Iraqi people and the returning US servicemen and women, is incalculable but profound. [fold]

Whatever the changes wrought in Iraq, the financial cost has been colossal. According to the Congressional Research Service, the price tag has been US$802 billion. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz it is closer to US$3 trillion —that would be roughly one-fifth of America's national debt.

Thinking at the Pentagon is now radically different from how it was on that balmy afternoon in 2003, when the sense of military possibility seemed pretty much limitless. As former Defence Secretary Robert Gates memorably put it in early 2011, anyone now advocating a land war in the Middle East or Asia should 'have his head examined.' Nor would anyone propose an open-ended military commitment elsewhere. America cannot afford it, and nor would the American public countenance it. The Pentagon's new strategic guidance document reflects this new political and fiscal reality: 'US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.' Again, a statement of the new obvious.

A decade on, the 'Vietnam Syndrome' has been superseded by the 'Iraq Syndrome', a hesitancy to embark on new military adventures, a rejection of the doctrine of pre-emption, a return to multilateralism and international cooperation and, as in Iran, a heightened reliance on diplomacy and sanctions. There is a preference, as in Libya, to 'lead from behind', and to fight wars, ideally unmanned, from above. Military planners have come to rely much more heavily on drones and covert action. Counter-insurgency strategies are no longer centred on overwhelming force.

Syria has demonstrated America's strong aversion to enter into conflicts where there is no clear 'exit strategy', even in the face of such stark humanitarian need. A doctrinal approach to foreign policy, favoured by George W Bush and neo-conservatives, has been replaced by pragmatism applied case-by-case.

Far from being a symbol of American military might, as it was in 2003, the Pentagon itself reminds us of the country's relative decline. Over the next decade, it faces budget cuts totaling US$487 billion. Some of its giant aircraft carriers, awaiting refurbishments that the navy can no longer afford, cannot leave port. This includes the Abraham Lincoln.

Doubtless there have been moments of celebration since that 'Ground Zero' hoedown in 2003. The Iraq surge. NATO's involvement in Libya. The killing of Osama bin Laden. But ten years after the Iraq war, the Pentagon is a very different place. A mood of circumspection now prevails.

Image courtesy of Flickr user nkdby.

Iraq: The real intelligence failure...

Published 18 Mar 2013 16:29   0 Comments

...was not the failure to uncover certain facts, but a failure to consider alternative hypotheses. Here's Bush Administration National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley (my emphasis):

I speak from my particular vantage point of the White House, and I recognize that everything I say can be discounted because it's so self-serving. One of the things Dr. Sepp, I think, said, which I think is exactly right in terms of failure of intelligence, it's really a failure of imagination. It never occurred to me or anyone else I was working with, and no one from the intelligence community or anyplace else ever came in and said, what if Saddam is doing all this deception because he actually got rid of the WMD and he doesn't want the Iranians to know? Now, somebody should have asked that question. I should have asked that question. Nobody did. It turns out that was the most important question in terms of the intelligence failure that never got asked.

 Hadley might have been thinking of this section of the Iraq Survey Group's final report: [fold]

WMD Possession—Real or Imagined—Acts as a Deterrent

The Iran-Iraq war and the ongoing suppression of internal unrest taught Saddam the importance of WMD to the dominance and survival of the Regime. Following the destruction of much of the Iraqi WMD infrastructure during Desert Storm, however, the threats to the Regime remained; especially his perception of the overarching danger from Iran. In order to counter these threats, Saddam continued with his public posture of retaining the WMD capability. This led to a difficult balancing act between the need to disarm to achieve sanctions relief while at the same time retaining a strategic deterrent. The Regime never resolved the contradiction inherent in this approach. Ultimately, foreign perceptions of these tensions contributed to the destruction of the Regime.

  • Saddam never discussed using deception as a policy, but he used to say privately that the “better part of war was deceiving,” according to ‘Ali Hasan Al Majid. He stated that Saddam wanted to avoid appearing weak and did not reveal he was deceiving the world about the presence of WMD.
  • The UN’s inconclusive assessment of Iraq’s possession of WMD, in Saddam’s view, gave pause to Iran. Saddam was concerned that the UN inspection process would expose Iraq’s vulnerability, thereby magnifying the effect of Iran’s own capability. Saddam compared the analogy of a warrior striking the wrist of another, with the potential effect of the UN inspection process. He clarified by saying that, despite the strength of the arm, striking the wrist or elbow can be a more decisive blow to incapacitate the entire arm; knowledge of your opponents’ weaknesses is a weapon in itself.

Photo by Flickr user The US Army.

Iraq violence appalling by any standard

Published 20 Mar 2013 09:58   0 Comments

I admire Jim Molan for his dynamism and command experience, however I was left scratching my head over his pronouncements regarding the legacy of violence that Iraq suffers from ten years after the invasion. 

When he claimed that 'the violence in Iraq today is far less than during Saddam's time, unless of course you were a member of the 20% Sunni elite oppressing the 60% Shia and 20% Kurds', it was done without reference to any figures on the monthly casualties that Iraq still suffers from as a result of insurgent or political violence

For those who would like some perspective, a quick glance at The Iraq Body Count website provides an insight into the sheer scale of regular violence that doesn't fit into Jim's relativist view. No one can deny the war crimes perpetrated against the Kurds in Halabja or against the Shia in the south during the 1991 uprising by the Ba'thist regime. But to claim that, despite hundreds of deaths a month, each and every month for a decade the invasion was justified because it was worse in Saddam's time is both wrong and wrong-headed.         

There was however, one statement in particular where I feel Jim displayed a selective view of the nature of violence. [fold]

I was particularly struck by his observation that 'compared to Australia, the violence is appalling but by Middle East and Iraqi standards, one may arrive at a different judgment.' What appalls me about this claim (besides Jim's obvious lack of understanding regarding the Middle East) is his relativist approach to violence and consequent blithe assumption that somehow the Middle East is inherently more violent than the rest of the world. 

How does Jim view African standards of violence? Would he argue that events in Somalia, Rwanda, Biafra and countless other appalling acts of ethnic violence carried out over the years are accepted by Africans as just part of the natural fabric of the region? And how would Jim measure 'European' standards, knowing that Europeans have spawned two world wars, given birth to national socialism and communism and ended the century with years of sectarian savagery in the former Yugoslavia? Was the Indonesian decimation of the communists in the 1960s or the Khmer Rouge pogrom of the 1970s absolutely appalling, or only relatively appalling (by Asian standards). And how does the Argentinian 'dirty war' of the 1970s rate according to Latin American standards?

Jim's views that people in the Middle East have a different standard regarding violence is simplistic at best, and serves to reinforce Edward Said's Orientalist critique of Western conceptions of the region.

Photo by Flickr user The US Army.

What if the Iraq war never happened?

Published 20 Mar 2013 11:26   0 Comments

Michael Ware was a war correspondent for TIME Magazine and CNN. He spent six years in Iraq.

Not the invasion, that's something else. That was three weeks of aggressive warfare executed, by and large, with stunning effect, scattering a half-million-man army in its wake. The tenth anniversary retrospective haze makes the whole affair seem almost dreamlike, a flicker of blistering success before the years of horror set in.

So no, I don't mean that. But what of the war that followed, made up as it was of so many smaller wars? Different battles waged against the Americans, against Iraq's new security forces, even among the Iraqis themselves in bitter civil war. But none more than the largest war and the one most targeted against Coalition troops, the Sunni insurgency. What if that had never come to pass? What if we missed means to better, exponentially better, exploit our military supremacy? Not just once. Or twice. But incessantly, for something like four years.

Sadly, as someone who was there throughout, I feel in my heart now what I was told to be true then: that the insurgent war didn't have to happen. The chance to avoid it was offered to us, plainly and clearly, and we failed to act upon it. Then failed again and again each time that chance was presented anew. Four long bloody years in which perhaps so very many people did not have to die; not those we knew, nor the multitude we didn't.

Such thoughts stagger me. Render me silent. I'm not ashamed to say.

When insurgent leadership factions first offered peace terms, at least to my knowledge, it was to prevent the nascent conflict. It subsequently evolved into terms to end the insurgency and assassinate al Qaeda. It was a conversation pressed spasmodically by the guerrillas, with a view to a negotiated political settlement with the US.

I remember precisely where I was the first time the emerging insurgent leadership told me of their intentions. It was way back in the war's first summer. In 2003. Before the insurgency's full fury had been unleashed. I remember the carpet in the room in the farmhouse where I was sitting, cross-legged. Even now, as I write, I still see it. [fold]

We were amid the lush green along the Euphrates in a village brimming with recently discarded Iraqi military who until not too long ago had been at the heart of Saddam Hussein's secretive police state. Fifteen or so of these men gathered in a sparse living room for lunch, and I was the guest.

My host was a man I knew had been a colonel in the former regime's intelligence service. Like many of his kind, he believed his commission had not been terminated by the American invasion. He and his family became my good friends. His sons were former military. Sometimes we'd shoot bottles out the back of their small rural property.

As we all ate with our hands, scooping great clumps of rice from a vast communal platter piled high, so heavy and unwieldy it took two adolescents to place it in the centre of the room atop an orange plastic sheet, my host began to speak. He told me in long, detailed bursts of oration how all of them, and their comrades, had been so terribly wronged by the occupation. And how perilous the situation had become for the Americans.

It quickly became evident something tectonic had shifted within these guys I'd come to know (first for a TIME Magazine article collating anecdotes on the Battle of Baghdad, then as friends and long-standing sources). This, I recall thinking, is why I'd been invited for lunch. They had militarised. There were discernible semblances of command and control. They were energised. It would not be long before US forces would only enter this area with great caution and ready to brawl. 'But,' I asked through my translator, 'can you defeat them?'

My friend didn't miss a beat. 'No,' he said, with an are-you-kidding kind of look on his face. 'They're the greatest military on earth, of course we cannot defeat them on the battlefield.' There was simply no way for them to go head-to-head with the occupying forces. But, he continued, they had read Mao, and Ho Chi Ming, and Giap, and Che. 'We will win,' he said to me, with a wry smirk. 'And we'll do it on that,' and he pointed to a dead television set covered in a corner of the room. 'On television.'

He and I had drunk whiskey together. When the old man wasn't around some of the lads would proudly show me their best porn. We all smoked like Victorian factory chimneys. The guys paraded some of the prostitutes they would occasionally engage. We shared wild and funny times. Still, something had changed. And he said: 'could you explain something for me?'

'If I can, of course. You know that.'

'Then tell me. I used US satellite imagery to kill Iranians in the eighties. Some of us did Ranger or Pathfinder training in the States. Al Qaeda? Never in this country. Right?' he asked, rhetorically. 'We had no great love for Saddam, and didn't mind you taking him down. If you came for the oil, then take it; we have to sell it to someone. And, we're happy if the occupier becomes a guest and we host US bases, akin to Germany and Japan.'

He paused.

'So, how is it we end up on the opposite sides of this thing? I don't get it. I just don't get it.'

And there it was. Spoken. An insurgency.

The war's ultimate goal, he told me, to much nodding approval around the room, was for the Sunnis to fight and negotiate their way to a seat at the table of power in the country. A seat they felt they'd been egregiously denied.

But in the weeks and then months I was being told such things, I could not find a single attentive ear within the US mission. Government authority then rested with the Coalition Provisional Authority of proconsul Paul L Bremer. Along with declaring so foolishly that the tribes of Iraq were effectively dead, CPA officials I encountered merely sniffed at the insurgents' desire to converse. They would buckle under the heel of a new, soon-to-be democratic government. There was absolutely no palpable interest in encouraging a dialogue. Perhaps, even, quite the contrary.

The US military, it seemed to me, was labouring under an entirely different misapprehension. The US Army, which then owned Baghdad and the rest of the country with it, simply could not understand who was shooting at them nor why they would be shooting in the first place.

Initially I took the army's naivety for a ruse, a public-information blind behind which operations could hide. However, something happened in late 2003 that would finally convince me the military's confusion was genuine and heartfelt.

Sometime in late November 2003, I'm sure it was, I was swept up, without warning (having broken the day's Ramadan fast with an evening meal with Iraqi insurgent friends) outside Baghdad International Airport and taken on a nighttime assault. In a December cover story for TIME I detailed the extensive coordination and the various stages of the 120mm mortar and surface-to-surface missile attack on the airport that I witnessed and, at close quarters, filmed in grainy green night vision on my humble $300 Sony handycam.

Days later, from Baghdad, I was doing a live radio cross with the States, I seem to recall it being on NPR, to discuss the nature, structure and durability of the insurgency I'd encountered in the course of the TIME cover story. I finished my narrative and learned, live on air, that I'd been sandbagged. A US general had been on the other line, listening to my account.

The radio anchor threw to the 1st Armored Division general, asking for his take on what I'd outlined. After initial bluff and bluster over the very idea of my spending time with his enemy, I remember the general's tone shifting noticeably when he said, 'however I have written down everything he (Ware) said', or words to that effect. I think it was the way the general said that, rather than the words themselves, that sent a series of tumblers falling to place in my mind. The American war machine truly doesn't know what it's up against.

The realisation floored me.


In Iraq the dying wouldn't stop. When I think back, when I return to those years in my mind, all I see is blood.

Though he'd announced his arrival in the summer of 2003 with the Jordan embassy car bombing, the war's first such event, it wasn't until 2004 that ultra-militant Islamic leader Abu Mousab al Zarqawi really made his presence felt. Violently opposed to the mere notion of a dialogue with the Americans, he had his men assiduously hunt down and kill any they could find. It was a ruthless and bloody campaign.

But it could not forestall first contact.

If there is a quiet, unsung American hero to this story, then it is a Green Beret colonel posted in the war's early years to Baghdad. Then-Lt Col Rick Welch, now a full-bird colonel, was a reservist and small town district attorney from Morgan County, Ohio. His work in Iraq, I have absolutely no doubt, was a vital strand of the ultimate DNA of America's military successes.

Alone, with goodness-only-knows what kind of leash from his command to do what he was doing, Col Welch was engaging with many of the same factions and currents of the guerrilla movements as I was. And, as I can testify, he came to be held in nothing but the highest regard by the insurgent leadership as an indefatigably honest broker. But the colonel, I suspect, would at first have been a lone voice in an American analytical wilderness at that point of the war.

Then, by mid-2004, there was revolutionary change on the civilian side of the US mission.

In June of that year, sovereign power was transferred from America's Bremer back to the nominal Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The transfer took place two days ahead of schedule, to avert mass attacks. The ceremony appeared rushed and in secret. Official US Government photos released soon after showed Bremer on the tarmac of Baghdad's airport, scampering out of the country.

For the Americans, the bumbling CPA was replaced by the US embassy and a relatively informed and quintessentially pragmatic State Department. A welcome, seismic shift. With Ambassador John Negroponte in place, halting dialogues could begin to splutter, and stutter, and stumble. Even before November 2004's great Battle of Fallujah, one of the best-placed Ambassadors in America's five-Ambassador embassy went to the edge of that besieged insurgent metropolis to discuss terms with the city's high command.

The insurgency, for its part, flexed its muscle in Iraq's twin elections in 2005. In the first, in January, the leadership told its constituents not to participate in the process, to vote by boycott. En masse the Sunni population stayed away from the ballot boxes.

But it was in the second ballot, in December 2005, that the insurgency in Iraq came of age. In that election, not only did the insurgency urge its people to vote, which they did in droves, but the high command told its fighters to do the same. One commander I'd long known told me his men would drop their weapons and vote, and fifteen minutes later would be attacking an American convoy.

Far more important, though, was the fact the nationalistically-motivated insurgent command told the religious zealots of Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq to stand down on the day of the ballot, to allow people to vote. And, second, through me in TIME and on CBS and CNN, the insurgent command issued this order openly before the election. Any failure would be disastrously public. Odds seemingly stacked against them, they were, as we might say in Australia, playing for sheep stations. For keeps.

And yet they pulled it off. With aplomb. The Sunni voted in grand, enormous electoral blocks. And there was barely a peep from al Qaeda across the entire country. America, it was now impossible to deny, had a legitimate partner to deal with within the insurgency. And yet, the insurgent command felt, the Americans simply ignored them.

So by 2006 America could feel control of the war slipping. Baghdad was a mess, a civil war capital. Restive al Anbar province, the decreed centre of a new al Qaeda state, was lost. The mostly-Marines in the province's deserts were clinging on by their fingertips, each day a vile struggle to survive.

But by that year's end, two more pivotal events would transpire to hasten the end of hostilities with the Sunni guerrilla movement.

The first was the arrival of two American officers in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, who would transform the very nature of the fight in their region of Iraq. Through them would manifest the anti-al-Qaeda tribal programme, a devise that would see a metamorphosis first in Ramadi and its surroundings, then across the province and, by the time it was done, across the most volatile half of the country. Variously dubbed the Anbar tribes, the Awakening, or the Sons of Iraq it rapidly became a battle-tested counter-insurgent mindset that realigned the goal posts of the war.

The other event was the appearance of two insurgent videos. Both groundbreaking. Both from the same group. Both parts of the same message. They came from the Islamic Army of Iraq, one of Iraq's oldest insurgent groupings that was, in reality, a massive umbrella organisation for mostly former military and intelligence officers and former Baathists. It represented a lion's share of the nationalist insurgency, the bulk of the 20,000-odd insurgents shooting at the Americans on any given day.

The first is what became known in the US as the 'sniper video', Islamic Army of Iraq combat camera footage of its sniper teams shooting American soldiers from hides. It caused a sensation in the US.

The other video was its companion, also from the Islamic Army. In this one, the organisation's official spokesman, Ibrahim al Shimary, appeared on camera (though his face remained covered) to once more – clearly, precisely, publicly – offer to negotiate with the US. 'We in the Islamic Army, as we have announced many times', al Shimary said, 'do not reject negotiations but only if the Americans are serious.'

Within a year the same Bush Administration that had once called these men dead-enders, Saddamists and criminals, the same American leadership that insisted it would not talk with terrorists nor 'those with American blood on their hands', that same White House would be heralding how it had put former members of al Qaeda on the US Government payroll. All part of the Awakening programme that would eventually employ almost 107,000 former insurgents, forming them in to local pro-American militia often in opposition to the democratically-elected government in Baghdad. The mere notion of such a thing would have seemed heretical, even treasonous, four or five years earlier at the war's outset.

From that point at the beginning of the war till this, America had suffered something like 3000 combat deaths, tens of thousands of wounded, and spent at least US$2 billion a week prosecuting the war. In the same period, best estimates say upward of 100,000 to 150,000 civilians were killed, with millions displaced. An entire society was ruptured, possibly irrevocably.

So, I wonder, what if the Iraq war had never happened?

Reader riposte: Jim Molan and the Iraq debate

Published 21 Mar 2013 09:47   0 Comments

Sue Wareham from the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry writes:

Maj Gen (ret’d) Jim Molan's implication that Iraq is better off now because of the 2003 invasion goes beyond incredulity. Molan appears oblivious to the memory of the likely hundreds of thousands of innocent people who have died, and the millions of people who continue to suffer because of the war inflicted on them by the US, UK and Australia.

Is Molan really talking about Iraq, the country that was secular before 2003 but is now ripped apart by regular suicide bombings and other sectarian violence; the country where women were among the most liberated in the Middle East but whose rights have now regressed decades; the country where children have been terrorised and scarred for life by exposure to extreme violence, and where 3.5  to 4.5 million people have had to flee their homes? Is he including in the list of those grateful for our interventions the people of Fallujah, where he played a leading role in the second assault on the city in 2004? The descriptions of what coalition forces did there are not pleasant reading.  


Molan also appears to care little for the shifting goalposts that led us to Iraq. It was WMDs, no wait, there are none there. It was links with the September 11 terrorists, no, hold on, none of them were from Iraq, it’s Saudi Arabia we should have invaded. Hang it all, Saddam Hussein was a nasty piece of work anyway. And thank God he’s dead and can’t spill the beans about who helped make him a well-armed nasty piece of work. For a military man, Molan’s lack of concern for well-defined goals is surprising. He might wish to recall that PM Howard at the time told the National Press Club that he could not justify war if Saddam Hussein had no WMDs (then continued to do just that when no WMDs were found).

On 9 April, former Prime Minister Howard is to address the Lowy Institute. Unfortunately there has been no hint recently that he might do anything other than attempt to whitewash history, sanitise a bloodbath and justify one of the worst, if not the worst, foreign policy decisions in our history.

Given the significance of the decision to go to war that Mr Howard made, not least to millions of innocent Iraqis and to the millions of Australians who did not want his war, a proper debate on the subject, rather than a one-sided promotion of his cause, is the least that could be offered. Perhaps most importantly, we owe such debate to all those who will be affected from disastrous wars in future if Australia learns nothing from what happened in 2003. Such a contribution from Lowy, in the form of a debate on the decision made in 2003 and the manner in which decisions to go to war in future should be made, would be valuable.

The best way for Australia to draw lessons from the 2003 disaster would be through a high-level independent inquiry into the process and the decisions that led us to war then. Those who, like Molan, are keen to defend the decisions, should welcome such an opportunity and join the growing number calling for an inquiry. Then he could really have his say, with a very big and interested audience.

The avoidable Iraq insurgency

Published 21 Mar 2013 15:04   0 Comments

A warm welcome to new readers who may have just discovered our site via The Daily Beast, which has now syndicated the article we ran yesterday by former TIME magazine and CNN correspondent Michael Ware. Thanks also to Andrew Sullivan for drawing his readers' attention to the piece, and to the many who have mentioned it on Twitter.

If you haven't yet read Michael Ware's reflections on the Iraq insurgency, do yourself a favour and set aside some time for it today. It's much longer than anything we usually publish on The Interpreter, but you really only get the full force and drama of it when you read it one sitting. I have no hesitation in saying that its one of the finest pieces of writing we've ever published on The Interpreter. Here's Michael describing the moment he realised an insurgency was at hand:

It quickly became evident something tectonic had shifted within these guys I'd come to know...This, I recall thinking, is why I'd been invited for lunch. They had militarised. There were discernible semblances of command and control. They were energised. It would not be long before US forces would only enter this area with great caution and ready to brawl. 'But,' I asked through my translator, 'can you defeat them?'

My friend didn't miss a beat. 'No,' he said, with an are-you-kidding kind of look on his face. 'They're the greatest military on earth, of course we cannot defeat them on the battlefield.' There was simply no way for them to go head-to-head with the occupying forces. But, he continued, they had read Mao, and Ho Chi Ming, and Giap, and Che. 'We will win,' he said to me, with a wry smirk. 'And we'll do it on that,' and he pointed to a dead television set covered in a corner of the room. 'On television.'

Photo by Flickr user The US Army.

Iraq an intelligence failure? Not quite

Published 22 Mar 2013 08:55   0 Comments

The worst mistake we can make in the aftermath of the ill-conceived decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is to draw the wrong lessons from it. Paramount among these wrong lessons is the view that the Iraq intervention resulted from an intelligence, rather than a policy, failure.

Sam's earlier post cites Stephen Hadley pushing the intelligence failure line that was predictably popular among Australian, UK, and US policy makers. Hadley suggests that, had intelligence analysts come up with the right question on Saddam's failure to openly demonstrate he had no WMD (ie. is Saddam not cooperating because he doesn't want the Iranians to know?), a different policy outcome may have occurred.

Such rationalist inspired explanations are inherently appealing, given our faith in the ideal of policy making as a product of careful cost-benefit calculations based on the best available information and pursued in the 'national interest'. It is, however, also a convenient dodge for the policy elites who supported the military option, since it allows them to say, 'Well, I would have made a better decision if I'd been given better information and analysis.' [fold]

A decision to invade Iraq was made within the Bush Administration possibly as early as a year before March 2003, so it is almost absurd to think anything would have changed had someone come up with Stephen Hadley's $64,000 question. Richard Clarke and others have said the arguments made within the Bush Administration for invading Iraq were made within days of the 9/11 attacks.

The point at which invasion became an unstated policy appears to have occurred at some point in the months between President Bush's 'axis of evil' speech in January 2002 and a London meeting later that July between senior UK policy and intelligence figures where, according to what became known as the Downing Street Memo, both the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq and its strategy of fixing the intelligence around this policy were communicated to the Blair Government.

The big challenge that supporters of an invasion faced, however, was the need to make Saddam's regime appear as an existential threat. They needed to make future threat scenarios more compelling, since an occupation of Iraq could not be legitimised only by pointing to Saddam's past behaviour as evidence of his future threat potential. Overcoming this challenge depended on the Bush Administration's ability to produce a body of evidence on Iraq's ongoing development of proscribed weapons that would support the kind of threat scenarios needed to justify precautionary action.

The Bush Administration and its allies exploited uncertainty regarding the kind and level of threat posed by Iraq by extrapolating from the available, but still ambiguous, evidence a number of nightmare scenarios involving mushroom clouds and WMD-armed transnational terrorist groups, all of which were made more credible by the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. And, in lieu of any indisputable evidence that Iraq had already abandoned its chemical, biological and nuclear programs, there was little prospect of undermining the Bush Administration's argument for preventive action against Iraq.

The real lesson to be learned from the Iraq debacle should begin with this question: 'Why did our policy makers choose to interpret the intelligence and the many uncertainties it necessarily contained only in ways that supported the case for military action?'

Most people instead seem more concerned about why intelligence agencies couldn't remove all the uncertainties so that Bush, Howard, and Blair could have dutifully made the right decision. The result is that intelligence agencies cop all the heat while policy elites are allowed to get away with the 'gee, if only we had known' defence.

Indeed, as one intelligence analyst I spoke to in Washington observed, a government wanting to avoid war instead of justifying it would have been keen to revisit the judgements made in the now discredited 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, following the return of UN inspectors later that year.

Rather than giving pause on the need for military action, the failure to uncover any evidence of WMD by Blix's team was instead understood by the Bush Administration merely as further evidence that Saddam was hiding them. Go figure!

Photo by Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.

Reader riposte: Iraq casualties reconsidered

Published 25 Mar 2013 10:00   0 Comments

US Army Major Matthew Cavanaugh is a course director and instructor at the US Military Academy at West Point:

Just thought I would attempt a small contribution to your ongoing debate on the Iraq War. I served there twice (03-04 and 05-06) and consider it an important subject, although I had to be reminded that the 10th anniversary was approaching! I was actually moving north from Kuwait at that point in time!

Anyhow, hereThe Interpreter's readers can find an interesting counter-factual piece by Bobby Ghosh, the International Editor at Time, in which he describes why he thinks Saddam would have survived the Arab Spring. This, I think, would be a nice follow-up to Michael Ware's fairly lengthy post.The point Ghosh makes ought to be confronted by any rigorous analysis of the Iraq War's place in history: the price of inaction. Always an unsatisfying policy option, but likely one the world will see from America in the coming decade. What might such inaction bring?

The second point one might consider is a response to Mr Rodger Shanahan's patronizing commentary towards Major General (retired) Jim Molan's comment on reduced levels of violence in Iraq. 


As Mr Shanahan put it, he was 'left scratching his head' over the suggestion that violence was less than under Saddam, and offered some 'perspective' for The Interpreter's readers. He offered the Iraq Body Count site as an 'insight into the sheer scale of regular violence' in Iraq. 

A couple points must be made here. One, any cited figures from Iraq are, as Ghosh (who spent five years there) points out, fairly difficult to come by and are fairly imprecise. One doesn't need to have been in Iraq long to have come to that conclusion. I could similarly cite work which found that 'by a conservative estimate, the (Saddam) regime was killing civilians at an average rate of at least 16,000 a year between 1979 and March 2003.'

Using Mr Shanahan's preferred Iraq Body Count figures, that number (16,000) is only eclipsed in 2006 and 2007, and the past four years (up to the last full year, 2012, when full annual numbers are available) has averaged roughly one-third what Saddam was ('conservatively') killing. 

The second point is that the Iraq Body Count captures all 'documented civilian deaths from violence.' This is certainly broad and very likely covers non-political violence, criminal as well as the standard maladies that seem unfortunately to plague all societies globally. To hold, literally, the sum total of this violence as justification that the Iraq War was a bad idea is flawed reasoning at best (and obfuscates solid analysis).

Lastly, in the end, Mr Shanahan uses the figures as a jumping off point to effectively call Major General (retired) Molan a racist. That seems a bit unfair. To acknowledge that there is more regular violence experienced by communities in places like South Africa, Brazil, and, yes, Iraq (or Chicago for that matter!) is accurate, not 'Orientalist'.

We went to Iraq for ANZUS

Published 25 Mar 2013 14:00   0 Comments

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

The 10th anniversary of the US-led war with Iraq has occasioned an outpouring of commentary, both here and in the US. I was not a witness to the Iraq War; I did not serve there nor have I ever visited Iraq. I did, however, have the privilege of researching and writing extensively on the course of the war as a part of my duties with the Land Warfare Studies Centre.

Following Sam's instruction I will admit that I supported the war, and in some ways still do, but I will also admit that its post-invasion phase was managed so badly as to create a modern tragedy.

The Iraq war was a catastrophe for both the US and Iraq. As I studied it, however, I needed to make sense of the war from an Australian perspective. I needed to find the logic that led to Australia's participation, to place Australia's decisions within the broader dimension of its national security policy in order to judge the wisdom of the nation's participation in the US-led invasion.

One of the aspects of recent commentary that I have found most disturbing is the sense of victimhood — that Australia was betrayed or duped into participating, or that the country was somehow misled by the US, particularly by inaccurate or disingenuous intelligence. That the intelligence proved faulty is beyond doubt, but this is also irrelevant. Australia entered the war with its eyes open and made a rational decision based on securing its own interests. [fold]

As I argued in a 2012 issue of the Infinity Journal (login required), Australia joined the war to advance its own policy objective: to improve its relationship with its great power protector. It achieved this goal with great skill and at very little cost, and showed that it is possible for a junior partner to advance its strategic interests within a coalition dominated by a great power. For Australia, what mattered most was not what was happening in Baghdad but in Washington.

It can and should be asked whether this was a valid reason for going to war. It is also of some concern that, in deciding upon its role in the occupation of Iraq, Australia may have been too clever in its risk management and wasted some of the goodwill it earned from its participation in the invasion. But if Australia is to continue to base its national security policy on the enduring friendship of a great power, then perhaps Prime Minister John Howard had little choice other than to join with the US in 2003. Should Australia continue to found its national security policy on such a friendship? That is another question, and one that should also be asked.

Photo by the Australian Department of Defence.

Why the Iraq war was right

Published 26 Mar 2013 09:42   0 Comments

Alexander Downer served as Australian foreign minister from 1996 to 2007.

When we judge historical events, we tend to do so out of context. Yet to understand decisions and to judge them, you have to understand the context.

Soon after I became foreign minister, the Secretary General of the UN rang me and asked if I would release our ambassador to the UN, Richard Butler, so he could be appointed chairman of the UN's Iraq weapons inspection mission, known as UNSCOM. I told him I was happy to.

Butler got the job. Frequently, when I visited New York, Butler would ask to call on me. I appreciated this. He gave me confidential briefings on UNSCOM's progress in identifying Saddam Hussein's compliance with the terms of the armistice after the first Iraq war. The Iraqi dictator was not complying; he was refusing to allow the UN weapons inspectors to visit suspect sites. Butler was convinced Saddam Hussein was concealing his weapons of mass destruction programs.

So when Madeleine Albright asked me in late 1998 whether Australia would support an American led coalition to get rid of Saddam Hussein, I was not surprised. What followed was the bombing of military targets in Iraq by the Clinton Administration. But they left Saddam Hussein in power.

Fast forward three years and the so called War on Terror was launched in response to the horrific events of 9/11. It was right to drive the Taliban out of Kabul. After all, it had harboured the al Qaeda leadership which planned and directed the 9/11 attacks.

And still, in this new, febrile atmosphere, Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with the UN. That was madness on his part. And so it came to pass, a decade ago, that this appalling dictator was evicted from power. [fold]

That was the right thing to do. Not only had a he failed to comply with enforceable demands of the UN Security Council but Saddam Hussein had lost all legitimacy as a civilised leader of his country. He had tortured and murdered tens of thousands of his own citizens, he had waged a war on Iran which killed one million people and he had run a corrupt, kleptocratic, sectarian, self indulgent regime in Baghdad.

Overall, Saddam Hussein was the world's most brutal dictator.

The fall of Saddam's dictatorship sent a clear message to the world: extreme cruelty coupled with bellicose threats to neighbours won't be appeased. Since those fateful days in 2003, several dictatorships in the Arab world have gone: in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen as well as Iraq. A new political system is struggling into life. The birth is painful and it would be folly to think the Arab world is entering a new placid era of liberal democracy and growing prosperity. There is a very long way to go.

But the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime ushered in a new mindset: that Arabs don't deserve to be oppressed by autocratic kleptocracies and the international community will stand up for the idealistic values which inspired the UN Charter in the closing years of World War II.

I'm one of those few people who occasionally part company with foreign policy realists. They are right to a point. It makes sense to pursue a foreign policy based on national interests. Sometimes we have to do business with regimes we don't approve of. After all, we deal with the Chinese, who take 25% of our exports. And we don't much like their political system.

But there is a limit to this sort of pragmatism. These days we are entitled to take the view that a government which commits the most egregious of human rights abuses loses the authority to remain both in power and a respected partner of the international community. The international community has to stand for something. It has to have some universal values.

None of this is to claim all went well with the invasion of Iraq. It didn't. The Americans should have handed over power to an interim Iraqi government immediately, they should have paid soldiers to stay in the Iraqi army, they should have been less zealous with the so-called de-Baathification process and they should have had more soldiers on the ground after the fall of Baghdad.

These days, Iraq has an unsteady democratic government and its economy is growing. There is still sectarian violence which only a return to autocracy would stamp out. And Iraq is a benign player in the volatile world of Middle Eastern politics. All that's a big improvement on pre-2003 Iraq.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

What I said, and did not say, about Iraq violence

Published 26 Mar 2013 13:53   0 Comments

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Rodger Shanahan says he was left scratching his head over my pronouncements about the Iraq war. He should not have been, because in each case he vehemently attacks something I did not say.

Rodger says I should have quoted figures to substantiate my statement that, unless you are a member of the once governing Sunni elite, things are better now than they were under Saddam. He advises readers to look at the Iraq Body Count website. But of course the IBC did not start until after Saddam had fallen. Rodger might want to explain how we can make a comparison on this basis.

The comparison I was making is based on the 1 million deaths in the Iran-Iraq war, more deaths in the first Gulf War, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of bodies in mass graves found by the Regimes Crimes Commission. My statements stands: 'the violence in Iraq today is far less than during Saddam's time'. Iraq Body Count also shows that the violence now is less than it was during the occupation.

Confusingly, Rodger then goes on to say: 'But to claim that, despite hundreds of deaths a month, each and every month for a decade the invasion was justified because it was worse in Saddam's time is both wrong and wrong-headed'. I certainly did not say this, nor do I mean it or believe it. I do not try to justify the invasion of Iraq. I don't have to justify it, because I did not invade Iraq. But I do try to understand it. Please give me credit for meaning what I say, and what I said was, 'the violence in Iraq today is far less than during Saddam's time'. That is what I said and that is what I mean. [fold]

Rodger then criticises me for suggesting that the current level of violence in Iraq should be judged by regional standards, not by Australian standards. I made this point because if a car bomb goes off in Baghdad and kills ten people, those in Australia predisposed to believing that Iraq is a failure will use this as proof of their position. 'Look', they will say, 'the US invaded the place and still there is violence in Iraq'.

I think it is fair to make the point that the impact on a city or a society of violence is relative (Rodger calls this a 'relativist approach to violence'). I have lived for long periods in a number of cities where the media was reporting back into Australia that the level of violence was 'appalling' yet, for the vast majority of the residents, life went on 'relatively' normally.

Rodger then goes ballistic when he accuses me of making the 'blithe assumption that somehow the Middle East is inherently more violent than the rest of the world', something I do not do. Then even more confusingly, Rodger challenges me to enter an argument on levels of violence in Africa, Europe and South America. That is not my blog post and if Rodger wants to make an argument along those lines, he is free to do so. I don't see the relevance of it.

Rodger finishes by saying: 'Jim's views that people in the Middle East have a different standard regarding violence is simplistic at best, and serves to reinforce Edward Said's Orientalist critique of Western conceptions of the region'. I am not too sure what Rodger really means but I generally write what I mean, and the simple point I make stands up to criticism: if you are going to use current levels of violence in Iraq to judge the success or failure of the Iraq war, then get some perspective into the current figures compared to the past.

Your readers might find it interesting that there is now an extra piece on the 60 Minutes website that includes a longer interview with me on the Iraq war. I have also written an opinion piece on the war in the Canberra Times. I thought so much of my writing was open to criticism that there would never be a need to make up or assume what I was saying. I must be mellowing.

Photo by Flickr user james_gordon_losangeles

Reader ripostes: Zombie institutions and Iraq

Published 27 Mar 2013 14:09   0 Comments

Below, Iraq commentary from Alison Broinowski and Richard Broinowski. But first, Tony Grey responds to Malcolm Cook's post on Zombie-like international institutions:

According to Greg Sheridan the Commonwealth is a zombie-like international institution that has no future — but is it? Since 1999 the United States has been trying to build a Community of Democracies but it doesn't seem to be getting very far even in Washington. While the State Department (and Freedom House) have been doing their thing foreign policy wonks in Washington have been pointing out the dire need for a 'League' or 'Concert' of Democracies as if the Community of Democracies initiative doesn't exist. Perhaps they should just cut to the chase and join the Commonwealth.

Alison Broinowski: [fold]

Of course, Dr Palazzo is right. Australia invaded Iraq because the US did, and would not have if it didn't. Australia had intelligence that showed little likelihood of usable or transferable WMDs in Iraq, but the Howard Government chose to ignore it because the US and UK did. Australia defied the Security Council even while claiming that it was breaches of SC resolutions that put Iraq beyond international law. Howard unilaterally and without consultation expanded the legal scope of ANZUS to fight with the US against 'terror' anywhere the US chose.

More to the point, as in previous wars, Australia was not dragged unwillingly to join the small coalition that invaded Iraq, but secretly volunteered, even urged the US to give us a role. We did so again when we went into Uruzgan province. We know that while Howard was denying any plans for war to the parliament and the people, far from being reluctant, he was engaged in planning with the US at least as early as July 2002. This was obvious from what various US officials said, even at the time, and is documented in my two books, Howard's War (2003) and Allied and Addicted (2007).

Why has Australia repeatedly put itself forward to participate in British and American wars, even when Australia was not threatened and when those we fought were not our enemies? ANZUS now obliges us, says Dr Palazzo. No it doesn't. The answer is that both sides of politics have always believed Australia cannot defend itself and have found the solution, first in relying upon the British navy, and then in 'keeping the US involved in the region', that means, hoping the Seventh Fleet will defend Australia.

But because a succession of American leaders have warned that our security is our own business and that the US will defend its own interests, not ours, Australian governments remain nervous. They keep volunteering for American wars, including illegal, undeclared, and disastrous ones, in the hope that this will build up a sense of obligation in Washington. Their latest effort at tying the US giant down in the desert is to offer (yes, offer) more and more access to bases, now stationing American troops in Australia for the first time since World War II. If they won't defend anything else, as Coral Bell acutely perceived in 1988, they will defend bases.

From President Obama's recent statement to the Pentagon, it is clear that the US no longer has the capacity, let alone the will, to engage in long-term campaigns anywhere in the world. Surely Australians should realise what that means for our defence and security planning and our engagement with our Asian neighbours, and act accordingly.

Richard Broinowski:

Alexander Downer's defence of Australia's participation in the American invasion of Iraq should be challenged on several grounds.

First, Richard Butler's private assurances to Downer that Saddam was hiding WMDs was speculative (and wrong). Many other observers working on the issue, like David Kelly, Scott Ritter and Rod Barton, had strong doubts. Mr Downer, like Mr Howard, was determined to join the American invasion, and used whatever evidence they could, tenuous though it may have been, to support the case.

Second is Mr Downer's moralistic posturing about Saddam being the world's worst dictator. Who is he to judge? There were and remain a lot of 'kleptocratic' and murderous dictators around the world, and much selective indignation among the moral police about how bad they were. Secretary of State Sumner Wells told President Roosevelt in the late 1930s that Anastasio Somoza, the blood-thirsty Nicaraguan dictator, was a bastard. 'Yes' said Roosevelt, 'but he's our bastard.'

As for Saddam's war against Iran, both sides were complicit. When the Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the Shah in 1979, he called for an uprising by Shiites against the Ba'athists in Baghdad. In response, Saddam initially appealed to the Ayatollah for peace. He only attacked Iran when border incidents, initiated by both sides, escalated. And judging from Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Baghdad as Ronald Reagan's special envoy in December 1983, Saddam enjoyed US moral (and certainly, material) support for waging war.

Third, Mr Downer says he goes along with foreign policy realists to a certain extent, but excludes evil tyrants like Saddam from pragmatic consideration. He says that in certain cases, like Iraq, he stands up for the idealistic values which inspired the UN Charter. But the UN Charter outlaws the threat or use of force by one nation against another, and requires member states to settle their disputes by peaceful means. Only the Security Council can authorise the use of force to maintain international peace and security. The exception is self-defence, but this has to be in response to a direct and immediate threat. Neither the United States or Britain, let alone Australia, faced such a threat from Iraq.

Meanwhile, Messrs Downer and Howard, and all those in Canberra who in 2002 supported the Iraq invasion on the grounds that it was legitimised by UN resolutions, have perpetuated a great falsehood. Resolutions 678, 687, and especially 1441 of November 2002, did not give authority for the unilateral invasion of Iraq. If Iraq remained in material breach of an obligation to cooperate and disarm, 'serious consequences' would follow. Two requirements were clearly implied: evidence of material breach, and a new resolution sanctioning invasion. The evidence was not found before the invasion, and no sanctioning resolution was passed. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the BBC in 2004 that the invasion was not in conformity with the UN Charter and thus from the UN point of view, illegal.

Fourth, there is absolutely no evidence that Saddam's overthrow led to the break-out of democracy across the Arab world. Destabilisation and regime change in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, let alone Syria, answer to different, domestic, dynamics. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010, and rapidly spread across north Africa before migrating to the Persian Gulf. As I said in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald rebutting another of Mr Downer's justifications of Australia's participation in the Iraq War, it was a rebellion against the accretion of wealth by a few, and the lack of work opportunities of the many, rather than the downfall of a comparatively distant dictator in Iraq.

It does Australia a disservice for former leaders to persist in justifying a war that has been globally and authoritatively discredited. 

The Iraq insurgency: A response to Michael Ware

Published 28 Mar 2013 11:11   0 Comments

Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre ANU.

Fascinating as Michael Ware's post is, it remains a fantasy. Its narrow focus on the Sunni insurgency ignores what the other 80% of Iraq's population was doing. These Shias and Kurds were just as militant and determined to shape the future of their country as were the former rulers.

Ware's thread of American missed opportunity rising out of ignorance went further than US treatment of the Sunni insurgency. Incompetence was embedded at the very inception of the campaign and Ware is wrong to separate the invasion from the rest of America's war.

The early decisions of America's political leaders fundamentally weakened the post-invasion environment. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld pursued his ambition to showcase America's technological superiority and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz argued Iraqi oil revenues would remove the need for post-invasion reconstruction planning. Both aggressively repelled wiser advice from the US military and the Department of State.

Consequently, the invasion delivered the US control of Iraq with forces insufficient to ensure civil order (let alone contemplate counterinsurgency) and without programs capable of restoring Iraqi infrastructure. Insecurity and lack of basic utilities became the driving force of Iraqi discontent. The US quickly became incapable of influencing the course of events.

Iraqi discontent was not restricted to the Arab Sunni. A poll of Iraqis conducted in April 2004 showed that almost 60% thought the Americans should leave immediately and more than half thought killing Americans was justified in at least some circumstances. Of course, polls are only expressions of opinion, but by this time Sunni insurgents had destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad and in April the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Moktada al Sadr rose in armed revolt in the Shia holy city of Najaf. [fold]

The under-resourced Americans were forced to negotiate a ceasefire through the offices of the Shia's Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Al Sadr was the son of a former Grand Ayatollah and a vociferous advocate of immediate US withdrawal. American attempts to arrest al Sardr had sparked the uprising but he was now beyond their reach and was to remain a central dealmaker in successive Iraqi governments.

That some Iraqis remained untouchable while the US pursued the Sunni insurgency was the corollary of another piece of American policy. The Bush Administration had decided to create in Iraq a model democracy that would, the Americans believed, create sweeping democratic change throughout the Middle East. They and their allies believed, almost with a passion, that the secularism of Saddam's Ba'ath Party would continue to guide Iraqi politics, but that was not a popular view. The parties that represented the Shi'ite community were irrevocably sectarian.

The Islamic Da'wa (Islamic Call) Party (of Iraq's first two prime ministers) was formed in the 1960s to revive Islamic values against Ba'athist secularism. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq grew from al Da'wa members who wanted to replicate the Iranian Islamic revolution in Iraq. Then there was al Fadhila (Islamic Virtue), the followers of Moktada al Sadr, which demanded an immediate American withdrawal.

The election of January 2005, boycotted as Michael Ware notes by the Sunni, demonstrated the Shia's tight sectarian allegiance in the overwhelming win of the Shi'ite sectarian grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). With the Kurdistan Alliance (KA) it dominated the first Iraq National Assembly. Consequently, the Shia and Kurds controlled the drafting of the national constitution, which was designed to limit the future influence of the Sunni. For all that the Americans railed and Sunnis demonstrated against it, the draft constitution was adopted by national plebiscite in October 2005.

Contrary to Ware's illustration of the power of the Sunni insurgency, it instead demonstrated its irrelevance, for the UIA and KA again won control in the December 2005 elections, with al Fadhila returning the largest single bloc.

Further, any leveling of the political scales brought by Sunni participation was soon eroded by virtue of another American policy. Unable to leave while Iraq was in chaos, the US exit strategy centred on developing a new Iraqi military to enforce security. Very quickly the new military units came under the control of the constituent parties of the UIA, whilst the constitution gave the Kurds control of their peshmerga, at the time the most effective force in the country.

In effect, US forces sponsored a revolution in Iraq, similar to the German army opening the way for the Russian revolution. In the Shi'ite south and Kurdish north sectarian control was established, courtesy of President Bush's sponsoring of Iraqi democracy. In the centre and west, the Americans fought the Sunni insurgency on behalf of the new Iraqi government, that is, the sectarian political parties.

So it was that the Sunnis were to be sidelined until the present. Sectarian conflict was to become more brutal following the destruction the Shi'ites' hallowed Askariya mosque in February 2006. In the following 18 months, 4 million Iraqis became refugees. Even the American troop surge, prompted in response, merely institutionalised the sectarian divide in cities such as Baghdad with concrete barriers and checkpoints.

Photo by Flickr user The Poss

Iraq: (Neo) conservative estimates

Published 2 Apr 2013 11:32   0 Comments

As Matt Cavanaugh points out in his response to my post, the difficulty in determining civilian casualties in any conflict (including Iraq) is enormous. My point was that Jim Molan had made an assertion that violence was worse under Saddam without a reference point, no feel for what the average monthly body count is a decade after the invasion, and no indication why we should consider the current situation better than what preceded it. To put Jim Molan's comment into some context and to garner an explanation as to how he arrived at his assertion, I provided a total from Iraq Body Count which, while not perfect, is at least transparent. 

Matt's figures cited in response lack objectivity, let alone transparency. I note that Matt cited a source describing Saddam as having caused deaths at a 'conservative estimate' of 16,000 a year. Matt must have chosen the word 'conservative' advisedly as his source for these figures was a 2004 article entitled The Lifesaving War in the ultra-conservative The Weekly Standard, a magazine founded by William Kristol, one of the most ardent neoconservative advocates of invading Iraq. Not exactly an objective or even transparent source. 

The article presupposes that victory has been achieved simply as a result of the invasion and, if you can read this tripe through to the end, you'll realise that the author believes that 'Liberation made it possible...(to save) approximately 60,000 lives a year'. Unfortunately, writing just over a year after the invasion, the author wasn't so prescient in understanding that many didn't agree with the word 'liberation'. The war had many more years to run and tens of thousands more deaths to inflict. [fold]

Jim Molan's reply also highlighted the pitfalls in trying to measure which period had the greatest bloodshed. In order to emphasise how violent Saddam was, Jim sought to include the one million dead from the Iran-Iraq war, but failed to mention the degree to which Saddam's war efforts were supported by the US. If responsibility for the deaths caused by the Iran-Iraq war goes to Saddam then what responsibility should those who supported him in such an endeavour bear?

Regarding my point about relative standards of violence, Matt may want to re-read my post, as I didn't try to argue that there is more regular violence in Brazil, South Africa or Chicago than there is in Iraq. I am, moreover, particularly disappointed that Matt seriously thinks I would accuse Jim Molan of racism. I believe Jim's argument was lazy intellectually as he neither disaggregated the Middle East (meaning he believes that Omanis, for instance, wouldn't think Iraqi violence is appalling because they're from the Middle East) nor did he acknowledge that most other parts of the world (including Europe) are prone to shocking and widespread communal and political violence, given the correct circumstances. Jim should not relativise violence or people's acceptance of it. 

I am still unsure what Jim meant when he said that 'Compared to Australia, the violence is appalling but by Middle East and Iraqi standards, one may arrive at a different judgment.' Given that he said in his most recent post that he generally writes what he means, he must believe that Iraq and the Middle East share a common standard regarding what constitutes appalling violence. He never sought to define what he believed that standard to be, which intrigues me. To my mind, it raises the question: if Jim believes there is a Middle Eastern standard of violence, does it not follow that there must be an African one, a European one etc?

Photo by Flickr user expertinfantry.

Australia's national interests in the Iraq war

Published 3 Apr 2013 10:23   0 Comments

Albert Palazzo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Alison Broinowski misinterpreted the key point I made in my Interpreter post of 25 March on why Australia decided to join the US in going to war with Iraq in 2003. Except for its appearance in the title, my post makes no mention of ANZUS, nor did I write that Australia was obligated to participate because of ANZUS. Instead, my point was that its own interests motivated Australia in deciding on war — it was not by a knee-jerk response to its alliance with the US. Australia went into the war with its eyes wide open and in pursuit of its own policy objectives, which it achieved.

Perhaps Broinowski's misinterpretation was aided by the title under which the piece appeared: We went to Iraq for ANZUS. This headline was the editor's choice (sorry Sam); mine had been the less provocative Australia and Going to War with Iraq.

I also found Broinowski's post unsettling for another reason. I would not accept that it is necessary for US leaders to remind Australians that our security is our responsibility. I'd hope that Australia has sufficient maturity as a sovereign state and society to realise that on its own. Australia's relationship with the US is part of a considered national security policy based on the recognition and support of mutual interests. I'm yet to hear a more viable alternative to this arrangement.

Reader riposte: The real Iraq question

Published 4 Apr 2013 16:25   0 Comments

US Army Major Matthew Cavanaugh writes:

I think Rodger Shanahan is taking The Interpreter's distinguished readers on a bit of a wild-goose chase with the Iraq War violence figures. They're important, but frankly there will never be a solid set of numbers on which we can objectively agree are correct.

This was my point in bringing up the Bobby Ghosh piece or 'The Lifesaving War'. It wasn’t accurate — none were (or are). Just as the Lancet's figures were inaccurate. Sean Gourley (interestingly enough, a Kiwi) at Oxford pointed that out. It will be a long time until we get good public data from Iraq, so everyone chooses to see what they want to see regarding numbers.

The analysis will not be satisfying no matter what the conclusions. For example, if there was a figure from an eminently credible organization that had kept the exactly correct number secret (for some unspecified reason), would it change anyone's mind, either way, about the war? I suspect not.


Let's also get off the ad hominem. Whether Rodger is 'particularly disappointed' or not, he's now added 'lazy intellectually' to the 'Orientalist' comment. Both were about the person, not the idea, so let's just stick to the subject. Which is the Iraq War, and its appropriate place in our collective rear view mirrors. What was gained?  At what cost? These are things we can really discuss and learn from. Because that's the point - learning so the next choice is (hopefully) better.

Getting back to Ghosh, he brings up a very interesting counter-factual: that Saddam would have survived the Arab Spring. Is this not a more worthy topic than retreading (the numbers) ground that has been chewed to bits?

More on the avoidable Iraq insurgency

Published 9 Apr 2013 12:48   0 Comments

Michael Ware was a war correspondent for TIME Magazine and CNN. He spent six years in Iraq.

fantasy – (noun) the faculty or activity of imagining things, esp things that are impossible or improbable. 

A few of Kipling's words keep peeling like church bells in my head as I finally sit and ponder Derek Woolner's response to my Iraq war tenth anniversary piece:

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,

And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools 

Please understand I don't mean disrespect to Woolner. But his perspective on the insurgency is heinously flawed and, much like America's war leaders were, perversely dismissive of reports from the ground.

That said, I do agree wholeheartedly when Woolner says 'the early decisions of America's political leaders fundamentally weakened the post-invasion environment.' I cannot see many disputing that position. But it's when I feel he almost contradicts himself a paragraph later that I gagged. I find extraordinary his assertion that 'the US quickly became incapable of influencing the course of events.'

That thought flies directly in the face of something I heard so often from American battle commanders that it was akin to a self-evident truth: 'The enemy always gets a vote.' Sunni insurgents, militia leaders, even separatist Kurds (whose peshmerga I feel strongly bonded to after two months in their pre-invasion trenches) were able to affect, in large and small ways, the battlespace we had in Iraq. But for the corollary to be that, of all the actors in the conflict, it is the Americans – with over 100,000 troops, unchallenged air supremacy, and the most formidable weapons systems on the planet – who could not influence events simply doesn't gel.

Allow me to quickly indicate some further erroneous statements: [fold]

  • Woolner asserts that 'Sunni insurgents had destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad'. Perhaps we differ on semantics alone, but insurgents had nothing to do with the UN bombing (inside the security perimeter, I witnessed the moment rescuers realised UN chief Sergio Vieira de Mello, a man I knew from Timor, had died of his wounds while still trapped). Rather than insurgents, it was actually the work of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid wal Jihad, later called Al Qaeda in Iraq, an organisation I would designate as ultra-militant Islamist in intent and terrorist in method. In the end this distinction between insurgent and terrorist would prove to be key to ending to the Sunni fight against the occupiers. So I don't think it's a small point.
  • 'The Bush Administration...and their allies believed, almost with a passion, that the secularism of Saddam's Ba'ath Party would continue to guide Iraqi politics...' I'm not too sure about that one either. Yes, war planners had been deluded into thinking there was a secular democrat waiting to get out of every Iraqi. But to think it was a Ba'ath tradition of secularism strikes me as odd, particularly given, from the day I saw him arrive back in Iraq prior to the invasion, false US ally Ahmed Chalabi was pushing for de-Baathification by having a paper on the subject widely circulated among the press corps, a policy soon after enacted by proconsul Paul Bremer to disastrous effect.
  • 'Contrary to Ware's illustration of the power of the Sunni insurgency, it instead demonstrated its irrelevance, for the UIA and KA again won control in the December 2005 elections, with al Fadhila returning the largest single bloc.' Given the country's Sunni comprise about 40% of the population – so never to rule in their own right – and that they in essence voted in disciplined blocs, I'm not certain how a UIA and KA combined majority illustrates anything other than maths. Coincidentally, that same irrelevant political potency among insurgent leaders is what helped so mightily to propel longtime CIA asset and true secularist (and my personal friend) Ayad Allawi to a by-the-numbers victory in the last national election.
  • And 'in the Shi'ite south and Kurdish north sectarian control was established' is absolutely half-right. Having paid the IRGC 'administration fees' to cross illegally from Iran into Kurdistan months before the invasion, I came to know and love the Kurdish community in the north well. In both Kurdish domains – PUK and KDP – there's a feel of a one-party state. Purely secular. Anything but sectarian.

Look, I could nitpick further but I hope my concerns about the precision of Woolner's ditty have been made clear.

That just leaves the essence of Woolner's assault on my musings. Unless I'm mistaken, his position seems to be founded upon some unstated or implied sense of a political and military hegemony and predestination in US policy which I simply did not observe in the war's early years. I think such a premise – for what was essentially policy and tactics devised on the run – benefits from the luxury of distance.

And if, as charged, I've tripped down a fantastic rabbit hole of fake memory or diminished sight then I can tell you I'm not alone down here with the Queen of Hearts. Since Woolner's offering I've contacted former Green Beret Colonel Rick Welch to confirm I hadn't gone insane. Indeed, I now believe he's writing a book that deals with the insurgency we never had to have. Also, there's former Prime Minster Allawi, who once attempted a CIA-backed coup d'etat in the mid-1990s using mostly Sunni military officers in Iraq and from 2003 onwards persisted with efforts to return those same commanders and their men (the then-insurgency) back in to the fold. He too contends the invasion was sound but that the insurgency didn't have to be.

Agreeing with him is a great man Allawi introduced me to, another good mate, former Iraqi General Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani, a man with an incredible Hollywood-esque back-story: war hero, dissident, CIA asset and, commencing in mid-2004, the inaugural head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (the country's CIA equivalent). Before Fallujah, actually after Fallujah too, and in the years leading up to the tribal Awakening programme, he pressed to stop a guerrilla war he knew to be unnecessary and avoidable. He consistently acted as conduit, mediator and counsel for both the US and the Sunni commanders.

The decisions enacted by Bremer, particularly the disbandment of the Iraqi military, were not preconceived constructs elicited from DC. Rather they were stunning audibles (to use a Gridiron expression) made on the fly and to the great dismay of almost all else involved.

So, I maintain the 'fantasy' of my argument. Indeed I renew it with vigour. In a perfect world the West could have invaded, overthrown Saddam, prevented looting and left (let's say, for argument's sake) by the beginning of 2004. All without the 4000-plus deaths that followed President George W Bush's farcical May 2003 declaration of an end to hostilities. If only it had of been so.

Photo by Flickr user The US Army.

Impressions of Howard's Iraq speech

Published 9 Apr 2013 22:19   0 Comments

The text of John Howard's Iraq ten-year retrospective, delivered to a packed Lowy Institute audience this evening, is on our website. My first impressions are below. I hope others will provide a more sympathetic reading, because despite Howard's assured delivery and measured arguments, I found nothing that convinced me:

  • It's hard to overstate the emphasis Howard placed on the importance of US psychology in justifying the Iraq war. He stressed repeatedly in his speech and in the Q&A that America's decision to invade Iraq cannot be understood without grasping what he called the 'shadow of 11 September' and the 'profound vulnerability' felt by Americans after the event. Americans felt 'unnerved' and 'dumbfounded', and this was 'central' to understanding the Iraq war.
    • Such sentiments seem exaggerated today, Howard said, but he was in Washington on September 11 and he recognised it as quite real.
  • Howard was challenged on this point by a question from the floor, which argued that it is the responsibility of leaders not to stoke such fears but to calm them. Howard responded that in fact such fears were well placed.
  • This strikes me as the real nub of the debate about the Iraq war: a difference in threat perception. Bush, Howard, Blair et al argue the threat was important enough to warrant preventive military action. I would argue that even if the assessments about Iraq's WMD capacities had turned out to be real, we could have lived with this threat just as we do with Iran and North Korea.
    • The fears Americans expressed after 9/11 were in fact vastly inflated; al Qaeda was never an 'existential threat', and political leaders should have sent a message of reassurance to their publics that the threat was serious but containable if we committed ourselves to defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and to expanded worldwide counter-terrorist intelligence and policing efforts.


  • Howard's other big justification for the war was that the status quo — containment through sanctions and the no-fly zones — was eroding and unsustainable. 
    • I think Howard has a point here, and some blame must be placed on the French, Germans and Russians, so implacably opposed to Bush's course, for not putting any 'skin in the game' by offering an alternative. They might, as Michael Walzer argued at the time, have avoided Bush's 'big war' by offering a 'small war', a much reinforced sanctions regime and a no-fly zone over the entire country that would have involved their forces.
    • Howard also said that, in the context of America's sense of post-9/11 vulnerability, a continuation of containment would have seemed to the US public as 'oddly passive'. Walzer's proposal would have gotten around that problem.
  • Interesting to hear Howard expound on the Australian political process at the time. My impression was that Howard decided essentially alone on Australia's course, but:
    • Howard said Australia's involvement in the war was debated exhaustively in the National Security Committee of Cabinet, at which senior officials from various parts of the national security bureaucracy were present.
    • He also took the decision to a full cabinet meeting and asked each cabinet member for their vote.
  • Howard said Australia needed to be a '100%' ally at the time of the Iraq war, not '70% or 80%'.
    • This raises the question of why we didn't send more forces to Iraq, and why we pulled them out so quickly after the invasion. Was supporting the occupation not part of being a '100% ally'?
    • And what harm was done to countries such as Canada, which opposed the US invasion? Have its relations with the US suffered to this day?

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

John Howard's straight talk on Iraq

Published 10 Apr 2013 11:16   0 Comments

Michael Green served on the US National Security Council staff from 2001-2005 and is now Senior Vice President for Asia at CSIS and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.

Kudos to former Prime Minister John Howard for giving a straight assessment of the Iraq War on the 10th anniversary of the conflict. Howard said he would not 'do a McNamara' (a mea culpa like that of the spiritually broken American Secretary of Defense after Vietnam), but neither did he shy away from the tough issues.

Howard hits on the key point that most critics ignore or forget: the ALP, the Democratic Party leadership in the US, and virtually every intelligence agency in the world was convinced Saddam Hussein had WMD. 

One point Howard did not mention was that even Saddam's own corps commanders thought he had WMD. Early in Operation Iraqi Freedom, US signals intelligence picked up senior Iraqi officers pleading with Baghdad to release the WMD so that they could be used against coalition forces. In interviews after the war, some of Saddam's inner circle confessed that they maintained the Potemkin village of a weapons program in order to deter the Iranians and sustain the loyalty of their own military.

It was chilling to know that senior Iraqi officers thought Saddam would use WMD against coalition forces, though not surprising since the Iraqi Army had used them against the Kurds before. Unfortunately, the intelligence dossier on Iraq's WMD programs was built in part on the belief among Saddam's own generals that they had access to such weapons.

Howard also notes that the dire predictions of damage to Australia's relations with Indonesia from participation in the war were wrong. I remember traveling to Canberra in 2003 ahead of President Bush and hearing an almost unanimous view at a roundtable of academics on this point. Yet under the Howard Government, Australia forged an excellent relationship with President Yudhoyono. US and Australian counter-terrorism cooperation with Jakarta actually increased after Iraq, breaking the back of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist cells that threatened Australians, Indonesians and Americans. [fold]

In similar ways, academics in the US made (and continue erroneously to make) the claim that the Iraq War damaged American relations with Asia. In fact, public opinion polls taken in Japan, Korea, India, China, and Indonesia all indicate that the US was more popular in those countries at the end of the Bush Administration than at the end of the Clinton Administration

In a 2008 survey on soft power in Asia conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a majority of respondents in the region argued that US influence in Asia had increased over the previous decade. The only place in the Chicago Council survey where a majority of respondents argued American influence in Asia had decreased was in the US itself. No surprise there, since American critics of the Iraq War in academia and journalism have been erroneously projecting their own views of the war onto analysis of Asia since 2003.

Howard also rejected the idea of saying 'no' to Washington on the Iraq war. That's the subject of part II of this analysis.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

Reader ripostes: Howard, Ware and Iraq

Published 11 Apr 2013 08:17   0 Comments

Below, Mona Scheuermann responds to Michael Ware. But first, Ashley Murtha:

Some important qualifications should be made regarding Sam Roggeveen's mention of Canada as a country that opposed the Iraq War, ostensibly referenced as it is a middle-power that enjoys close relations with the US and thus may offer some insight of how the US would have received a hypothetical refusal of support from Australia.

Canada is linked with the US geographically, economically, and culturally to such an extent that it underscores a 'familial' relationship between the two transcending the vagaries of ordinary diplomacy — akin to relations between Australia and New Zealand. Geopolitically, Canada's US security umbrella is guaranteed by the fact that the US would never accept a foreign power projecting military force upon the continent of North America, regardless of any political animosity that may arise between Canada and the US themselves. Therefore Canada is in a unique position to take such liberties in its relationship with the US without fear of compromising its military security, a luxury that Australia cannot afford.


On the other hand, the animosity between the US and 'Old Europe' doesn't provide a telling picture of how a hypothetical Australian refusal of support would have been received either, as the symbolic importance of France and Germany's refusal to back the war exaggerated the diplomatic fallout. Rather, the US would have have likely reacted to an Australian protest with indifference, which is precisely what we are afraid of in the event we need to call on them for military assistance.

Mona Scheuermann:

I was in Japan on the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, still arguing with myself about whether, having watched Tiananmen Square in real time and sworn that I never would set foot in China, I should give up my principles and, so many years later, go. And then I had an epiphany; how could I hold onto this moral high ground: how many more  people had we killed in Iraq, and how much horror had we inflicted? And I do feel guilt, for at the very beginning, for a very short time, I was convinced about the argument to push in.

Of course Michael Ware's analysis is correct. We should not have started the whole mess, but to do it without any game plan, any knowledge of the society? There are times when the word 'obscenity' is not even nearly adequate. But I can give him words (not that he ever needs someone else's) for what he points out here and in other places about the war and the warriors and those who send and discard the victims.

Having described a gas attack, Wilfred Owen ends 'Dulce et Decorum Est' with these stanzas:

In all my dreams before my helpless sight

He [the friend who had not managed his gas mask in time] plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes wilting in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs

Bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori. (It is sweet and fitting to die for your country);

Or, to quote Bush jr: 'Mission Accomplished'.

John Howard's straight talk on Iraq (part 2)

Published 11 Apr 2013 10:35   0 Comments

Michael Green served on the US National Security Council staff from 2001-2005 and is now Senior Vice President for Asia at CSIS and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. Part 1 of this post here.

In his Lowy Institute speech marking the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, John Howard rejects the assertion that Australia should have said 'no' in order to demonstrate Canberra's independence from Washington. Having served in the White House at the time, I have no doubt that a 'no' from Canberra would have done enormous political damage to both George W Bush and Tony Blair. 

In 1954 the Eisenhower Administration was desperate to get Australian forces to join a US intervention in Vietnam after the French defeat at Dienbienphu. The British had already refused and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought Australian participation alone would be enough to convince a divided US Congress to support the deployments. The Menzies Government eventually opted out and as a result Ike called off the Joint Chiefs' planning for a US-led military campaign against the Vietminh. 

I have wondered about that historical parallel, but have to conclude after reflecting on Howard's nuanced account that an Australian defection from the coalition in 2003 would not have deterred Bush or Blair. Koizumi, always principled and stubborn, would also have stayed the course in Japan. As Howard pointed out, the Bush Administration and large majorities in the Congress saw a clear and present danger and were determined to act.

And what would Australia have achieved by leaving the coalition? The damage to American leadership globally and especially in the Asia Pacific region would have been considerable. Would Australian relations with China or Indonesia have improved in any measurable way as a result? It is hard to see how. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made a great drama of distancing Japan from the US in 2009 and Beijing repaid his government by bullying Japan in the East China Sea and cutting off rare earth metal exports to teach Tokyo a lesson in coercion. Under John Howard, Australia's relations with China improved considerably. 

Beijing respects power. Strong alliances, as Clausewitz taught, are one of the greatest sources of national power. Under any metric – public opinion, interoperability or military effectiveness — the US-Australia alliance emerged from Iraq stronger. [fold]

Yet Iraq obviously did have major consequences. The faulty logic of the 'transformation in military affairs', inadequate ground forces for post-conflict stabilisation, and amateur post-war planning at the Pentagon all caused unnecessary casualties and showed American vulnerability when the intention was to show strength and resolve.

Before that vulnerability and incompetence became clear, American diplomacy was highly effective. Immediately after the fall of Saddam, Libya abandoned its WMD and missile programs and the US National Intelligence Council argued that Iran appeared to temporarily abandon its own nuclear weapons ambitions. 

It was also clear to me in negotiations with China and North Korea in the spring of 2003 that the US brought increased leverage into negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. A year later the Chinese and North Koreans appeared considerably less worried about American coercive power as US forces became bogged down in Iraq. The Six-Party Talks with North Korea drifted. Howard acknowledges the serious failings in the stabilisation phase of operations in Iraq – the fault of America and not Australia – and rightly praises President Bush for going against the grain of public opinion and his own cabinet by correcting the situation through the 'surge' in 2007.

Howard also acknowledges and appears to regret that the war polarised Australian politics. In the US the war opened an old fissure in the Republican Party, which today engages in damaging debates between neo-isolationists like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and robust internationalists like John McCain (I am 100% with McCain, it will come as no surprise).

Since the war, American strategic culture has lurched in the direction of risk-avoidance and 'leading from behind', placing us in untenable positions in Syria and possibly Iran. The Obama foreign policy doctrine, such as it is, has been framed almost entirely around the Democratic Party's interpretation of Iraq. Even the 'pivot' to Asia — a success for the President on the whole — was framed domestically in the US in terms of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq distorted the American strategic debate, though we will recover.

The personal toll of the war on thousands of Americans — and as Howard emphasises, many Australians as well – cannot be fully calculated. Traveling across the US, one is continually struck by the painful sight of young men and women bearing the tattooed names of their lost husbands, brothers or platoon members. At every Washington Nationals baseball game the crowd rises to acknowledge the wounded warriors from area military hospitals who sit in the honoured seats behind home plate. Unlike Vietnam, this is not a left-right issue in American politics. Respect for the American military is high, as it should be.

Was the US right to go into Iraq? Was Australia right to join? There is no doubt that the US should have planned and executed post-conflict operations very differently. If we had, I suspect opinion today would on balance be supportive of the war, though that is unprovable. Alternately, non-action would have left Saddam in a dangerous position and American opinion today might very well have been highly critical of the Bush Administration for not acting on bipartisan recommendations from the Congress to remove him at the time. 

As it is, opinion will be divided for some years to come. In the 1920s, Gallup polling in the US showed that a significant majority of Americans thought it had been a mistake to intervene in the Great War. By the late 1930s, as the storm clouds gathered in Europe and the Pacific, the polling suddenly reversed and a large majority of Americans began saying that the US had been right to fight the Hun. In the 1950s, many Americans considered the Korean War a defeat. Today only a handful of academics on the left argue that it was a mistake to defend South Korea against Kim Il Sung. 

History will render multiple and changing judgments about the Iraq War. John Howard has rendered his and it is authoritative and compelling. It will certainly not be the last.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Australia in Iraq: The Ostrich approach

Published 11 Apr 2013 13:15   0 Comments

I'm in the Middle East doing research for a forthcoming paper on Syria that I'm writing with my colleague Anthony Bubalo. My early impression is that there appears to be a complete absence of rational (let alone unified) policy views about what anybody wants or believes will be the case 'the day after' Assad. 

Such is the degree of policy paralysis and fear of chaos that, in a recent Turkish television interview, Assad put himself forward as the only hope for stability, while in yesterday's Washington Post, Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki observed that 'We have been mystified by what appears to be the widespread belief in the United States that any outcome in Syria that removes President Bashar al-Assad from power will be better than the status quo.'

I will blog more on the Syria issue but, with Western states so cautious to become embroiled in the complexity of Syria, I read John Howard's speech on Iraq with interest. I was struck by the absence of attention in both the speech and the Q&A on how Mr Howard thought Iraq would turn out politically following the invasion.

Australia claims to be a close and strong US ally, and John Howard rightly laid blame at the feet of the US for poor (read virtually non-existent) post-invasion planning and execution. But Australia had lots of planning staff assisting the coalition and would obviously have been privy to the complete lack of Phase 4 (post-invasion) planning.

As one of the few countries contributing forces to the invasion, Australia should have been vitally interested in how the US was going to run the country we had helped invade. If we thought US planning was bizarrely optimistic and took no account of the complexity of Iraqi society and the regional sectarian and political dynamics, why didn't we say so? Or did we not concern ourselves with these things because we were just there to fly the flag, didn't know the region and didn't really care about the future of the country we were invading? [fold]

I get the sense that Australia's political leadership of the time is content to admit that everyone got the intelligence wrong, praise the ADF and then criticise the US for getting the occupation wrong. But you can't on the one hand criticise the US for ignoring the nature of the country it was set to invade without accepting criticism yourself for failing to look at the consequences of Australia's actions. 

If I was at the speech, I would have asked John Howard how he believed Iraq's sects and tribes and regional states would react to the invasion, how much attention he paid to post-invasion planning and, if he thought it wanting, whether he raised his concerns with George W Bush. I hope we didn't accept a lift in the US car without giving any thought to where we were driving, or whether the driver even knew where he was going.

Photo by Flickr user Marc Veraart.

Reader ripostes: Howard, Green and Iraq

Published 15 Apr 2013 10:34   0 Comments

As we draw our Iraq debate to a close, thoughts from Alison Broinowski on Michael Green's two-parter below. But first, Jeni Whalan writes:

What did I take from John Howard's recent speech to the Lowy Institute? A profound sense of unease that there exists within Australian foreign policymaking a misguided assumption about actions taken under the rubric of the US alliance. Specifically, I'm concerned about a tacit implication that when alliance considerations motivate Australia's decisions, its policymakers need not be (too) concerned with outcomes beyond the strength of our US relationship and the welfare of our troops.

As a retrospective on Iraq, the speech conspicuously avoided the war's profound consequences for local, regional and global order. Instead, it focused on the circumstances and thinking that led to the 2003 decision. Mr Howard presented a sound case for invoking the ANZUS Treaty, painting a compelling picture of a wounded superpower perceiving itself suddenly vulnerable in a new, dangerous world. While the prudence of that threat perception is debatable, I'm satisfied enough with Mr Howard's argument that we should understand Australia's decision in its context.

But surely that ought to be a mere starting point for serious reflection on its effects — for Iraq and its people, Iraq's neighbours and the wider Middle East, the US, the willing coalition, the United Nations, the non-proliferation regime, democracy promotion, nation- and state-building...and, yes, Australia.


Yet this was a strange retrospective, one that drew little benefit from a decade's hindsight. A tentative (and tenuous) connection to the Arab Spring notwithstanding, the speech left hanging the most important questions for Australian foreign policy and its architects.

Can the decision, which seemed so right to the Australian leadership at the time, be justified in light of the war's course and consequences? By what measure did the Howard Government expect to evaluate its role in the Iraq war? What kind of future Iraq did it imagine would exist in 2013 — and if there was no such image, why not?

Rodger Shanahan rightly rejects the notion that Australia can shirk all responsibility for the failures of post-invasion planning. Likewise, we should reject wholesale the idea that, having determined to join a war of such international significance, Australia can be satisfied with parochial evaluation.

One wonders whether any outcome in Iraq could have rendered the 2003 decision worthy of review in Mr Howard's eyes. I don't doubt that the Australian leadership considered joining the war effort to be right at the time, based on judicious analysis of the national interest; to suggest the reverse is absurd. But we should now expect the current and former national security community to review the assumptions of that decision in light of events that followed.

In his address, Mr Howard laid claim to a legacy of leadership in the nation's interest – 'it was not a poll-driven decision' – but neglected its final test: to review with equal confidence and equivalent depth that decision's consequences.

Alison Broinowski:

Although no equal event is to be held at Lowy to match John Howard's speech on 9 April, at least here in The Interpreter we have an opportunity for debate. But after reading Michael Green's first contribution and listening to Mr Howard I am left wondering whether the rest of us inhabit a different planet. 'Straight talk' is exactly what we don't get from either of them, and didn't get from the Prime Minister before, during, or after the invasion of Iraq. What we are getting is their rewrite of history.

They want us to believe that all governments, 'virtually every' intelligence agency, and many academics believed that Saddam Hussein had WMD. Those who did fell for the lies that emanated from the Bush Administration. How was it that so many outside these whispering galleries knew dodgy data when we saw it and indeed wrote about it before, during, and after the invasion, using publicly available reports? (Paul Barratt, Tony Kevin, Andrew Wilkie and I were among the Australians who did). Because we listened to non-gallery inhabitants Hans Blix, the late Dr David Kelly, Saddam's renegade son, and even Saddam himself, when he finally – too late – admitted he had long since destroyed his WMD. Many others inside and outside government in the UK and US did the same. Lawyers and diplomats in all three countries protested, individually and in groups, and of course were ignored by heads of government who were bent on war.

How was it that we knew their claims that the war was legal were false? The public had only to hear Sir Jeremy Greenstock and John Negroponte, UK and US Ambassadors on the Security Council, say repeatedly that another resolution was needed, beyond 1441, to legitimise an invasion. Kofi Annan, as Secretary-General, said on 18 March (the day Australian special forces went into Iraq, ahead of the deadline, as Tony Kevin has shown) that without Security Council approval, the invasion would be illegal in the view of the UN. For Mr Howard now to claim that China would have been on-side if only the recalcitrant French and Russians had agreed to the invasion is like saying we'd have won the Davis Cup if only we'd won more rubbers.

The war made Bush more popular in the US, says Dr Green, who was an adviser in the Bush White House, so he would know. But he doesn't once mention, nor did Mr Howard, the devastating impact on American self-esteem and the US reputation internationally of the second attack on Fallujah, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, the long injustice of Camp X-Ray, and the massacre of civilians by helicopter revealed to the world by WikiLeaks. As for Australian opinion, that was democratically expressed when Howard lost the 2007 election and his seat, having managed to win a khaki election in 2004. Even the way Mr Howard on 9 April wryly described the end of his political career was self-serving: 'office left me'.

In his second piece, Dr Green gives credit to Mr Howard for not saying no to Washington. That much is true. The rest is not: without citing any evidence, he claims that the US-Australia alliance emerged stronger from Iraq, that under Howard relations with China improved, and that opinion about Iraq remains divided. Taking these one by one:

  • The alliance has in fact been weakened by America's overstretch, to the point where Obama in his recent National Security statement admitted that the US cannot become involved in protracted wars anywhere. Allies should be in no doubt about the reliance they can place on receiving American protection against an enemy.
  • Under Howard, of course, Australia's trade with China grew, as it did under his predecessors and successors. But Howard's Australia was advised by the official Chinese media (People's Daily, 13 March 2000) to stay out of Chinese affairs, to adopt a lower profile, and mend its relations with the PRC. Australia, with its American ally and its China-fuelled economy, displayed 'confusion, ambivalence, or contradiction'. Chinese leaders said similar things to Stephen Smith only last year.
  • Naturally, no opinion about any war is unanimous. If Dr Green has examined the views for and against the Iraq invasion in coalition countries, in other countries, and in Iraq, and has found a majority supports it, he should surprise the world by revealing the figures.

The most alarming of Mr Howard's answers to questions at the Lowy Institute on 9 April was when he left open the possibility of another war, in Iran. Are we again in the count-down period, with the distant drumbeats sounding? Will Australians again be told lies about the necessity and legality of war, and be sent to kill and die in a country that is no enemy of ours? Will another Australian Prime Minister succumb to the blandishments of such people as Dr Green, and say yes when Washington again cries wolf?