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Impressions of Howard's Iraq speech

Impressions of Howard's Iraq speech

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.

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