Published daily by the Lowy Institute

John Howard and the Chilcot Inquiry

John Howard and the Chilcot Inquiry
Published 7 Jul 2016   Follow @JohnMGooding

Last night all two million plus words of the Report of the Iraq Inquiry (otherwise known as the Chilcot report) were released to the general public. The Chilcot Inquiry found that Iraq did not present an imminent threat at the time of military action, that diplomatic efforts seeking disarmament had not been exhausted, that judgments about the threat posed by Iraq's WMD were 'presented with a certainty that was not justified' , and that the planning for a post-Saddam Iraq was 'wholly inadequate'.

Earlier today, former Australian prime minister John Howard fronted a press conference in response to the inquiry. Among other issues addressed, Howard emphasised that the Inquiry found there were errors in intelligence 'but there was no lie', defended his decision to send troops into Iraq, and dismissed calls for a similar inquiry in Australia (as argued for by Tom Switzer here). In light of both the report and Howard's comments, it's worth revisiting Howard's 2013 address on the Iraq War to the Lowy Institute:

Although the legal justification for the action taken against Iraq was based on her cumulative non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, and a properly grounded belief that Saddam possessed WMDs, a powerful element in our decision to join the Americans was, of course, the depth and character of our relationship with the US. Australia had invoked ANZUS in the days following 9/11. We had readily joined the coalition in Afghanistan; Australia had suffered the brutality of Islamic terrorism in Bali. There was a sense then that a common way of life was under threat.

At that time, and in those circumstances, and given our shared history and values, I judged that, ultimately, it was in our national interest to stand beside the Americans.

There were many who argued that we should stay out; we should say “no” to the Americans for a change; that the true measure of a good friend was a willingness to disagree when the circumstances called for it, and that in the case of Iraq we would hurt our country by backing the United States, and that in the long run declining to participate in the coalition of the willing would be good for the alliance. That argument escaped me then, and it still does. In my view the circumstances we recall tonight necessitated a 100 per cent ally, not a 70 or 80 per cent one, particularly as no compelling national interest beckoned us in the opposite direction...

To what extent has democracy really taken root in Iraq, and to what degree, if at all, have events in Iraq, had an impact on the rest of the Middle East? I hope I won't be accused of invoking the Chou en Lai defence, when I say that more time should be allowed to pass before attempting to fully answer those questions.

Also back in 2013, The Interpreter hosted a debate on the war, ten years on. Here is Alexander Downer (Australia’s foreign minister from 1996 to 2007, and current High Commissioner to the United Kingdom) writing on why the Iraq War was right:

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.

Downer’s final paragraph is a sober reminder of just how much has changed in three years:

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: Getty Images/Dan Kitwood

You may also be interested in