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.
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?