A Molan moment on Iraq
11 Dec 2015|


Having an argument with Jim Molan is enlightening and rewarding. The ex-Major General delivers a triple treat.

With Jim, you always know:

  1. Where he’s coming from
  2. Where he’s aiming
  3. And where he’s crunched you

With a Molan moment, you get it in the front—not always the way in the swamps, forests and fogs of Canberra.

The dark arts of politics and bureaucracy can be a tale of bastardry and backstabbing, leaks and sabotage. Witness ructions involving Mr T. Abbott and Mr M. Turnbull.

Turn from that familiar Canberra recipe for low farce and high drama to my Molan moment on Australia and Iraq.

Jim has posted here responding to the final two columns of my six part series on ‘Iraq lessons’. Some of Jim’s points I agree with. My nod is the bow prior to some ju-jitsu to redirect the force of the Molan thrusts.

Use the triple treat formula to see where I was coming from and my aim.

The series started with Australia’s original role—‘present at the creation’—in a regional catastrophe that keeps growing. The focus of the Iraq lessons series was what we did or didn’t do in those moments of choice and decision in 2002-03. Thus, the second column used the Flood report and the Parliamentary inquiry to prod the intelligence on Iraq WMD.

Two columns followed on the way John Howard took Australia to war: the fib that we were considering all options and then the political benefits and malign policy impacts of the fib—especially the fact that there was no cabinet submission on the costs and benefits of going to war in Iraq.

The two concluding columns imagined what should have been in the cabinet submission that never was.

Jim’s ‘major criticism’ is that by concentrating on the decision to invade I didn’t consider what happened after the invasion. Fair enough. Then apply ju-jitsu to Jim’s argument:

‘My view is that the invasion may not have been all that smart but having invaded, the Coalition couldn’t walk away. Graeme quotes Howard as saying: ‘It was inevitable that after Saddam had been toppled a degree of revenge would be exacted, but a stronger security presence would have constrained this’. Perhaps this failure was at least as blameworthy as the decision to invade in the first place.’

Indeed, Australia couldn’t walk away because we were an invading and occupying power. And those issues of blame and failure—invasion and then force level—start from the same place.

Jim’s major criticism of my focus invites discussion of a significant fact—the decision to join the alliance to attack Iraq makes it unique in all Australia’s wars. Unique.

Australia had never before launched a war. In Iraq we did. This is the only Australian war where we (our coalition) started it.

Run back through our wars since federation: Afghanistan, Kuwait, Vietnam, Confrontation, Korea, WW 2, WW 1, the Boer War.

In no case, apart from Iraq, was Australia among the initial aggressors. Every other time we began by playing defence, not offence.

We previously mobilised and joined alliances in response to attack (the Boers and Vietnamese and Taliban might argue, but the regime-protection, defence-not-offence model can encompass those conflicts).

I don’t believe in a binary wars-of-necessity versus wars-of-choice division. All wars have elements of choice and necessity, even if only the choice to fight or surrender.

Yet on the necessity-choice continuum, Iraq is further out toward the choice transition point than any other conflict, well beyond Vietnam or Korea.

In Iraq, Australia chose to be part of the invasion force that launched the fight. This unique war-of-choice status flows through to the crunch Jim delivers on the WMD intelligence. No need to rerun the intelligence column. Merely apply ju-jitsu to Jim’s conclusion:

‘It’s not the nature of intelligence to be irrefutable.’ Exactly.

In no other case has Australia signed up for a preventive war based on intelligence. In every other Australian war, the shooting had begun when we joined. Australia had never helped launch a war based on intelligence assessments because all our previous wars were going concerns.

Jim says he never met anyone in Iraq who’d drunk the Washington neocon Kool-Aid. Again, I’m sure that’s true.

The Washington point needs to be made, though. In Iraq, we have been dealing with nemesis for so long we lose sight of the US hubris that brought us here.

The Bush boys knew they had the power to shift reality. See the rightly notorious 2004 White House quote attributed to the Bush consigliore, Karl Rove:

‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

Some Kool-Aid, that. History and reality bit back.

Jim has problems with my conclusion that the US alliance was the central, overriding reason Australia went to Iraq.

If you want to devote time to this, read Howard’s autobiography and see how those events are framed by the US. A quicker method is to consider, as Jim did, the key sentence I quoted from Howard’s retrospective on Iraq:

‘Australia’s decision to join the Coalition in Iraq was a product both of our belief at the time that Iraq had WMDs, and the nature of our relationship and alliance with the United States.’

Don’t be misled by the order Howard gives in listing his two beliefs/reasons. Consider only their relative strength in the Howard universe.

Simple test: If you had to choose just one of those two reasons as the most important, which would it be? My weighting is US alliance 75% versus Iraq WMD 25%. And even that might underestimate the strength and thrall of the alliance.

Only the alliance was a strong enough reason for Australia to join the US in starting this war.