Australia’s Iraq nightmare
2 Nov 2015|
Australia's Iraq nightmare

Australia helped bring disaster to Iraq.

As an eager ally, we were present at the creation of a regional catastrophe that just keeps on growing.

Today’s horror means that Australia’s past role in Iraq is a toxic subject for the Coalition government. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t look back.

Tony Blair’s qualified apology for Iraq draws Australia towards a nightmare it has hardly examined. Blair used CNN to admit mistakes in intelligence and planning, but not in waging war: ‘I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.’

Blair stands with John Howard in saying it was a good idea to invade and get rid of Saddam Hussein. Yet Britain and Australia are today in different places over what they did as US allies. Britain lost 179 service personnel and, politically, Mesopotamia swallowed Tony Blair and New Labour.

By contrast, none of the forces Australia deployed were killed in action and John Howard resides—Reagan-like—upon the Liberal uplands.

Tony Blair is troubling the headlines for reasons that will cause clouds to roll towards Howard’s reputation. The chill rises from the inquiry into Britain’s role in Iraq chaired by Sir John Chilcot.

The labyrinth life of the inquiry since it was established in 2009 shows that going into the maze of government actions is akin to Clausewitz’s fog of war. Chilcot has ended his right-of-reply process and edges towards publication.

The British report will offer sidelights on Australia’s role. Where will Australia be glimpsed? What did we say in the debates? How often was Oz in the room?

Chilcot should prompt a ‘lessons learned’ review of Iraq as Peter Hartcher rightly urges: ‘A full and realistic admission of the errors involved would be immensely useful. To admit a mistake is the first step in avoiding a repeat. We mustn’t continue to blunder blindly from one catastrophic misjudgement to another.’

Don’t hold your breath for a full or realistic anything, whatever Chilcot reveals about Australia’s role. Malcolm Turnbull seeks to placate the Liberal Party right wing. An Iraq investigation would be seen as Malcolm going to war against Howard in the same way that Gordon Brown set up Chilcot partly to trash Blair’s legacy (in politics, the internal bastardry is ever the bitterest).

The Libs dread what a full Iraq inquiry would stir up. In that fear, the Liberals are channelling US Republicans—and not just on Iraq.

As an example, Elizabeth Drew had a typically sharp column the other day for The New York Review of Books on the ‘taboo’ topic of whether George W. Bush could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. The Drew piece draws together plenty of evidence that George W. was more intent on the longest-ever presidential summer holiday than thinking about terrorism:

Did he do all he could given the various warnings that al-Qaeda was planning a major attack somewhere on US territory, most likely New York or Washington? The unpleasant, almost unbearable conclusion—one that was not to be discussed within the political realm—is that in the face of numerous warnings of an impending attack, Bush did nothing.

The point about Drew’s conclusion on Bush and 9/11 is that she’s working from what’s in the public realm. There’s a lot we now know.

In the same way, it’s possible to do some lessons learned—a cheap Chilcot—on Australia and the Iraq war. Lessons learned is more palatable for politicians and public servants than a right-royal-official-ramble to name, shame and blame.

As the Turnbull government isn’t likely do anything akin to the Chilcot pilgrimage of Privy Counsellors to pry and purge, let’s instead do a lightning lessons learned using available sources. First up will be intelligence.