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How Saddam Hussein was caught in his own trap

Posted By on March 31, 2023 @ 15:37

Former defence minister Robert Hill says it’s clear now that, in the lead-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein had complied with UN Security Council orders to dispose of his chemical and biological weapons.

But the Iraqi dictator did not want to signal to Iraqis that he’d weakened and given in to pressure from the UN, says Hill who was defence minister in the Howard government from 2001 to 2006.

In a video interview [1] as part of ASPI’s Lessons in leadership’ series, Hill tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that Saddam ran his country through an environment of fear. ‘If you look as if you’re being pushed around, it’s not good for your future,’ says Hill. ‘He deceived his own people on that, and he deceived the global community on that. But you can’t make decisions with the benefit of hindsight. I believe the decision we made at the time was the right decision, the right circumstances on the information that we had.’

Hill became defence minister after six years as environment minister. ‘I thought that portfolio might benefit from having someone else for a while. You can get a bit too familiar over time.’ He’d spent four years as shadow foreign minister and a year as shadow defence minister and he’d long dealt with international relations from security and other perspectives. ‘It was familiar territory to me, it was an area in which I had an interest, it was an area in which I thought from my background I might have something to offer,’ Hill says.

He says he found the defence portfolio an interesting contrast to environment, which had been a different challenge. New environmental laws were being developed and he was expected to take the lead at a time when the bureaucracy was still uncertain of its role. New cultures were being developed and the minister was integral to the growth of the environment portfolio itself. This was a new portfolio all over the world. ‘There hadn’t been a history of environment portfolios. The issues were growing issues and therefore countries were starting to find ways to adapt.’

The defence establishment was confident in itself, very well established historically and with a well-settled doctrine and clear chains of command, Hill says. ‘So, it’s a different role entirely for the minister. You almost slot into the way it’s always been done.’ He knew he’d be wrestling with defence acquisition issues because they had always been difficult. ‘And I knew that I’d be facing up to some pretty serious operational issues, because we had already committed to Afghanistan,’ he says.

Hill says he was also familiar with the business of defence. ‘I’d visited so many of the bases, met a lot of the senior people over the years. I’d been, obviously, in the cabinet already for six years. I was in the leadership group, all the major security decisions that had been made in the previous six years, I’d been party to, some of them directly engaged in those decisions, so it wasn’t as if I was getting into unfamiliar territory.’

He became defence minister about a month after al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Within days of the attack, Prime Minister John Howard had invoked the ANZUS Treaty and Australia was on the pathway to war. Hill was still environment minister and was at meetings in Kakadu National Park. ‘It was surreal that I was in this blissful environment and these terrible things were happening, but like everyone else, I think I got drawn to the television in this sense of disbelief.’

By the time he shifted to defence, the government had made the decision to participate in the Afghanistan invasion. That was not controversial as the UN Security Council had backed it.

He went to Western Australia and addressed special forces soldiers before they left. ‘I had a view that when we had made a decision to deploy them, they had a right to hear from me the basis for that, what was our rationale, what we as a government were expecting of them. And they seemed to appreciate it, and I did that a number of times over the years and it seemed to be well received.’

Hill made a practice of meeting the soldiers and their families when they returned, and the families seemed to appreciate that, he says.

He says that when the 2003 invasion of Iraq was launched, allies, including Australia, followed the US because they believed Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons.

Hill recalls that soon after the invasion of Iraq he met a senior American civilian there. The American told him his instructions were to get the US out of the country after 60 days. ‘It all changed in the 60 days,’ he says. ‘Under international law, once a country occupies another it is responsible for its peace and security and all of those things, so you are locked in.’

He had no misgivings in the early stages of Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘I sometimes wonder whether we stayed too long in either or both—“we” being the coalition. But it’s very hard to withdraw; it’s just hard to turn your back on violence and suffering. You take out the strongman and you remove one threat, but it tends to get, we’ve found, replaced by others.’

He found Australian Defence Force commanders very easy people to deal with, who knew what they’re about and what they needed to do. ‘And if you respect that and show you respect it, they will be very loyal to you and the interests that you are representing.’

He decided early on never to interfere in the military chain of command. ‘I’ve sometimes seen it happen, that if there’s been a problem, there’s been a temptation of the political side to blame an individual lower down in the chain of command. I always believed that would be hugely disruptive.’

It was for someone higher in the military chain to deal with that problem. If that didn’t occur, then the minister needed to deal with someone higher up in the chain of command. ‘So, as long as you respect those different cultures, then I think it can be made to work effectively.’

Hill says he was criticised from time to time for micromanaging and being a little too hands-on. He disagrees with that. ‘In politics it tends to be the small things that cause you the biggest headaches and therefore I tended to want to watch out for those small things.’

Asked what advice he’d have for an incoming defence minister, Hill says it’s important to remember that the minister and the government are the political layer. ‘We are the interface between the forces and the people. We have a responsibility of governance. If we try to do more than that, we will end up in trouble.’

In the interview, Hill discusses military operations in East Timor and Solomon Islands, and on his efforts to make the Defence Department’s procurement processes more efficient.

He says ministers must accept that defence is a complex business with many strong personalities ‘pushing and pulling each other’. It’s important for the minister to display calm and resolve and not to get drawn into such issues, he says. ‘Respect the forces, respect the challenge of their profession and make sure they understand that you respect it.’

ASPI’s ‘Lessons in Leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia.

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[1] video interview: https://youtu.be/o44zIdVknVE

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