Iraq lessons: the cabinet submission that never was (part 2)
30 Nov 2015|

A US Army (USA) Soldier assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, mans a .50 caliber M2HB machine gun mounted atop a High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), during a patrol along Logistics Support Area (LSA) Anaconda, near Balad Air Base (AB), Iraq.

My previous column looked at the first half of the cabinet submission that never was—what the Howard government could know and ask in 2002 and early 2003 before committing to the blunder that was the Iraq war. That post looked at intelligence and the nature and future of Iraq. Now for two other topics that should have been in such a submission, sticking to what was knowable at the time (no 20/20 hindsight); merely what the Howard government could have focused on as it prepared to be part of an invading coalition and an occupying power.

  1. The geopolitics of the Middle East

John Howard sees himself as a tough realist rather than a mushy multilateralist. Strange that at the time he had such little regard for the realist argument which now he summarises accurately:

‘The realists were probably untroubled by the UN issue, likely believed Saddam had WMDs, and regarded him as a loathsome dictator. Despite this they saw merit in continuing a policy of containing him and eschewing resort to military action. To them the world was too dangerous a place to become involved in such action except in the most compelling circumstances, which they did not think existed in Iraq in 2003.’

The impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East of the Iraq war was understood by many—not least by a generation of US policy makers who couldn’t make George W. Bush listen in 2002.

After throwing Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991, President H.W. Bush (the senior and wiser) stopped short of toppling him from power. The argument the US made to Australia and others following the Kuwait victory had a public and private dimension.

The public line was that freeing Kuwait was the extent of the UN mandate. The private version was that destroying Saddam’s power and remaking Iraq would be a vast, ruinously expensive endeavour that would destroy the regional power balance.

Underline that point about the power realignment. The big winner would be Iran. The US would deliver regional victory to Tehran, aiding the regime it hated the most. It was a strong realist argument in 1991; it needed to be considered in 2002-2003. It turned out to be true.

  1. The US alliance

‘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.’

John Howard, April, 2013: ‘Iraq 2003—A retrospective’

The Howard explanation still lists WMDs first and the alliance second. He obscures, still. The cause may have been Iraq but the purpose was always the alliance. The alliance was the central reason, even before the WMDs failed to materialise.

John Howard couldn’t conceive of the US going to war without Australia. Howard was confident the US would win, and that Australia would do its duty. And that’s where the discussion started and ended.

In charting the parallels between Australia’s decision to commit in Vietnam and Iraq, Garry Woodard points to:

‘the dominance of the Prime Minister, decisions made in secret by a small group of ministers obedient to him, minds closed against area expertise, preference for party political advantage over bipartisanship, and willing subservience to and some credulity about an ally, the United States.’

End with a counter-factual. After reading the non-existent cabinet submission on intelligence uncertainty, Iraq sectarian chaos and the impact on the Middle East balance, the Howard government hesitates and urges the Bush White House to reconsider.

Granted this doesn’t sound like John Howard, but such a submission would have forced the National Security Committee of Cabinet to ponder the darkness and depths of the abyss.

In the terms Bush senior used to his biographer, an Australia urging a rethink would have faced Bush junior’s ‘hot rhetoric’, a ‘very hard-line’ Vice President and an ‘iron-ass’ Defence Secretary.

Howard knew about the Iraq obsession in Washington, as he recalled:

‘Certainly Iraq was never far from their minds. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks Australia’s then Ambassador to the US, Michael Thawley, said to me that he thought that Iraq would be back on the agenda for the Americans.’

Australia could have been the ally that thought clearly rather than followed a Washington obsession. Canberra could have played the unusual role of the voice of caution in London and Washington.

All the evidence is that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the boys were in no mood to listen. Tony Blair, at least, would have had to listen if not pause. None of that came out of Canberra.

Australia was unwaveringly loyal to the great ally. Howard could argue he succeeded, despite the disaster. He enhanced the alliance, whatever the cost to so many in Iraq and beyond. Confining this only to the alliance, however, the Owen Harries warning deserves note: ‘A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not one to be sought.’