Iraq lessons: the impact of the Howard fib
13 Nov 2015|

Australia played its part in the blunders of the Iraq war by committing early and without questioning the US.

The Howard government claimed to be considering all options, but in reality it closed down consideration. Options weren’t called for. Getting wrong answers to questions posed about Iraq would make it harder for the Prime Minister to take Australia to war.

The previous column explored the nature of John Howard’s fib in 2002 and early 2003 about Australia carefully exploring all options, including the option of opting out of an invasion.

The fib was an open secret that had important political benefits and malign policy impacts.

The fib miasma held the government together, sidelined the public service and provided some small political cover as Australian public opinion turned decisively against the looming war.

The politics of Howard’s fib and the way he deployed it was masterful—a virtuoso performance by a determined Prime Minister taking his country into a conflict it didn’t want. If you hanker after strong leadership, see how Howard took Australia to Iraq.

In his autobiography, Howard notes that by January 2003—two months before the invasion—a Fairfax poll found only 6% of Australians favoured joining the invasion without UN approval.

In the face of ‘widespread public hesitation’, Howard found the unity of the Liberal and National parties ‘remarkable’. Howard recalls one cabinet meeting late in 2002 when the National Party’s Warren Truss recounts a question from a staunch Party supporter: ‘Can’t we just this once not go along with the Americans?’

This was a question that John Howard worked hard to close down inside Canberra, even as it raged across the country. The Prime Minister knew he was playing for the highest stakes. In his diary in March, 2003, on the eve of war Howard wrote: ‘I think all of us realise that if this does go ‘pear-shaped’, then that would be it for me. I should take the rap, for the sake of the party’s future.’

To meet his commitment to George W. Bush and the US alliance, Howard silently put his leadership on the line (a wager he never voiced in public). Such determination has its admirable qualities. But this act of will and power fed the fib miasma that closed down any real thinking about what the Iraq war would mean.

In Canberra, the ‘open secret’ side of the fib dominated. Options or opinions weren’t sought, much less debated.

As the column on Iraq intelligence noted, the Office of National Assessments suddenly changed its judgement on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, responding to ‘policy running strong,’ delivering for the boss.

In the government and bureaucracy, Howard closed down any consideration of options. He needed compliance with the commitment already made to George W. Bush in mid-2002, not dangerous arguments about the perils of what was being planned.

Detailed paperwork coming out of the bureaucracy about the dangers of invasion or the geopolitical consequences of Iraq imploding could be leaked against the government. Any leaks or warnings would weaken the Howard hold on the Coalition parties and further feed public opposition. Simple solution: ensure no such document gets written.

There was no big debate or argument inside the bureaucracy. No big-picture or into-the-future paper was produced on the prospects or the dangers. The role of the public service was to sweat the details: John Howard and the National Security Committee of Cabinet would do the rest. There’s no paper trail leading from the bureaucracy to Cabinet. Howard didn’t ask for it. Thus, he wasn’t given it.

Not asked, the bureaucracy didn’t speak. The submissions to Cabinet, the arguments and pro-and-con documents don’t exist. Howard told Robert Garran:

 ‘…There was no cabinet submission on the costs and benefits of going to war in Iraq. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was not asked for, and did not offer, any advice on the pros and cons of supporting American intervention.’

Underline: no costs and benefits consideration.

Paul Kelly got the same story, in detail, from the top public servants in Defence, Foreign and Prime Minister’s.

The Defence Secretary, Ric Smith, told Kelly:

‘The message from ministers by that time (November 2002) was that they did not want strategic advice from the Defence Department. This reflected a conviction that ministers knew the issues and would take the decisions for or against the war.’

Underline: no strategic advice wanted.

The Foreign Affairs Secretary, Ashton Calvert:

‘DFAT did not argue against that war role. In my view there was a strong and shared sense of policy direction on Iraq from Howard and Downer. In my view they didn’t need advice on what they should do because they had, in effect, made up their minds.’

Underline: minds made up.

The head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold:

‘Ministers felt it was their responsibility to decide whether or not Australia entered the war. It would be wrong to think they were not interested in advice but the advice they wanted … was about the conduct of the war and capabilities, not the decision to go to war.’

Underline: don’t ask, don’t tell—off to war we go.

Making up your mind is one thing. Having a closed mind in making that decision is a recipe for policy disaster.

Australia would help to invade, conquer and occupy—then leave immediately. Iraq’s future? The consequences for the Middle East?

Not our problem, thanks. All issues for the US. Washington would do any thinking needed.

Australia went to war with eyes wide open and brain hardly engaged—all commitment and no responsibility. Lots of loyalty, less smarts.