Iraq plus ten: two lessons for our future use of the alliance
15 Mar 2013|

President George W. Bush and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, talk as they tour Sydney Harbour Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007.Graeme Dobell makes some contentious arguments about Australia’s decision-making processes when determining our involvement in the American-led Iraq war of ten years ago. They are contentious because many of Canberra’s mandarins remain in place, people still argue passionately over whether the removal of Saddam Hussein was worth the cost in blood and treasure and Iraq remains a confusingly bloody work-in-progress, even on a weekly basis. At this point though, two useful lessons for future policymaking might be discerned: the utility of US provided intelligence to Australian decision-making and the need for us to be less Australia-centric when thinking about the alliance.

A major benefit of the alliance is held to be the access gained to American intelligence.  Undoubtedly the US has an unmatched information collection system of enormous sophistication, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning the intelligence provided is infallible. Indeed in moments of crisis such as the lead up to war the US intelligence system can be inaccurate—as the Iraq WMD case amply demonstrates.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, US intelligence missed that the Soviet forces already deployed to the island had some 100 tactical nuclear weapons. The US Joint Chiefs were recommending a large-scale invasion of Cuba preceded by extensive airstrikes (PDF); if the intelligence had been acted on, the result might have been disastrous. At the time, US intelligence believed that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident happened but it’s now clear that it didn’t—the incident that was crucial in leading to full-scale US involvement in the Vietnam War never occurred. (For the detailed signals intelligence analysis, see here (PDF).)  Later in the war, the intelligence community failed to warn of the 1968 Tet Offensive that delivered a serious blow to America’s continued commitment. And, of course, ten years ago, the Iraq war’s main rationale, that of ‘the clear and present danger’ from Saddam’s WMD, proved illusionary.

There are many other examples, including Pearl Harbor and the Chinese entry into the Korean War in 1950. Crucially, in all these examples, the US intelligence community was closely focused on these countries, often had several years to analyse the adversary, but even so still drew incorrect conclusions. This was an alerted, not an un-alerted, intelligence system in action.

There are always conspiracy theorists who see the manipulations of politicians in such failures, but the key issue here is that in retrospect the intelligence assessments were just wrong. A major lesson of the Iraq war might be to be cautious in acting too precipitously in starting a war; the intelligence from the best system in the world might be mistaken. Given the Iraq war was nominally a preventive war, this was particularly important. Could this happen again over say Iran or North Korea? In selling the alliance to the Australian public by stressing the importance to us of American intelligence, are we perhaps giving too much weight to its value?  This is an important question for a sovereign nation that places a lot of weight on the US intelligence system.

Secondly, as I discussed previously, Australia has a penchant for taking advantage of events to strengthen the alliance. In some respects this is a rebuttal to Graeme Dobell’s argument—in many ways, Iraq wasn’t as important as strengthening the alliance. In this, the Iraq war decision-making succeeded; we aimed to bolster our alliance credentials, and did. There were definite short-term gains and maybe that’s the best that could be expected, but there have been long-term impacts well into this decade and possibly beyond.

The Iraq war distracted the US from finishing off al-Qaeda and the Taliban. While it’s hard to say if the Afghanistan war would have ended better if the Iraq war hadn’t eventuated, certainly the Iraq war was unhelpful. Closer to home, by trapping the US in the Middle East for the first decade of the 21st century, our region received less American attention than it might have otherwise. In this there were significant opportunity costs incurred in the Iraq War for both the US and for Australia. Many American commentators have noted that the trillion or so dollars the Iraq war cost was unhelpful to their domestic economy and has helped reduce American power and national capabilities in this decade. None of these outcomes are to our advantage but it’s likely that none were considered before we embraced the Iraq war.

Given that Australia holds the US alliance as central to our defence posture, the most important aspect might be what the impact of some future war on the US could be. That’s arguably much more important than debates over possible ADF participation. Generally in the contemporary wars of choice we contribute limited forces, offer little in terms of strategic thinking and tactics and are only marginally important to the war’s outcome. The principal concern for us might be that the US could harm itself. 

In future, perhaps we need a ‘Red Team’ that analyses the achievability of American objectives, the possible ways the war may partly or completely fail and, if so, what any of those undesired outcomes would mean for us and what steps we might take to mitigate them. In retrospect, coincident with planning our Iraq war involvement, we should have been taking steps to risk manage (to the extent we could) the main factors that could go wrong and negatively impact Australia and its national interests.

So two key lessons ten years on from the Iraq invasion are (i) to apply caution about putting too much weight on US intelligence and (ii) to think very carefully about what might go wrong for our American allies in political, diplomatic, military, economic and social terms. In simple terms, in our enthusiasm to be involved, let’s not fool ourselves. The Americans—like everyone else—can make mistakes and suffer adverse unintended consequences from their actions. Given that the alliance is at the core of our defence strategy, such potential misjudgments are of real concern for Australia.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW. Image courtesy of The White House.