Masterful blunder: John Howard’s Iraq war-of-choice
24 Jan 2024|

When the cabinet archives on Australia’s decision to go to war against Iraq appeared on 1 January, the cupboard was astonishingly bare.

No formal submission went to cabinet on Australia joining the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The sparse paper trail in the National Archives of Australia amounts to one decision from the full cabinet and whatever discussion happened in the engine room of war, the National Security Committee of cabinet.

The archives Cabinet historian, Dr David Lee, notes the lack of any submission on ‘costs, benefits and implications of Australia’s entry into the war’, notwithstanding Prime Minister John Howard’s later judgement that Iraq was ‘the most controversial foreign policy decision taken by my Government in the almost 12 years it held office’.

The lack of documentation is a function of Australia’s ‘greatest’ war-of-choice. Excuse the irony quotes around ‘greatest’, seeking to convey the sense of the ultimate or extreme case. All wars are a mix of necessity and choice, but Iraq is further out on the choice axis than any other Australia has fought.

Howard’s choice makes Iraq the example of the prime minister’s prerogative to send Australia to war. Iraq is the great international blunder of Howard’s government as well as its most controversial. Yet Howard’s political execution in Canberra was masterful as he marched Australia to Iraq, proclaiming the political fib that he’d ponder all options and evidence before joining an invasion.

In following the course he’d set as early as 1998, the prime minister dominated his cabinet and party room and imposed the tightest leash on the bureaucracy. The government was united as it faced down public protest and Labor Party opposition.

Not asked, the public service did not speak.  Written submissions on the life-and-death decision would have fuelled argument in the cabinet and party room and would be explosive if leaked to the media.

To repeat and emphasise–the lack of any archive trail is remarkable. Gobsmacking. Brazen. The choice for war generated far less cabinet paperwork than a minor change to a federal tax or regulation.

A strange footnote to this tale of masterful discipline is the failure by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to transfer to the National Archives ‘a small number’ of the Iraq records from the National Security Committee.

The oversight is a cack-handed tribute to Howard’s mastery in 2003.

The prime minister’s will was clear and was obeyed. The public service would not speak or squeak or leak. The few cabinet records generated in the march to war had to be interred deep so they never surfaced to confuse or confound Howard’s choice. PM&C buried so well it didn’t find the hole when it was time to make records public under the 20-year archive law. As Iraq’s long agony unfolded, the initial demand for absolute secrecy and control mutated as Howard remade the story and sought some judicious Canberra forgetting.

A Canberra wise owl, Dennis Richardson, has been called in to check on this forgetting episode, to see that all the PM&C holes have been discovered and to ensure that ‘all relevant records have been transferred to the archives’. The discipline Howard imposed means these last few bits of paper won’t change the story. The National Security Committee was discussing how to go to war, not if Australia should go.

The one substantial document generated by the full cabinet was on 18 March 2003—as the shooting was about to start—a cabinet decision without submission titled ‘Iraq: Authority for Australian Defence  Military Action’. The next day, 19 March, the bombing campaign started and the following day, 20 March, the ground invasion began.

The six-page cabinet decision on 18 March has to do a lot of work as a key piece of documentary history on Australia’s choice for war. The cabinet minute notes ‘oral reports’ by Howard on his ‘extensive discussions’ with the US president and British prime minister on the use of force against Iraq. On the morning cabinet met, President George W. Bush had requested Australia join ‘military action by a coalition to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). The rest of the minute is about accepting the Bush case for war—Iraq’s WMD were ‘a real and unacceptable threat to international peace and security’—and the mechanics of Australia’s military role.

Commentary since the partial archive release on 1 January shows lingering elements of the Howard mastery. The argument for joining a preventive war based on intelligence still gets a run. Two decades on, Australia’s defence minister in 2003, Robert Hill, maintains: ‘On the basis of the information we had at the time, we made what we believe was the right decision, and I still believe on the basis of that information that was the right decision.’

Such Canberra forgetting about intelligence and the ‘information we had’ must overlook the conclusions of two Canberra inquiries: the Iraq report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence in 2004 (chaired by government MP David Jull) and the 2004 inquiry into Australian intelligence agencies by Philip Flood.

The Jull report found the Defence Intelligence Organisation was sceptical throughout about Iraq having any WMD while the Office of National Assessments (inside the PM’s Department) suddenly hardened its line on the evidence as Howard marched to invasion. The Jull committee commented on a sudden variation in September 2002, ‘in the nature and tone’ of ONA’s view on Iraq’s WMD: ‘It is so sudden a change in judgement that it appears ONA, at least unconsciously, might have been responding to “policy running strong”.’

When the Jull report was released, Patrick Walters’ front page story in The Australian was headlined ‘PM’s spin sexed-up Iraq threat’, a vivid rendering of what happens when a prime minister is running strong. The Flood report was unsparing in describing an Australian failure, saying the Iraq WMD intelligence was ‘thin, ambiguous and incomplete’.

Howard’s mastery was shown by his response to the Jull report’s conclusion about his sex-ed up push of intelligence to match his war choice. The prime minister immediately called in a highly-respected mandarin, Philip Flood, to inspect a failure—the failure of the intelligence agencies, that is. And so, the Canberra work of forgetting and story-shifting moved on.

The lack of any Iraq WMD meant the central truth of the Howard choice soon stood alone as the one purpose of his mastery: the US alliance was the central, overriding reason Australia went to Iraq. Iraq was always just the means; the alliance was the purpose—the same means/purpose dynamic as Vietnam.

In his 2010, autobiography, Howard was explicit about the alliance focus. His promise to the US president determined the Iraq decision. In his 2013 retrospective on Iraq, Howard offered this key sentence: ‘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.’

Don’t be misled by the order Howard gives. Notice the weighting of the words: the issue of the moment feeds into the permanent interests of relationship and alliance. Consider the relative strength of the two issues in the Howard universe: my estimate is US alliance 75% versus Iraq WMD 25%. And even that probably underestimates the alliance premium.

Only the alliance was a strong enough reason for Australia to join the US in starting this war. That’s why Iraq was Howard’s masterful blunder. The aim was to deepen and strengthen the alliance. At huge cost to many others—but relatively little cost to Australia—the alliance purpose was met.

The blunder delivered by the mastery was given a dry epitaph by Owen Harries in his 2006 After Iraq paper: ‘[I]it is extremely dubious whether uncritical, loyal support for a bad, failed American policy will have enhanced our standing as an ally in the long run. A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not one to be sought.’