By Kevin Rudd
John Howard’s decision to commit thousands of Australian troops to the invasion of Iraq 15 years ago ranks as one of the two great failures of Australian foreign policy since the Second World War.
The other is Menzies’ decision to send forces to Vietnam. Both cases represented an abysmal failure of Australian political leadership, driven by an unnecessary capitulation to strategically foolhardy decisions by the US administrations of the time.
Both decisions were taken without independent Australian analysis of the legitimacy of American war aims, the credibility of American military strategy to both win the war and secure the peace, as well as the long-term consequences for Australian national interests.
And both turned out to be strategic disasters against virtually every measure.
In the case of Iraq, despite the heroic efforts of US, British and Australian troops, we have witnessed: the outbreak of sectarian violence between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority; the effective expulsion of Christians from a region where they had managed to cohabit with Muslims for more than 1,300 years; the “gifting” of Iraq to Iran within the wider strategic balance in the Middle East; and a decade after the US-led invasion, the implosion of Iraq into another full-scale civil war, coupled with the emergence of brand new terrorist organisations for whom Iraq would become the principal base of operations against Syria, the wider Middle East and Europe.
Yet while the Iraq War is now almost universally regarded in the US and the UK as a profound strategic error, John Howard remains totally unrepentant.
Howard’s formal justification for going to war was outlined in his statement to Parliament on 18 March 2003. His case rested on five core arguments. First, that Iraq possessed an “arsenal” of chemical and biological weapons. Second, that Iraq was in pursuit of a nuclear capability. Third, that the UN’s disarmament efforts on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had failed. Fourth, that a failure to dismantle Iraq’s WMD capabilities would encourage other rogue states like North Korea to continue their own nuclear programs. Fifth, that allowing Iraq to retain its WMD capabilities would make it possible for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to obtain WMDs, threatening the security of other states including Australia.
The problem for Howard was not just that each of his justifications for going to war would prove to be false. It was that the intelligence received by his government before the war did not justify any of these claims. Put simply, Howard lied to the Australian public.
Should anyone doubt this, it’s worth reading the report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security of 2003, chaired by the late David Jull, a senior Liberal MP appointed by Howard himself. After examining formal assessments from Australia’s two analytical intelligence agencies, the committee concluded that Howard’s core arguments–that Iraq had WMDs and that these might end up with terrorist groups- were not supported by the evidence.
Howard chose to ignore the advice delivered to him by Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation. In reports sent to Howard personally between September 2002 and March 2003, he was warned there was “no evidence” that Iraq had restarted chemical weapons production, and “that there was no known…production”. He was also advised in late 2002 that Iraq obtaining fissile material was an unlikely event and, even more starkly, “that Iraq does not have nuclear weapons”.
Howard also argued repeatedly that “if the world cannot disarm Iraq it has no hope of disciplining North Korea”. Howard just made this up. And has been spectacularly disproven by events since.
Then there was Howard’s deliberate conflation of the post-September 11 threat of terrorism with the “necessity” of removing Saddam Hussein. But Howard just made this up as well. In its assessment of February 10 2003, Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee concluded there was “no intelligence that Iraq had provided chemical or biological materials to al-Qaeda”, and that the “threat [from al-Qaeda] would be heightened by military action against Iraq”.
Other arguments would also be put from time to time by Howard, including a new-found interest in human rights. Saddam Hussein was certainly a brutal dictator. But while it’s estimated that 250,000 Iraqis, if not more, were killed under Saddam’s rule, in the period from March 2003 to June 2006 alone it’s estimated that some 601,000 Iraqis were killed. Four million Iraqi refugees had also been created as of 2007.
Finally, Howard knew that participating in the invasion of Iraq was not mandated under ANZUS. The Treaty does not mandate combined military action in an area outside the treaty area, namely the Pacific. Nor had there been an attack on the armed forces of the treaty partners, or an attack on the metropolitan territory of either party. Howard’s use of ANZUS to support his case for war was again factually wrong. Australia going to war was an entirely discretionary decision by him.
In virtually every speech Howard has given on Iraq since 2003, he has also sought to justify his decision to go to war on the grounds that I too had said at the time that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. As in fact had most people. But there is a small problem with this argument.
Like most Australians then, I had no access to intelligence material. I accepted the government’s claims about the existence of Iraqi WMDs at face value – it didn’t cross my mind that Howard would flagrantly misrepresent its content. In my mind, the question was what the international community, including Australia, should do about it – UN diplomacy or unilateral war. Labor chose the former. Howard the latter.
The second source I used was the Federation of American Scientists, which produced a report in 2000 that listed Iraq as one of 25 states possessing chemical weapons, 19 states possessing biological weapons, and 16 states with ballistic missile systems.The question that raised was why single out Iraq for unnatural attack?
Fifteen years later, its time for Howard, Abbott and Turnbull to finally publicly accept the monstrous strategic mistake they made in Australia’s name. If only to warn future conservative governments not to embark on yet an other such unilateral military folly in the future.