Ten years after the first bombs fell on Iraq, three facts seem indisputable. First, the reasons given by the leaders of the USA, Britain and Australia to justify the war were inadequate. Second, thousands died in the conflict, many of them civilians, including children. Third, the perpetrators have largely escaped any form of accounting.
The leaders of the countries that headed the ‘coalition of the willing’ pleaded that they did not have the wisdom of hindsight. This is either self-delusion or more of the propaganda that suggests their way was the only way.
Supporters of the war misleadingly argued that the situation in Iraq demanded that the West do something. The West was already acting by contributing to United Nations sanctions and weapons inspections. Military action is always an imperfect solution and must be envisaged as a last resort, not as the most convenient one.
During the Cold War years governments predicated foreign policy on the existence of external threats. The fear generated by the image of an aggressive alien power helped to control domestic populations and justify large defence expenditures. A new interpretation of this external threat was cast following the 9-11 terrorist bombing.
Genuine leadership by those determined to act might have won popular support — more direct approaches could have been tried by high level delegations. Even had the three countries provided incentives of the type lauded in free market capitalist rhetoric, change might have been effected peacefully.
Although public support for the invasion was initially low, many Australians changed their attitudes once troops were committed. Patriotism follows military commitment, perhaps because the Anzac myth is so deeply ingrained in our national identity. No one wants our defence personnel to feel unappreciated.
Unfortunately, support for the long term commitment to Afghanistan has segued into acceptance of foreign weapons of war in our north. Our supposed role as ‘deputy sheriff’ of the region smacks of little more than a meek acquiescence in vigilantism.
We in the West speak about promoting democracy abroad but have a poor record in our ability to distinguish between dictatorships and popular governments. The pejorative term has changed from ‘communist puppet regime’ to ‘rogue states’, but the arrogance remains the same.
Unless ‘democracy’ is to degenerate into an empty term of approval, we must think hard about issues of responsibility, accountability, openness and civil rights. Shooting first and asking questions later offends these ideals in the international sphere, just as it does at home.
Domestically, we pay a high price for our readiness to follow great powers. The lives of defence personnel are endangered, overseas deployments are costly, and active participation in the arms race damages our ability to contribute to multilateral peace processes.
These costs place strains on the overseas aid projects so necessary to promoting future security. How different it would be if the planes using the northern airfields were not part of the world’s greatest arsenal of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but carriers on their way to humanitarian relief programs in Africa, for example.
The contradictions of the Iraq invasion continue. As Donna Mulhearn notes in her memoir Ordinary Courage, Australia may have imprisoned without trial more Iraqis than were deprived of their liberty during the dictatorship overthrown by the war.
For her conscientious decision to become a human shield to protect civilian facilities during the bombing, Mulhearn was vilified at home. Patriotism reduces complex questions to simple slogans, and any challenge to the cycle of military response requires a degree of imagination that frightens the unthinking, and a degree of risk that terrifies people whose fears governments have augmented for their own cynical purposes.
We still hear arguments that on balance the war improved the lives of the people of Iraq. Such attempts to reduce the lives lost in Iraq to figures on a balance sheet are immoral.
The principle that ‘might is right’ is now embedded in the national consciousness. As disparity in wealth increases and an underclass mentality takes hold, the ideals of equity and justice seem like distant echoes of a time when Australians believed everyone deserved a fair go. It is not surprising that despite engaging in costly military actions over a decade Australians are more fearful now than we were in 2003.