It takes a particular kind of courage for people in public life to admit that they got something wrong, even after their error is publicly obvious. All three leaders who planned and executed the 2003 invasion of Iraq said at the time that they would take ultimate responsibility for the war, but none of them did. For ten years, neither George W. Bush, Tony Blair, nor John Howard has said they were wrong, let alone admitted that life for many Iraqis is nastier and shorter than before the 2003 invasion.
Their claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons didn’t stand up in 2003, and they don’t now. What Howard and Alexander Downer said publicly didn’t accurately reflect what they were told by the Defence InteIligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments. This was reconfirmed in April by a former secretary of the Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, Margaret Swieringa.
Yet Howard believed Saddam Hussein had WMD, apparently because Bush and Blair did. Having unilaterally invoked ANZUS after 9/11, he was determined to support Bush’s ‘war on terror’ even in defiance of the Security Council and international law. So Australians would fight, kill, and die, not for what the government knew, but for what three leaders believed, and for Howard’s interpretation of ANZUS .
If they now accepted the evidence, Bush, Blair and Howard could deploy the streaker’s defence and say it seemed like a good idea at the time. Instead, Bush is silent, Blair says it was right to eliminate Saddam Hussein, and Howard ducks responsibility, telling Sydney’s Lowy Institute on 9 April that the intelligence agencies got key assessments wrong. Now, he even claims that the Arab Spring was connected to the fall of Saddam, and points to the growth of Iraq’s economy and the ‘freedom’ he believes Iraqis are now tasting – except the many who continue to be killed or injured in sectarian violence, and who live in worse conditions than before.
Bush, Blair and Howard won’t admit that just as the Soviet Union was bled to impotence by Afghanistan, America’s superpower status has been diminished by the Iraq (and Afghanistan) disasters. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard won’t either: to do so would be to question the capacity of the United States to defend us, which no Australian prime minister will do. But President Obama admitted it at the Pentagon in 2012, saying that US forces would no longer undertake major, protracted wars without clear exit strategies: ‘With reduced resources, thoughtful choices will need to be made regarding the location and frequency of these operations,’ he said. ‘U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations’. Iraq, like Vietnam, was the wrong war, in the wrong country, for the wrong reasons, leading – predictably – to the wrong outcome. Obama said, and repeated in May, that America cannot and will not go there again.
Ten years on from the invasion, why does all this still matter? For three reasons: war crimes, war powers, and the next war.
First, war crimes. Australia and the UK are signatories to the International Criminal Court, as the US is not. Australia has agreed to extend the jurisdiction of the Court to crimes of aggression, which means that Australian ministers, service chiefs, and governors-general could be investigated over decisions to engage in future wars. Australia is obliged to set up credible and independent processes for such investigations by 2017, or the ICC may intervene to do so.
Next, war powers. Howard exercised them in 2003 with no authorization by the governor-general, no vote in parliament, and no real debate, even by the Coalition parties. The Australian Constitution allows him to do so more easily than his American and British counterparts could. At almost the last minute, both Blair and Howard advised parliament of their intentions, and Blair secured lower house approval of the invasion. Howard didn’t have to, and only sought it retrospectively. According to Peter Hollingworth, governor-general at the time, Howard cited Australia’s entry into peacekeeping operations and the undeclared war in Vietnam as precedents for invading Iraq. This could happen again unless the war powers are redefined, something in which Gillard and Stephen Smith as Defence Minister have shown no interest.
Finally, another war. Howard made an ominous comment on 9 April: he anticipates Australia being involved in Iran. Why Australia would wish to invade Iran, he did not explain, but the record speaks for itself. In recent years Australia has become more dependent than ever on US defence, culminating in Gillard’s offer to the US of bases on Australian soil for the first time since the Pacific war. Wherever the US is at war, Australia will be inextricably involved, for better or more likely for worse, unless we change our own rules.
A growing number of Australian groups, concerned at this prospect, are calling for the war powers to change. Some want an inquiry into how and why Australia went to war in Iraq, some want US bases out, others seek independence and ‘just peace’ for Australia, and others again advocate more transparency in government. More will be heard from them as the Federal election approaches.