Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 05:02 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 05:02 | SYDNEY

The big Iraq fib


Graeme Dobell

1 November 2010 15:05

John Howard's brisk chapter on Iraq in his autobiography makes explicit The Big Fib: there was never any question, or even debate, about Australia joining the US in the war. Australia did not keep its options open. It did not even explore the options. No questions asked of the US. No internal questions asked in Australia. Howard is amazingly explicit in sinking the big fib without a moment of regret or repentance.

In the year leading up to the invasion in March 2003, Howard repeatedly claimed that Australia had not made up its mind, had not committed to war. Nobody much believed Howard's 'truthiness' (as Colbert might have described it), and the truth pointed elsewhere, towards those Australian officers already embedded in the US military planning machine and to Howard's fervent embrace of the US.

The book recounts the White House talks in June 2002, where George W Bush understood that Howard 'would keep my options open until the time when a final decision was needed.' But the 'tenor' of Howard's comments to Bush meant the US knew it could rely on Australia's military commitment. The Prime Minister thinks it is 'inconceivable' that the US could go to war without Australia tagging along. He elevates the alliance from vital to sacrosanct.

Howard follows his chapter on Iraq with a separate chapter celebrating his close friendship with George W Bush. Perhaps that says it all. But the book does open an interesting window on the alliance and the way Australia goes to war. For Howard, the hard part is imagining not joining the fight. Anyone embracing the theory of the democratic peace might want to ponder the lack of reflection, even the reflexive manner in which Australia waltzes off to war.

Many years of listening to  Prime Minister Howard and closely parsing his transcripts produced a habit of mind that notes what is avoided or redefined as well as what is said. Thus, Howard writes of the decision to join the US and Britain 'in the military operation against Saddam Hussein' or 'taking out Saddam's regime'. The word 'war' doesn't appear. Rather than invading Iraq, in the Howard telling the allies decide 'to go into Iraq'. By the end of the chapter, Howard can manage 'invasion' a couple of times while still preferring his 'go into' formulation, but he can't seem to use that 'w' word.

Using the same technique, examine what worried Howard. He writes of the emotional pressure and dread of possible Australian casualties. And unlike East Timor and Afghanistan, the 'decision to go into Iraq was against the weight of public opinion.' The Prime Minister feared that heavy Australian casualties could end his leadership. Writing in his diary on March 12, 2003, on the eve of war:

I think all of us realise that if this does go “pear-shaped”, then that would be it for me. I should take the rap, for the sake of the party's future.

Not the rap for a bad war, but for hurting the party.

If Iraq had gone bad, casting out Howard would have been a logical option for the government. The stakes get no higher: life and death for Australia's soldiers and the same for the Prime Minister's career. Yet there is virtually no government examination of anything but an automatic commitment to the US war.

Howard notes argument raged throughout Australia and by January 2003, a Fairfax poll found only six percent of Australians favoured joining the invasion without specific UN approval. In the face of 'widespread public hesitation', Howard finds the unity of the Liberal and National parties 'remarkable'. Howard recalls one cabinet meeting late in 2002 when the National Party's Warren Truss recounts a question from a staunch Party supporter: 'Can't we just this once not go along with the Americans''

As the previous column reported, in dealing with the UN, Howard proclaims himself a hard-headed realist devoted to the national interest. Australia, he wrote, could be an active member of the UN 'in the right circumstances'. No such assessment of circumstances or deep weighing of national interest was necessary with Iraq. The then Labor leader, Simon Crean, is assailed for wishing Australia's troops well while also saying they should not be going. In Howard's view, Crean's comments were 'insensitive', 'appalling' and 'abysmal'.

Much the same criticism can be levelled at a political system that continually proclaims the fib that no final decision has been made right until the day the war begins.

Photo by Flickr user jessiefish, used under a Creative Commons license.