Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:36 | SYDNEY

Has Downer changed his mind about Iraq?


Sam Roggeveen


9 September 2008 17:38

There's a long interview with Alexander Downer in today's Australian, reflecting on his 11 years as Australia's foreign minister. It covers a broad range of subjects, but don't worry, it's not all dry policy talk. There are laughs as well:

Downer...has an interesting response when asked whether America tortures people: a spirited laugh. "Well, there's the waterboarding debate. How many people have they waterboarded? I saw Christopher Hitchens undertook a waterboarding experiment himself and decided it was definitely torture." He laughs again. "That's all I know of the waterboarding."

Hilarious, I know. Moving on, Downer's thoughts in this interview on why Australia supported the Iraq invasion struck me as new:

Downer's argument is that "the Iraq war was going to happen whatever we did".

"Some people say you could have gone and screamed in George Bush's face and told him not to do it. It wouldn't have mattered.

"The question is whether the Iraqi people are better off for there having been some Australian involvement or whether they're worse off for there having been some Australian involvement because it was going to happen anyway."

Why was the war going to happen anyway?

"Australia could not have stopped the Americans doing what they did in Iraq in 2003...therefore the question is, given that Australia was involved, was our involvement a positive involvement from the point of view of the Iraqi people or a negative involvement and my answer to that is unequivocally that it was a positive involvement. The Australian troops and the Australian aid workers in Iraq performed an admirable job."

There is some merit in the argument that if you cannot stop a disagreeable act, you can choose to participate in order to at least mitigate the consequences of that act. That seems to be what Downer is arguing here, and it is a defensible policy for a middle power like Australia. But it concedes more ground to the anti-war argument than Downer has allowed before, in that it is premised on the idea that the invasion was a bad idea. Australia just couldn't do anything to stop it.