After John Howard took Australia to war in Iraq, he was scarcely held to account. Instead, he was re-elected
Two decades after the US-led “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, Australia seems to have drawn few lessons from the folly of its participation.
The preservation of the US-Australia alliance, the primary reason for the conservative Howard government’s participation, still largely impels Australia’s foreign and defence policies. If evidence of this was needed exactly 20 years after the invasion, witness this week’s $368bn commitment to the Aukus submarine deal which consequently provokes China into greater potential adversarialism against Australia alongside its joined-at-the-hip ally, the US.
It is clear that the Howard government largely dodged the politically ignominious legacy the Iraq invasion bequeathed on US leadership and that of its other chief invasion ally, the UK. Indeed, Howard – despite initial deep electoral concerns about the war, and even amid revelations about Australia’s true, largely unstated reasons for taking part and its knowledge of abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison – was resoundingly re-elected the following year.
Related: Long shadow of US invasion of Iraq still looms over international order
Australia committed three ships and a 500-strong special forces task group to the invasion as part of the coalition, largely on a fallacious pretext that Saddam posed an imminent threat to the west and possessed weapons of mass destruction. That no Australians died in combat (179 British and 4,300-plus US personnel were ultimately killed) helped neutralise the domestic political impact of Australia’s participation. The troops who were committed were largely kept out of harm’s way. The favourable optics were enhanced by the fact that most Australian personnel were home and being awarded their medals while the other allied troops stayed in country as the post-invasion insurgencies brought Iraq to near complete violent collapse and the number of coalition fatalities grew.
Howard, Australia’s second longest-serving prime minister, was an astute reader of domestic and international atmospherics. He was equally adept at nuancing political signals to best negotiate the realpolitik obstacles in his path, including the absence of bipartisan domestic political support for – and widespread voter scepticism about – the invasion.
In the countdown to what history illustrates was, post-9/11, an all but inevitable US-driven invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003, the public Howard message had three distinct elements: first, Saddam was a proponent of anti-western terrorism and he probably had WMDs; second, Australians were targets of radical jihadi terrorism as evidenced by the Bali nightclub bombings of October 2002 which killed 88 countrymen and women and a potential threat like Saddam had to be checked, and third, that Australia had given no firm signal to the US Bush administration that it would definitely take part in the invasion.
While the second proposition was undeniably true, the first and third were highly questionable. A simpler truth was at the heart of Australia’s involvement: the nurturing of the alliance with the US, which federal governments of all persuasions have regarded as a strategic insurance policy since the second world war.
Indeed, while the Blair government and the Bush administration were excoriated over the September 2002 so-called “dodgy dossier” used to justify the invasion, the Howard government largely escaped similar embarrassment. In retrospect this seems astounding given the central contribution of one of Australia’s intelligence agencies to the dossier and how its disclosures were perhaps wilfully misinterpreted by the US and Britain and, by implication, Australia.
In 2000 Iraq made an order through an Australian company for 60,000 aluminium tubes. The company alerted the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Asis, which in turn alerted the US Central Intelligence Agency so that it could intercept the shipment in Jordan, apparently regarded the information as a “gem” – something of an intelligence coup. The US also valued it highly.
Such tubes could potentially be used to make enriched uranium for nuclear weapons – precisely how the CIA chose to interpret them, even though other analysis suggested they were more likely intended for other uses including as artillery rocket casings. (Either way, Iraq was banned under UN security council resolutions from purchasing or possessing aluminium tubing unless mandated by the UN and used strictly for civilian purposes. The purchase of the tubes was in breach of UN rules, even though their intended use was highly ambiguous.)
The claims about the tubes made the dossier bolstered the case against Saddam on the grounds of his possession of WMDs. In the UK, long after Tony Blair had left the prime ministership, the Chilcot inquiry exposed the mendacity permeating the dossier and the intelligence used to justify invasion.
In March 2004 an Australian parliamentary inquiry concluded that, based on the knowledge of Australian intelligence agencies, there was no compelling case for war against Iraq. Although, as Tom Hyland wrote last year, the Australian media scarcely held Howard to account over this. The caravan moved on to his re-election.
An intelligence misinterpretation? Wilfully misconstrued intelligence? Either way, it added up to an intelligence failure compounded by deliberate political opacity on three continents.
It was not the only intelligence – or on the most generous of assessments, communication – failure in Australia pertaining to the war. When the stories broke about terrible abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in April 2004, the federal government expressed shock and disgust, insisting no Australians were implicated and none knew about it. In fact, senior Australian military officers had known since October 2003 of International Committee of the Red Cross concerns that prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib could breach Geneva conventions. Further, Australians had been involved in advising US forces on interrogation techniques and how to handle Red Cross inquiries and interrogate within the conventions.
Australian officials certainly were privy to the torture at Abu Ghraib. When as much was reported several times, the government denied it. In the end the government blamed the defence department and the Australian military for what it put down to a communication failure.
That Howard was in Washington during the terrorist attack on America on 11 September 2001 added an inevitability to Australia’s participation in the invasion of Afghanistan to rid it of the Taliban. The same is largely true of Iraq, whose despotic leader US president George Bush Jr had long been keen to have deposed.
Instructively, when coalition forces largely pulled out of Afghanistan (at one point only one Australian defence force member remained in Afghanistan in 2003) to focus on Iraq, the Taliban returned in force.
After 9/11 Howard swiftly invoked the Anzus treaty – the agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the US that pledged material support in the event of foreign attack. While this clearly foreshadowed ground-floor participation in what became the imminent invasion of Afghanistan (home to the Taliban, supporters of al-Qaida whose leader, Osama bin Laden, planned 9/11), the implied expectation from the US was also that this would soon mean Iraq, too.
In his political memoir, Lazarus Rising, Howard lambasted critics of the war and, while making it plain that he at least believed the (faulty) intelligence that Iraq had WMDs, it is startlingly evident that sentimentality towards the US-Australia historical relationship, and alliance-maintenance, was at least as critical.
He noted the initial public opposition to Australia’s involvement in the invasion. But always close to the surface, he said, was “the alliance dimension of the decision”.
“There’s also another reason and that is our close security alliance with the United States. The Americans have helped us in the past and the United States is very important to Australia’s long-term security.”
Howard also wrote that in mid-2002 Bush rightly assumed that if the US invaded Iraq “in all likelihood Australia would join”.
Bush had Australia’s support in the bank from the start.