John Howard, the Neo-Conservatives and policy failure in Iraq - Australian Fabians Former Site - For Page Transfers

John Howard, the Neo-Conservatives and policy failure in Iraq


Kevin Rudd
22 March 2006
Foreign Affairs
by: Kevin Rudd

Author: Kevin Rudd MP is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade and International Security. This address was to the Fabian Society’s Annual Chifley Memorial Lecture.

This week marks the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

As a nation, it is high ti me we held John Howard to account for his $1.2 billion Iraq enterprise.

The Iraq war has not pri marily been a failure of intelligence.

At its core, the Iraq war has in fact been a failure of policy.

A failure of foreign policy.

A failure of national security policy.

And most i mportantly, a funda mental failure of the foreign policy and national security policy decision- making processes of govern ment.

Apart from the direct consequences flowing from the flawed decision to invade Iraq itself, it is this failure of the national security decision-making processes of govern ment which is the cause for genuine, continuing concern.

Unless these flawed decision- making processes are funda mentally refor med, they will once again be applied to the next major national security challenge facing Australia – namely Iran.

Australia si mply cannot afford yet another major failure in international policy given that the consequences for our long-ter m national interests are likely to be significant in the extre me.

My purpose tonight is two-fold:

  • First, to detail the sheer dimension of the Howard Govern ment’s policy failure arising fro m its decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq; and
  • Second, to exa mine how this policy failure ca me about through the flawed national security decision- making processes of the Howard Government.

Policy failure on Iraq

Iraq is loo ming as a spectacular policy failure on the part of the Howard Govern ment. Many of those who supported the war fro m the outset (including so me of A merica’s leading neo-cons) have now recanted.

And what a spectacular recanting it has been.

Ranking US Republicans now express deep reservations about US engagement in Iraq.

Francis Fukuya ma , one of the darlings of Washington’s neo-conservative establish ment, has also funda mentally repudiated his original position. Says Fukuya ma:

“I’m not just shocked, I a m co mpletely appalled by the sheer level of inco mpetence.”


And in relation to the rest of the shell-shocked neo-conservative establish ment in Washington who still support the decision to go to war, Fukuya ma states:

“Most of the m are lying low because they realise what they advocated hasn’t worked out at all and they are just hoping so mething will turn up.”


And of the neo-conservative project overall, Fukuya ma now says:

“I have concluded that neo-conservatis m, both as a sy mbol and a body of thought, has evolved into so mething I can no longer support.”

Fukuya ma is not alone. Conservative colu mnist George Will has also concluded that US hopes for de mocracy in Iraq are “delusional”.

Beyond the Beltway, so me of A merica’s most pro minent allies in the Middle East have also cast doubt on the wisdo m of the Iraq enterprise.

As Prince Saud al Faisal, Foreign Minister of the Kingdo m of Saudi Arabia, stated late last year on the future of Iraq:

“There is no dyna mic now pulling the nation together…all the dynamics are pulling the country apart.”

And within Iraq itself, for mer Pri me Minister Iyad Allawi stated earlier this week:

“We are losing a day, as an average, 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is…I think Iraq is facing… is in the middle of a crisis. Maybe we have not reached the point of no return yet, but we are moving towards this point.”

Consistent with the Pri me Minister’s standard operating procedure, this however is more an exercise in do mestic political manage ment rather than anything rese mbling foreign policy reality.

Because the foreign policy reality is that the objective record of policy failure in Iraq is now on full display.

Tonight I would like to address seven sets of policy failures arising fro m the Iraq war – individually significant; collectively devastating.

  • First, the Howard Govern ment’s failure to uphold UN sanctions against Sadda m Hussein’s regi me in the first place through the $300 million Wheat for Weapons scandal;
  • Second, the Howard Govern m ent’s failure to find anything faintly rese mbling stockpiles of che mical and biological weapons in Iraq – Howard’s single rationale for taking Australia to war in the first place;
  • Third, the Howard Govern ment’s failure to reduce the terrorist threat Australia as a result of the Iraq war – as the Pri me Minister had sole mnly promised. In fact the Iraq war has not only failed to reduce the terrorist threat to Australia but by any objective analysis it has co mpounded the terrorist threat;
  • Fourth, the failure to bring about anything approxi mating peace, stability and security in Iraq to the extent that after three years of military occupation the country now teeters on the brink of civil war;
  • Fifth, the failure to stabilise Iraq has had the direct consequence of e mboldening Iran - with potentially disastrous consequences in ter ms of the Iranian regi me’s pursuit of its nuclear a mbitions;
  • Sixth, the Howard Govern ment’s failure to provide the Australian Defence Force with a clear mission state ment at the outset, resulting, in turn, in an indefinite Australian military co m mit ment in co mplete violation of the Pri me Minister’s pro mise that our co m mit ment would be a matter of months rather than years; and
  • Finally, the Howard Govern ment, rather than si mply following the US into Iraq, during the course of 2002/2003, actively urged the United States to take military action against Iraq. The result has been that the Iraq war, like the Vietnam War, may well result in the diminution of A merican political and military prestige. And in the decade ahead may i mpede A merica’s ability to respond to core challenges to regional and global security that may arise post-Iraq.

The failure to enforce UN sanctions

On the eve of taking Australia into the invasion of Iraq, the Pri me Minister told Parlia ment on 4 February 2003:

“Now is not the ti me to relieve the pressure on Iraq. And there is only one for m of pressure that Sadda m Hussein understands—the threat of military force. We have tried sanctions and contain ment. Sanctions can be a very powerful instru ment of persuasion but have little influence over a dictator who cares nothing for the wellbeing of his people.”

John Howard was adamant about the failure of UN sanctions against Iraq.

In fact he was so ada mant that in the sa me speech he went on to detail how he believed Sadda m Hussein was under mining UN sanctions. The Pri me Minister was very specific about this. He said:

“For the last 12 years Iraq has been able to trade its oil for hu manitarian goods—food and medicines—under United Nations supervision. Tragically for the Iraqi people, Sadda m Hussein has rorted the progra m, violated its provisions and evaded its constraints. A significant portion of the hu manitarian goods is re-exported fro m Iraq for cash, and oil is routinely s muggled out and sold illegally so that Sadda m Hussein can finance his weapons progra m.”

What the Pri me Minister failed to tell the Australian Parlia ment and people at this ti me was that three years before he made this speech, he was explicitly warned by the United Nations in New York that one of the rorters of the UN Oil for Food Progra m was our very own AWB. Rorts executed through a series of 41 corrupt contracts between the AWB and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Each corrupt contract explicitly approved by the Howard Govern ment itself.

Herein lies the breathtaking hypocrisy of the Howard Govern ment’s stance on the breach of UN sanctions: John Howard justifying his decision to go to war in Iraq because of the fail of UN sanctions, while the world’s single-biggest sanction-busting operation against Iraq was perpetrated by an Australian company with the full backing of the Howard Govern ment itself.

Can anyone i magine what John Howard would have said had a Federal Labor Govern ment done anything like this?

We would have been accused of high treason.

You can al most hear the incandescent rage of the conservatives levelling accusations of consorting with the ene my.

But not when the boot is on the other foot.

This is not only stupendous hypocrisy on the part of the Howard Govern ment – going to war because UN sanctions were being violated while at the sa me ti me perpetrating the massive violation of those sa me sanctions.

Beyond hypocrisy, this $300 million Wheat for Weapons scandal represents the single-greatest act of national security negligence on the part of the Howard Govern ment during its ten long years in office.

  • Negligence because the Howard Govern ment ignored 29 specific warnings over the five year period that this scandal ran;
  • Negligence because a mong these warnings were seven separate intelligence reports which pointed out in precise detail that Sadda m Hussein was applying ten per cent-plus kickbacks to contracts under the Oil for Food Progra m and that these kickbacks were being paid through a Jordanian front co mpany;
  • Negligence because the UN on two separate occasions in the earliest months of the wheat for weapons scandal explicitly warned the Howard Govern ment about AWB’s dealings with Iraq as the world’s single largest user of the Oil for Food Progra m;
  • Negligence because the Howard Govern ment under UN Security Council Resolution 661 was responsible under international law to prevent its nationals fro m violating trade sanctions against Iraq;
  • Negligence because these international legal obligations were translated directly into Australian do mestic law through the Customs Regulations1991 which required the Foreign Minister to satisfy hi mself that none of the AWB’s contracts violated UN sanctions before an export per mit was issued for each of the m;
  • Negligence because despite these for mal legal obligations, the Howard Govern ment has incredibly described its role as a mere “post box” between the AWB and the UN (so mething the previous Labor Govern ment did not do); and
  • Negligence because the $300 million which the Howard Govern ment allowed to be transferred to Sadda m Hussein’s regi me enabled the Iraqi dictator to purchase guns, bo mbs and bullets to be used against Australian troops.

If there is any doubt on the latter score, John Howard should read the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report, co m missioned by the CIA, and written with the help of Australia’s own intelligence officials which sought to track down Sadda m Hussein’s money trail. The ISG report concluded:

“The introduction of the Oil-For-Food progra m (OFF) in late 1996 was a key turning point for the Regi me. OFF rescued Baghdad’s econo my fro m a ter minal decline created by sanctions.”

Further the ISG found that Sadda m used illicit funds and kickbacks raised through the Oil For Food Progra m

“to procure sanctioned military goods and equip ment.

And again, the ISG concluded that:

Saddam was able to subvert the UN OFF progra m to generate an esti mated US$1.7 billion [ more than AUD$2 billion] in revenue outside of UN control fro m 1997-2003.”

It is here that the sheer dimensions of the Howard Government’s negligence have not just caused reaction in this country, but reaction around the world.

Of the more than AUD$2 billion generated by Sadda m Hussein worldwide, fro m more than 2,200 companies based in more than 65 different countries using the Oil for Food Program, the AWB was Sadda m’s single-largest contributor globally - and by a country mile.

The $300 million that John Howard allowed the AWB to provide to Sadda m Hussein was bigger than the next single-largest contribution by a factor of five.

One of the more stunning exhibits at the Cole Inquiry to date has been the statutory declaration of the Jordanian front co mpany Alia about its relationship with the AWB during this period. Alia’s CEO had direct access to Sadda m Hussein hi mself. In one fa mous meeting with the Iraqi dictator, Alia co mplained to Sadda m that there were unloading proble ms at the port of U m m Qasr – the destination port for ship ments of wheat fro m AWB. And what was Sadda m’s response? He undertook to fix the proble ms i m mediately.

I mean, wouldn’t you issue a directive to sort this proble m out i m mediately if it was i mpacting on your single-biggest supplier of convertible foreign currency at a ti me when you don’t have much convertible currency at your disposal?

You can al most hear Sadda m saying to hi mself: “Curious people, those Australians. They bankroll me one day, then they want to bo mb me the next.”

And still John Howard wonders what all the fuss is about when people in this country and elsewhere (not least in the United States and Iraq) now want to know how this extraordinary corruption scandal occurred in a country like Australia on John Howard’s watch as Pri me Minister.

Policy failure on WMD

The Howard Govern ment is equally responsible for massive policy failure on the question of Iraq’s so-called stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Prior to the Iraq war, the Govern ment was absolutely explicit. On 18 July 2002 Foreign Minister Downer stated:

I don't think there's any doubt about Sadda m Hussein having stockpiles of biological and che mical weapons”.

John Howard stated on 7 August 2002 :

Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction. It is believed they have the capacity to develop a nuclear strike capacity within the not too distant future .”

And just in case anybody was in any doubt, Howard in his for mal pre-war state ment to the Parlia ment on 4 February 2003 stated:

“The Australian govern ment knows that Iraq still has che mical and biological weapons and that Iraq wants to develop nuclear weapons…Iraq has a useable che mical and biological weapons capability, which has included recent production of che mical and biological agents… Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons – uraniu m has been sought fro m Africa that has no civil nuclear application in Iraq… Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons progra m me…”

It should also be recalled that when the Govern ment was finally forced to sub mit a legal opinion justifying its decision to go to war in March 2003, the single basis that the Govern ment advanced for going to war was the need to eli minate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Iraq Survey Group, co m missioned by the CIA (not the ALP), concluded in September 2004 after nearly 18 months of co mprehensive investigations in Iraq that it:

“…found no evidence of WMD or post-1991 WMD production…”

In other words, the Howard Govern ment’s entire rationale for going to war was based on a lie.

John Howard then sought to deflect responsibility fro m his decision to go to war and place all bla me at the feet of the Australian intelligence co m munity.

This was a particularly despicable act given that Howard’s pronounce ments prior to the Iraq war never incorporated within the m any of the doubts, caveats or concerns which we now know had been raised by various intelligence reports in the lead up to the invasion.

Once again, the authority for this contention does not lie with the ALP. It lies with the findings of a Parlia mentary Inquiry into pre-war intelligence on Iraq which was both chaired by the Liberal Party and do minated by Liberal Party me mbers. As the Jull Committee reported on 1 March 2004:

“the case made by the govern ment was that Iraq possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world, particularly as there was a danger that Iraq’s WMD might be passed to terrorist organisations. This is not the picture that e merges fro m an exa mination of all the assess ments provided to the Co m mittee by Australia’s two analytical agencies”.

In less polite language, the meaning here is that the Govern ment lied to the Australian people on the content of the intelligence material it had in its possession.

Reducing the terrorist threat

A third policy failure on the part of the Howard Government on Iraq was its claim that invading Iraq would reduce the terrorist threat around the world - including the threat to Australia.

Again, Howard’s pre-war claims were explicit. On 10 March 2003 he stated:

… I see disar ming Iraq as being part of the wider war against terrorism because of Iraq’s past and continuing assistance to terrorist organizations.”

And furthermore on 20 March 2003:

“…we believe that so far fro m our action in Iraq increasing the terrorist threat it will, by stopping the spread of che mical and biological weapons, make it less likely that a devastating terrorist attack will be carried out against Australia”.

Once again, the Howard Government lied. John Howard failed to tell the Australian people what he had been told by the British the previous month. In February 2003 the British Joint Intelligence Committee had concluded:

The JIC (that is the Joint Intelligence Committee which is made up of the British intelligence chiefs) assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq. The JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, not necessarily al-Qaida.”

Not only did the Government lie about an invasion of Iraq reducing the overall terrorist threat, the terrorist threat has actually increased as a result of the Iraq invasion - as accurately predicted by British intelligence.

Furthermore, we know from the Jull Committee that John Howard had access to this British intelligence report prior to his two major addresses to the nation justifying the Iraq war on 10 March and 20 March 2003.

It is not only the British intelligence community that reached this conclusion before the war. It has also been the conclusion of US intelligence after the war as well. Our authority once again is again the CIA. Porter Goss, the Director of the CIA, told the Senate Select Co m mittee on Intelligence on 17 February 2005:

"Islamic extre mists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists…"These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism…They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries… The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extre mis m, has beco me a cause for extremists…”

And as for the Government’s specific claims that it would reduce the terrorist threat to Australia, we need go no further than the Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty who made it clear after the al Qaeda attack in Madrid in 2004 that coalition partners of the United States in the invasion of Iraq would be greater terrorist targets as a result.

There can be no greater abrogation of a Prime Minister’s national security responsibilities than to have placed the Australian people at greater risk.

Iraq civil war

A fourth area of policy failure on Iraq has been the failure to bring about stability and security to Iraq more than three years after the invasion.

Not only did the Government claim prior to the war that Iraq would be stabilised, it also argued that Iraq would then be democratised and further, that Iraq would become a model for stable democracy across the wider Middle East.

As Foreign Minister Downer stated triumphantly as recently as 9 November 2005:

Our objective…is perfectly clear: to see the continuation of the de mocratic process and, increasingly, the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to take control of security in their own country. When those jobs have been co mpleted, the transfor mation of Iraq fro m a brutal and cruel dictatorship to a liberal democracy will be great news not just for the people of Iraq but for the Middle East. Through the Middle East there will be an e merging trend towards democracy, and that e merging trend will contribute to greater peace in that very troubled region.”

The problem for Mr Downer (but a much greater problem for the Iraqi people) is that Iraq lurches increasingly towards all out civil war.

And there are deeper structural problems in Iraq such as the allegations of Shi a militia infiltration of the Interior Ministry’s security forces.

This is one of the greatest problems facing Iraq.  Any modern democratic state must have a monopoly over its armed forces. The armed forces/security services of a country must be truly national forces. This is not currently the case in Iraq. 

Shi a militias have been allowed to infiltrate Interior Ministry forces over the past year and appear to have been involved in targeted assassinations of Sunni tribal and religious leaders fuelling the fires of sectarian civil war 

The bombing of the Al Askirya shrine on 22 February this year caused Shia anger to finally boil over into full violent retaliation - dozens of murdered bodies are found daily.

The reality today is that Iraq is perilously close to violent fragmentation and a fully fledged civil war.

It is hoped that some sort of compromise is able to be fashioned across the deep ethnic and sectarian divides which currently characterise the Iraqi National Assembly so that a new Government can be formed. And not just formed but also capable for the first time of providing integrated national leadership in a divided state in order to bring about a sustained accord between Sunni and Shi a militias.

The precise outcome on this score remains to be seen.

But the price that has already been paid by Iraqi civilians and Coalition troops has been significant. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have now been killed as a result of the invasion, the insurgency and the ensuing civil war. The precise estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths vary:

  • Michael O'Hanlon , a military analyst at the Brookings Institution who has closely followed the war's casualties, estimates between 45,000 to 75,000 Iraqis has died as a result of the conflict.
  • In December 2005 President Bush acknowledged that "more or less" 30,000 Iraqi's had died.
  • Appallingly, the Howard Government has constantly refused to provide an number on Iraqi civilian casualties since the invasion, despite its responsibilities as an Occupying Power to protect the Iraqi civilian population from harm.
  • The price also paid by Coalition troops runs into the thousands of American and British war dead – not too mention those who have been incapacitated.

All this constitutes a very high price indeed for the neo-conservative dream of fashioning a functioning Iraqi democracy as a harbinger of the future democratic transformation of the wider Middle East.

Iran Emboldened

A fifth area of policy failure arising from the invasion of Iraq is the resultant emboldening of Iran.

The core and uncomfortable truth is that the current democratic project in Iraq has resulted in a Shia-dominated government based on the Shi a majority in the South of Iraq which traditionally has had a close relationship with the Shi a majority in Iran.

Iran ’s strategic, commercial and religious influence in Southern Iraq has been increasing over the past year.  Commercially Iran has bought a considerable amount of property in the South. Furthermore, the Iranians have a significant religious influence over many southern clerics.

The Iranian intelligence services are also reportedly spread across the southern regions of Iraq. With thousands of Iranian Shia pilgrims travelling into Iraq for religious days and increased commercial links, it is proving difficult to police these movements across Iraq’s southern border regions.

As the leading Shia nation, Iran wields considerable political influence over Shia leaders in Iraq.

It is in Iran’s interests to keep Iraq weak in order to maximize its own strategic and political influence and keep the US on the back foot in the region.

In recent months, US and British leaders have openly expressed their concerns about Iran’s influence in Iraq, particularly in the southern provinces.

US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has said that Iran is “putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq” and that he believed these actions were supported by the central government via the revolutionary guard.

The core and discomforting reality for the US, the UK and Australia is that the decision to invade Iraq has not had the effect of intimidating Iran.

This plainly was the intention which lay behind Iran’s inclusion as a member of the so-called “axis of evil”.

Instead the invasion of Iraq, followed by the thus-far flawed failed occupation of Iraq, has only served to embolden Iran.

  • First, in response to the Iraq experience, Iran appears to have accelerated its nuclear program rather than dismantle it;
  • Second, Iran believes that so long as the United States is militarily pre-occupied in Iraq, the United States may be deterred from striking against Iran, not least because of Iran’s capacity to ferment a major Shia uprising against Coalition forces in Iraq as a calculated retaliatory measure; and
  • Third, a weakened Iraq from Tehran’s perspective enhances Iran’s overall geo-political position in the wider Middle East given that Iran is no longer contained and restrained by a hostile regime on its western border.

Taken together, these factors considerably complicate the great challenge which the western world, including the United States, faces in dealing with the real threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation.

The gross anti-Semitism of the new Iranian regime, combined with its declaratory policy which commits it to the elimination of the state of Israel, underscores those concerns.

As does Iran ’s long-term financial, paramilitary and military backing of terrorist organisations including Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Dealing with the Iranian nuclear challenge is massively complex in its own right.

However dealing with this challenge along with the additional burden of policy failure in Iraq increases the degree of difficulty yet again.

And the fundamental reality is that the Howard Government has actively contributed to that failure because of its continued urging during 2002/03 of the United States to take military action against Iraq.

For this reason, the Howard Government shares the policy responsibility for this overall course of action in Iraq which has now compounded the collective challenge we all now face with an emboldened Iran.

Sapping Australia’s military resources

A further dimension of policy failure on the part of the Howard Government has been the indefinite nature of our military commitment to Iraq.

All Australians should be proud of the professionalism with which the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has performed in Iraq in response to the political direction of the elected government of the day.

The Opposition does not challenge the overall professionalism of the ADF. Our men and women in uniform continue to discharge their duties in an exceptionally difficult and dangerous operating environment.

The core problem however remains that the ADF has never been given a clear-cut mission statement.

And in the absence of such a mission statement, there is no clear-cut way of determining when and whether the mission has been achieved.

The Prime Minister’s response to this has, characteristically, been of a political rather than a policy nature. He simply declares that the ADF shall simply remain in Iraq “until the job is done”. But he has never defined what precisely that job is. As a result, the job continues to roll on and on and on.

At the time of the Iraq war, John Howard promised that the duration of our military commitment would be months, not years. Three years later that promise has proven to be demonstrably untrue.

Furthermore, prior to the last election Howard solemnly promised the Australian people that our military contribution to Iraq would not been increased. Straight after the election he increased that commitment by 500. That promise was untrue as well.

And now the Prime Minister tells us this week that he reserves the right to possibly increase that deployment even further in the future.

The Opposition is concerned about the long-term security of our deployment in Iraq. I have already referred to the increasing security impact of Shia-controlled militia in the unfolding Iraqi civil war - and in particular the Shia-controlled south.

Given increasing levels of Iranian influence in Southern Iraq, through Iran’s intelligence operatives and its own funding of various Shia militias, we are deeply concerned about the medium-term security of Australian troops in what has hitherto been regarded as a relatively safe part of the country.

The bottom line however is that in any all out war between the Sunnis and Shias, aided and abetted by al Qaeda’s strategic determination to wreak maximum havoc nationwide, no parts of the country can properly be regarded as safe.

On the completion of its current deployment in May, it’s time for Australia’s Al Muthanna force to come home.

US military resolve

In 2002, Australia, as a long-standing ally of the United States, actively urged the US to commit to the military invasion and occupation of Iraq.

That is a matter of documentary record.

Australia under the Howard Government was not merely a camp-follower.

Let the record be clear that Australia, under John Howard, actively encouraged the US-led invasion.

A better ally would have urged caution.

Because what we fear as the alternative government of Australia is the long-term impact of the Iraq quagmire on America’s global strategic role.

Opposition to the Iraq war in the United States is now running at 65 per cent as the body bags continue to come home.

There are a number of analogies that could be drawn with Vietnam.

None of them are precise.

But one which disturbs America’s long-standing allies is the long-term impact of foreign policy failure in Iraq on American strategic resolve elsewhere in the world when future core challenges to global and regional security arise.

Many analysts are concerned that stalemate or even defeat in Iraq will undermine American resolve in the post-Iraq world.

How specifically this impacts on American responses to Iran remains to be seen.

But allies of the United States, particularly long-standing allies like Australia, who admire, respect and in the main support the global contribution of the United States to the global strategic order over the past 60 years, are concerned about where the Iraq imbroglio may lead us.

Australia has no interest whatsoever in any weakening of America’s international prestige and strategic resolve as a consequence of Iraq as we confront the profound challenges for this East Asian hemisphere in the 21 st century.

The Unmaking of Australian National Security Policy

Given the comprehensive nature of the policy failures flowing from the Howard Government’s decision to commit to the invasion of Iraq, the basic question arises as how Australia could have got itself involved in this mess in the first place.

What sort of national security decision-making process could have produced such a decision?

Did this decision-making process properly evaluate each of the seven policy implications that I have outlined tonight?

None of them involves any level of rocket science.

How on earth could the Government have been credibly advised by the national security policy establishment in Canberra to embark upon this war in the first place?

  • What attention was paid to the integrity of the UN sanctions regime against Iraq? What analysis was made of whether sanctions were actually working? What analysis was made of Hans Blix’s request for more time for UN weapons inspectors to fulfil their tasks?
  • What Government systems were put in place by Government Ministers to ensure that Australia was honouring its own sanctions obligations? Or were Government Ministers simply content with chanting the mantra that UN sanctions were being violated without ever analysing the substance as to who was doing the violating? Surely any credible national security establishment would have asked themselves these questions.
  • What policy analysis was made of the likely impact on Australia as a terrorist target were we to commit to being one of the few members of the Coalition of the Willing in the invasion of Iraq? Or was our national security policy establishment so negligent never to have asked itself this question?
  • Did our national security policy establishment probe the Americans about their post-war planning for Iraq? Or was all that simply taken on trust? If so, that trust was grossly misplaced.
  • What analysis was made of the dynamics of the Sunni-Shia split within Iraq in terms of the post-war governability of the country under any form of democratic compact?
  • What analysis was made of the impact of Saddam Hussein’s fall on the future behaviour of the Iranian regime? By 2003, Iran’s nuclear program was relatively well-documented. What analysis was made once Iran had been named in the “axis of evil” as to whether Iraq would accelerate its nuclear program or abandon it in response to the invasion of Iraq? Or was that too simply left to the sweet bye and bye?
  • Did anyone in the national security policy establishment ever ask themselves what Australia’s international legal obligations would be as an Occupying Power for the proper protection of POWs and the proper protection of the civilian population? And within that, what analysis was given to the length of Australia’s commitment against the likelihood that the US would argue post-war that Australia should remain – as in fact it has.
  • And finally, was any assessment prepared as to how our invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq would impact on our other foreign policy and national security policy priorities within our immediate region – not to mention our standing within the United Nations?

If a country is going to go to war, these are precisely the questions with the national security policy establishment in Canberra should have systematically analysed, made recommendations on, and resolved.

But it appears that virtually none of this actually occurred.

To the extent that if any of it did, it tended to have occurred after the event – not before. That’s frankly all too late.

One window into all of this is the Flood Report into Australia’s intelligence agencies prior to the Iraq war. While narrow in scope and with limited terms of reference, Flood posed the legitimate question as to why the Office of National Assessments failed to prepare a formal National Assessment on the national security implications for Australia if we were to go to war.

Of course ONA is not a policy agency. But part of its job is to analyse the impact of major events on Australia’s interests. And one would have thought that taking Australia to war was a fairly major event.

Other agencies such as PM & C, DFAT and the Department of Defence are by definition policy agencies.

Were these agencies (most particularly DFAT) commissioned by Ministers to provide integrated policy advice on whether or not Australia should go to war? DFAT had a unique responsibility to provide advice on a matter such as this given that its mandate is to manage the totality of this nation’s global and regional interests – both strategic and economic.

Once again, like ONA on the intelligence assessment front, DFAT was not asked to do its job.

The core reason why our national security and foreign policy establishment was not asked to do its job was because John Howard had taken a political decision early in 2002 to commit to the invasion of Iraq in the company of the United States come hell or high water.

It is difficult to know when John Howard made this decision and made this private commitment to the Bush Administration.

But it was a decision which had plainly been taken by mid-2002 because by that time Australian military staff had been committed to CENT-COM in Florida to participate in the detailed planning of the invasion.

From that time on, any broader cost /benefit analysis of the foreign policy or national security policy implications of going to war in Iraq would have been entirely academic. John Winston Howard had already made up his mind. The commitment to the Americans had already been given. The rest was political stage management.

Once John Howard had made his private commitment to the Americans, the question posed to the Australian national security and foreign policy bureaucracy was not whether we should go to war but simply how we should do it.

The thousands of staff we engage for the purposes of being the custodians of this country’s long-term security policy interests were never engaged on the strategic question of whether or not to go to war. They were simply engaged post-facto on the tactical question of how many units we could get away with sending and where they would be sent.

In this respect, the decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq represents a deeply disturbing case study of a Government not engaged with the long-term national interests of the country. But instead, a Government engaged with short-term political management of a decision taken for other reasons.


This process of national security policy decision-making demands fundamental review in light of the Iraq experience.

This matter of review becomes doubly urgent given that we are about to face the complex challenge of Iran – perhaps sooner than many of us think.

We cannot afford to see the same flawed decision-making processes applied to Iran as they have been to Iraq.

For any future foreign policy and national security policy crisis, the Parliament should mandate the Office of National Assessments to produce a formal National Assessment of the implications of a particular course of action for Australia.

Similarly it should be mandatory for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide formal policy advice to Government on the merits or otherwise of any decision to commit Australian troops to the field in whichever theatre – advice which should cover the totality of Australia’s foreign policy interests globally and within the region.

Furthermore, if military action is to be contemplated by Australia in the future under any circumstances, the Government should consider making these assessments available to the Leader of the Opposition.

If a review of these structural and institutional questions has not been undertaken already after the Iraq experience, it should be done now. Australia cannot afford to be dragged into any future wars simply on the basis of a nod and a wink from an all-powerful Prime Minister, a subservient Cabinet and an increasingly compliant bureaucracy.

Australia ’s long term national security interests deserve better than that.

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