Don’t ask about the war

Jan 10, 2017

John Howard contributed to world events that are still affecting us: invasion, illegality, sycophancy to our allies, refugees, and even Brexit and Trump. Why do Australians not hold him accountable?  

With the passing of time, conservative leaders of the past tend to be elevated to secular sainthood. John Howard is currently being canonised alongside Menzies, Reagan, and Churchill. All did some good things, some more and some better than others.

Churchill got the United States into WWII in time to save Britain. Reagan kept the US out of nuclear war with the USSR. Menzies joined the UK and France in the folly of Suez in 1956, but in the same year refused Eisenhower’s request to go to war over two offshore Chinese islands. He offered the US Australian participation in the Vietnam war in 1964 however, and contrived a letter of invitation from South Vietnam to legitimise it – written by an Australian diplomat for the President in Saigon to sign. (Garry Woodard, Asian Alternatives: Going to War in the 1960s).

Howard managed the East Timor intervention without American boots on the ground. But he was eager for Australia to join George W. Bush’s coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which as he must have known had been contemplated even before the attacks on 11 September 2016 (James O’Neill, Pearls and Irritations 5 January 2017). Immediately after 9/11, Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer unilaterally extended the scope of the ANZUS Treaty to apply to the ‘war on terror’ anywhere.

The main difference between Howard and the other three sainted conservative leaders is that they are dead while he is still very much alive and able to comment on current developments. Like Paul Keating, he doesn’t pronounce too often, and both are listened to when they do. Keating in November 2016 urged the government to put some distance between Australia and the US alliance.

Howard on the other hand seeks no such change, and has refused to apologise ‘one iota’ for his decision to invade Iraq (Lowy Institute, 9 April 2014) which he has repeatedly said was the right thing to do. His actions and opinions have lasting consequences for Australia, in at least three ways: legal, political, and strategic.

Disdain for international law has caught on in Australia, as part of our Americanisation. Exceptionalism has convinced successive US administrations that they are above the laws they urge other governments to respect, and threaten them if they don’t. Many people in Middle America believed the United Nations under Kofi Annan was plotting to overthrow the US, and still do.

Bush appointed as Ambassador to the UN a diehard critic of the organisation, John Bolton, who set about undermining reform measures that had been painstakingly negotiated over several years. The result was an upsurge of foreign disaffection for the US and its friends.

US presidents including Obama have asserted that America is ‘indispensable’ and ’exceptional’, and have refused to join the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. The US only selectively observes the Geneva Conventions, and has not signed other such significant instruments as the Conventions on the Law of the Sea, Torture and on the Rights of the Child.

The invasion of Iraq was not called for by the UN Security Council (UNSC), and was not in defence of the coalition countries: it was therefore illegal. But many Australians have been led by Howard to think that US law is superior, and that it was a not illegal to bypass the Governor-General and the Parliament and invade Iraq.

Political repercussions from Howard’s war (Broinowski 2003) continue to this day. The opposition under Simon Crean spoke in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq, but there was no vote. Labor prime ministers Rudd and Gillard would not withdraw Australian troops until the US did.

Under Shorten, Opposition foreign policy has become neurotically bipartisan, with only a sliver of ineffectual reservations inserted between Labor and the Government. This enabled Abbott in 2014 and 2015 to put SAS and army ‘trainers’ back into Iraq, without making clear at whose invitation or with what legal status they were there.

Equally, Turnbull was able in 2016 to extend RAAF bombing operations into Syria without political challenge. Australia’s moves were supported by no resolution of the UN Security Council, and of course had no invitation from Damascus.

Our politicians tell us little about why our forces are there or what they are doing. Both Australia and Islamic State (IS) appear to oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, yet Australia and the Iraqi Government are fighting IS in Iraq. A coherent explanation from the Defence Minister about who our enemies are would be worth having.

But Labor does not press for it, nor for a Chilcot-style inquiry into the origins of the continuing disaster that we have helped to create in the very countries from which desperate people flee as refugees. Australian politics has rarely been so bereft of principle, courage, and conviction. Now it seems, anything with ‘national security’ on its masthead is cashed-up and unchallengeable.

Strategically Australia’s cupboard is bare. In spite of successive Defence White Papers, we have no coherent threat perception, unless it is amorphous global terrorism, or the rise to number 1 of China. Since it is impossible to plan for defence against such undefined threats, resort to diplomacy, trade, and good international citizenship seems preferable and less expensive. Yet the drafters of the forthcoming Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper (which is intended to provide philosophical guidance for the coming decade) will have to undergo lobotomies to do any such thing.

When Australia desperately needs a change of thinking to re-align our interests with our strategies and our expertise with our region, people whose entire careers have been invested in the US alliance are unlikely to reverse themselves, even in response to Trump. They know that to imagine deviating from the course that Howard laid out for Australia in 2001 would even now be career suicide.

As Australia sits on its hands in some park bench of the past while the world changes around us, two hypotheticals arise on which Howard’s guidance would be helpful. First, in April 2014 he told the Lowy Institute that the next country to be invaded was likely to be Iran. Will Australia be eager to do that too? Why? And second, this month Benjamin Netanyahu said New Zealand’s vote in favour of Palestinian statehood in the Security Council was an ‘act of war’. Would an attack by Israel on New Zealand evoke a response under the ANZUS Treaty, and if so, whose side would we be on?

Dr Alison Broinowski, FAIIA, Vice-President, Australians for War Powers Reform, Vice-President, Honest History

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