The Report of the Chilcot Enquiry into the UK’s entry to the Iraq War in 2003 is deeply disturbing. It documents a litany of catastrophic intelligence failures and ill-informed and unsubtle decision-making by Tony Blair and his senior advisors and Ministers. Apart from exposing the appallingly weak grounds for entering the war in the first place, it is appropriately critical of the lack of any proper planning for the post-Saddam era, including the fact that British soldiers were inadequately equipped for the conditions in which they had to fight – resulting in what were probably many avoidable deaths. Chilcot and his four colleagues have challenged the political-military establishment in Britain as arguably it has never been challenged before. It is unlikely that future British governments will enter conflicts with such school-boyish enthusiasm and political stupidity ever again. That, at least, is one most welcome outcome from the Enquiry.
What we now need to focus on in this country is what Chilcot means for the way Australia was led into the Iraq War, and what it means for the way in which we have aligned ourselves so cravenly with American war aims ever since 1942. It was in that year that Australian governments began switching from dependency on Britain for its security to dependency on the USA. Since then we have been eager participants in all the conflicts that the United States has initiated – Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Iraq#2 and Syria. And for what result?
As Prime Minister in 2003, John Howard was the principal advocate for sending Australian troops into Iraq. His mateship with George W. Bush was on lurid display as he assured the American President of Australia’s readiness and willingness to expend Australian blood and materiel in support of the US and the UK in the Iraq conflict. Sycophancy to the United States over-rode his judgement of what was really in Australia’s national interest. He insisted, in the Australian parliament and other public arenas, that intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction, and that he was in criminal cahoots with Osama bin Laden and al Qaida, were entirely believable. This was despite reliable advice from internationally renowned experts to the contrary. (As Chilcot confirms, that advice – rudely dismissed at the time by Howard and his Billy Bunter Foreign Minister Alexander Downer – was entirely correct.)
Three immediate conclusions emerge from the political miasma about the Iraq War that the Chilcot Enquiry has begun to disperse.
First, a similar enquiry is now absolutely necessary in this country, to thoroughly interrogate the rationale provided by Howard and Downer for so enthusiastically sending Australia troops off to Iraq. Why were they so gung-ho about it all? What was the nature of the relationships between our prime minister and the American president at that time? The public needs to see all the communications relating to Iraq between Howard and Bush, and between bureaucrats, intelligence analysts, and military strategists in Canberra and Washington relating to the commitment of Australian soldiers to that horrifically mis-managed conflict. In particular, the enquiry has to investigate whether anything illegal has been done in the course of the decision-making. Howard and Downer should be called before the enquiry to explain themselves publicly. They need to be questioned comprehensively, particularly in light of any advice they were offered that was contrary to their belief that committing Australia to the American cause was justified.
Second, a debate now has to be set in train about how Australia goes to war. Do we continue to permit a prime minister to commit this country to any war that he or she thinks justifiable, on whatever specious grounds that may be articulated by them in public? Or should we demand that – like in the British parliament – parliamentary approval has to be sought if our troops are going to be sent off to any conflict anywhere. No prime minister should ever be accorded the right to make this kind of momentous decision on his own or with the support of a small coterie of his senior colleagues. In light of the Chilcot Report it should now be obvious that in a robust democracy such as we claim to be in this country, a properly conducted parliamentary process should be the sine qua non for seeking approval for sending our troops to war – any war.
Third, in light of the utter debacle that has been the conduct of the Iraq War – with all its horrendous consequences – it is plain that Australia has to rethink its alliance with the United States. Of course many Australians will feel deeply uneasy about querying ANZUS in any shape or form. The alliance has become an article of faith in the dependent middle power culture that Australia has confected for itself since the end of World War II. But the fact remains that the alliance has led Australia into too many conflicts, most of which have failed to achieve any of the goals they were meant to achieve. The alliance is now more of a millstone around the country’s security arrangements than it is as a guarantee of Australia’s national interest.
Chilcot raises some deeply worrying questions about the conduct of the Iraq War – questions for which Australia’s leaders, past and present, must also provide transparent answers.
Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the Asia Institute,
University of Melbourne.