Australia’s moment of choice: illegal war on show in 2003 Cabinet papers

Mar 20, 2024
CHINA vs US conflict war background concept, Flags of USA or United States of America or USA and China on old cracked concrete with world map background

What has changed since 2003? Nothing, except for the worse. Australian governments continue to accept the US enemies as their own, and shoot whoever the sheriff says.

All but two of the missing Iraq War Cabinet papers have now been released to the long-suffering public. But those of us who remember the Howard government’s secretive, year-long slither towards the Iraq invasion know the lies Australians were told in 2002 and 2003. We weren’t waiting for the National Archives to reveal them.

Some surprises may lurk in the two documents still suppressed for ‘national security’ reasons, and in papers from 2001 and 2002 that have yet to appear. What’s most important is unlikely to be revealed, however, because Howard preferred no paper trail, and didn’t want Cabinet submissions to leave one.

Howard’s conversations with President George W Bush are not recorded. Senior Defence people didn’t tell him the case for war against Saddam Hussein wouldn’t stand up, because he didn’t ask them. Relatively junior DFAT and AG’s officials told him it did, deliberately misreading UN Security Council Resolutions to support their claim that Iraq was in ‘material breach’. ONA suddenly changed from telling the PM no intelligence showed that Iraq had WMD, to providing him with media reports that it did.

Citizens everywhere protested against the illegal invasion and were ignored. The result for Australia in 2003 was a cheap defeat in Iraq, with only four ADF deaths, followed by decades of terrorist attacks, repressive laws, invigilation and securitisation in Australia. Howard after 11 September 2001 committed Australia to the endless ‘war on terror’, with continuing ADF deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and devastation in all three countries.

Graeme Dobell departs in his 15 March article from ASPI’s usual line, to show what Howard’s priorities were. Masterful blunder: John Howard’s Iraq war-of-choice | The Strategist ( Howard mentioned Australia’s decision to join the war on terror first, and the alliance with the US second. But the latter, Dobell makes clear, was what had priority in Howard’s foreign and defence decisions, as it has with all our governments since.

What has changed since 2003? Nothing, except for the worse. Australian governments continue to accept the US enemies as their own, and shoot whoever the sheriff says. Since about 2014, Australia has become increasingly suspicious and hostile towards China and Russia. After the Defence Strategic Review of that year, Australia quietly handed over significant tranches of sovereignty over Australian territory, placing it under American control for American purposes, and enabling the US ‘unimpeded access’ for its troops, aircraft, ships, and weapons.

Australia’s anti-China garrison in the Northern Territory expanded in the face of local protestors (who were ignored, or prosecuted). In 2022 Anthony Albanese unhesitatingly signed on to his predecessor’s unworkable AUKUS deal. Australia surrendered more sovereignty over the entry and deployment of US bombers, possibly armed with nuclear weapons. In 2023 Penny Wong adopted the Japanese formula, that Australia wouldn’t ask and wouldn’t be told what bombs the US had onboard, or what it might do with them.

China, whose largesse had been gratefully accepted just a few years earlier by Australian universities and businesses, were transformed into targets of hostility and suspicion. China was accused of allowing COVID to spread. Trade embargoes followed. Incidents, provoked or not, multiplied over our shared maritime trade routes. Laws against ‘agents of foreign influence’ targeted Chinese and their Australian associates. We are now told by ASIO that they include an un-named politician (who remains at large).

As always, this creeping change in Australian foreign and defence policy was inspired from the US, through the Five Eyes and our multiple consultative groups, while long-nurtured official and unofficial contacts with China withered and died. Trust is about more than wine and barley: it has been betrayed and will take years of effort on both sides to fully restore. Our Foreign Minister’s meeting with her Chinese counterpart will help, and lower the drawbridge for Albanese and Xi.

The greatest danger facing Australia is not from China but from the US under a new president who, wanting to appear strong, may provoke an attack over Taiwan or the South China Sea. To avoid involvement in yet another war, the US could press Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia into joining a coalition. When that fails, as it undoubtedly will, the US can retreat across the Pacific, leaving its allies, as in Ukraine, to cope with the consequences.

Whoever is president is likely to want two things: unimpeded capacity to send US forces to war at will, and, restoration of the US to the hegemonic ‘greatness’ it once imagined it had. President Biden’s war in Yemen has now outlived the 60-day limit required for Congressional approval. Repeated efforts to strengthen the 1973 War Powers Resolution have failed in Congress. Propelling successive presidents towards more wars is the gargantuan military industry, backed by the gun lobby and their supporters in the mainstream media.

Much the same is true in Australia. As the international weapons companies buy up big, and penetrate our schools and universities, their expensive ways to kill the enemies of the US have precedence over health, social services, and the preservation of our environment. Former Australian politicians take well-paid jobs with them, ensuring that Canberra stays attached to the killing machine.
Now is Australia’s key moment, before it’s too late. If the government doesn’t want to be charged with war crimes and complicity in genocide, let alone to fight another war, it should have four immediate priorities:

  • Advise the US and UK that AUKUS is unachievable and cancel it.
  • Advise the US that Australia will not join a coalition for an illegal war against China.
  • Make an Australian submission, together with Canada and New Zealand if possible, to the International Court of Justice dissociating us from genocide in Gaza.
  • Begin consulting with civil society groups and our ASEAN neighbours about neutrality, armed or unarmed, for Australia.

After all, we’ve restored our aid to UNWRA. From now, more daring un-Americanism is possible.

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