Tony Blair is the most flamboyant and contentious of the trio who took the coalition of the willing into war in Iraq.
Attention focuses on what the Chilcot enquiry has concluded about his role, and equally importantly on what are the lessons, which it promised from the outset it would draw.
The British enquiry naturally wished to protect the confidences of Blair’s co-conspirators, who have managed, unlike Blair, to preserve an image of dignified statesmanship and confident resignation that they did, properly, what had to be done.
Such a monumental British enquiry nevertheless has to open up new insights into George Bush and John Howard, even if it has already been possible, as I found in 2006, to burrow deeply into their roles on the basis of British sources, including memoirs and biographies of Blair, and British leaks, notably ‘the Downing Street memos’.
Blair’s and Howard’s relations with Bush are well exposed, a sort of competitive ‘hugging him close’, as advised by Bill Clinton to his friend Tony (John was not a friend). But what was Howard’s relationship with Blair, with whom he seemed to have little in common personally, or ideologically, except for the war?
I have described Howard on the evidence as a signed up member of the war party from the start, in the cauldron of Washington on 9/11 and in the heady air of Air Force Two flying out of Washington. He wanted to show solidarity with Bush and with his country, then seen as an unassailable megapower going from strength to strength economically in the age of globalisation and militarily because of the revolution in military affairs (RMA).
Blair was more complex. He had a moralistic passion about humanitarian intervention, the doctrine which he had first articulated to great applause in Chicago in 1999, and a deep long held aversion to Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, whom he had long seen as a desirable target of such intervention.
However, in Whitehall reality intruded over whether such intervention had now to be in accordance with the United Nations Charter. This had been avoided in the intervention in Kosovo which had a profound effect on Blair’s self-confidence (and was followed quickly by United Nations intervention in East Timor which gave a similarly profound boost to John Howard).
Therefore the path to war was not smooth and straightforward for Blair, confined by Westminster principles, the caution of colleagues and bureaucrats, and the force of public opinion aroused by investigative press.
So the first question about Howard for which we look for enlightenment in the Chilcot papers is whether Blair sought a partnership with him to influence Bush. The timing is April 2002.
Blair’s three conditions, which quickly slipped to aspirations when he talked to Bush at his ranch at Crawford in April 2002, for joining the US to topple Saddam Hussein were that there should be an attempt to build a coalition, that the Israel-Palestine dispute should be quiescent and that the United Nations Security Council should give approval to use force.
Blair tried the first when the old Commonwealth Prime Ministers came to London for the Queen Mother’s funeral later in April. However, only Howard signed up, Canada and New Zealand refused.
Was Howard prepared to join in putting pressure in regard to Israel? Or did Blair decided there was no point in asking? What Chilcot says about this should indicate the degree of intimacy between Blair and Howard.
Howard did come round to support Blair in September in seeking Security Council authority, but it seems likely that he judged he could dare to do this favour for Blair because Bush was in two minds. It would seem to have been Howard’s first act which set him apart from his good friend Dick Cheney and the neocons. But subsequent events showed that was a tactical decision, not rooted in the principle of requiring United Nations authority.
Australia has already been revealed in leaked British documents as committed in July not only to war but to a joint tactical approach in which the intelligence would be shaped around the policy. The head of the Office of National Assessments, Kim Jones, had been the sole official accompanying the Prime Minister when he went to Washington in June. All three countries had committed themselves by the end of July to the same approach of issuing dodgy intelligence dossiers about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The Chilcot papers will provide an unprecedented treasure trove of documents over which researchers will pore for years. They are likely to show that Australian diplomats were the best informed in both London and Washington. Presumably the perspectives provided from London included the warnings within Whitehall noted by Chilcot.
The attention of the historians will then move to the performance of individual ministers and their advisors, just as it has in regard to Vietnam, but with the knowledge that in Vietnam key advisors sought to contest the politicians’ rush to war, but were ignored, whereas public servants were mute on whether to go to war in Iraq.
A serious country would do what Britain has done, hold an enquiry and draw lessons from Chilcot now, notably that decisions on going to war should no longer be made by one man, that there must be collective Ministerial discussion, bringing in officials, which encourages frank and informed debate and challenge, and that the alliance with the United States does not require unconditional support and can bear honest disagreements.
In terms of national interest, the best time for Australia to stake out an independent position in Washington in regard to the China Sea, North and South, is almost certainly now.
Garry Woodard, former diplomat and Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne.