GREG WOOD. “Only a fool…” Australia, Iraq, and other such wars.

Jul 25, 2016


The Chilcot report in the UK has renewed calls for an examination of Australia’s intelligence system in the lead up to the Iraq war. Far less subject to scrutiny, but arguably more important still than the accuracy of the intelligence, was the nature of the advice provided to the Howard government by policy departments on the implications and long term consequences of military action. Even if weapons of mass destruction had been there, it’s not an ipso facto case justifying invasion. However, without question, Iraq was in Paul Kelly’s word, “a leadership driven war”. It’s the statements, judgements and actions of Australia’s leaders, and those of the other countries who chose to be in (or out) of the “coalition of the willing”, that warrant serious analysis, even now.

One hopes that when the archives are eventually opened there will be examples of frank and fearless advice from key departments, specifically Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. The available evidence suggests not. Both Kelly in his 2006 Lowy Institute paper on Howard’s foreign policy, and recently Brian Toohey writing in the Australian Financial Review, maintain that senior officials within departments saw their role as being to “assist the government to achieve its strategic aims”. Such advice as was provided seems to have been directed to operational detail and practicalities, not to argue the toss, the pros and cons of going to war. This echoes the lead up to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.

Why? For those tracing the formative stages of Australia’s Iraq involvement one particular moment lives in the mind, or should do. On 11 July 2002, as Washington was debating possible military action, Alexander Downer, Australia’s Foreign Minister of six years standing, stood on the steps of the US State Department in Washington alongside US Secretary of State, Colin Powell for a press conference. At that briefing, Downer asserted (my recollection of the wording) that “only a fool would appease … Saddam Hussein”. He used a similar slightly more elaborate formulation in an ABC interview the next day. “Only a fool would support a policy of appeasement and just hope that by saying nothing more or doing nothing about Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the whole problem will go away.” While Prime Minister Howard’s formulations were more circumspect his approach pointed in the same direction, most significantly by invoking the ANZUS treaty in the aftermath of 9/11, the only time this has ever happened.

The Downer comment clearly indicated that Australia was actively advocating, not simply supporting, military action against Iraq. Colin Powell’s State Department excluded Downer’s words from their summary transcript of that July 2002 briefing. One can only speculate as to why. Powell may just have taken the comment personally. Though most identified with his UN presentation on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Powell was cautioning President Bush on the costs and consequences of military intervention. A month later, in August 2002, he reputedly counselled Bush “if you invade it (Iraq) you will own it.” In other words it will be easy enough to defeat Iraq militarily but consider the responsibility and complications thereafter. Downer’s words may well have been an embarrassment to Powell. Certainly they suggest that Downer did not detect that there were differences within the US Administration and that Powell did not necessarily see eye to eye with the “neocons” Vice President Cheney, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld or even Powell’s then deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. Alternatively, Powell may have felt the comment was too callow and flippant when one was analysing such a profound issue as war.

Downer’s comment reverberates for other reasons. Clearly it sent a message back to his own Department, and the Canberra bureaucracy more generally, as to how anyone proffering contrary advice and analysis would be regarded. Anyone doing so would be tarred. The choice of language is also significant harking back to the 1930s. Those not “appeasing” wore the mantle of Churchill, Downer and John Winston Howard presumably.

I am forced to rely on recollection because significantly, some years later, Downer’s “only a fool” words were deleted from his own website transcript of that briefing. The comments can be picked up via Google and in articles and editorials in the Australian press in following days after 11 July. They certainly came across loud and clear in the ABC’s filming of the encounter, which may still be on record. But as one of Downer’s staff acknowledged at the time, it “wasn’t Alexander’s finest moment”.  Also, I have to put it in terms of “my recollection” because all transcripts of Downer’s press conferences are now publicly inaccessible. While the archives of other Australian Foreign Ministers provide all their media releases, speeches and transcripts, Mr Downer deleted the totality of the latter, ie his transcripts, from the enduring public record.

This raises further issues. It’s not just the intelligence or policy advice that should be subject to scrutiny. More important still is to retain an authoritative historical record of all ministerial statements bearing on government decision making generally. Hansard goes some way. But with so many decisions and statements being provided in tweets, photo-ops, doorstops, media interviews and press conferences, and with the one time practice of regular ministerial statements of policy to parliament now largely discarded, some vehicle that allows for an authoritative, comprehensive, enduring, publicly available, record well beyond Hansard alone, needs to be established. And it has to be sufficiently robust to withstand attempts at correction, erasure, and out and out falsification.

One other issue. Successive governments rightly emphasise that decisions that put at risk the lives of Australian servicemen and women are the most serious they take. Iraq was a classic example. My own view is that while that decision should remain with the Executive branch not the Parliament it should be subject to early public scrutiny as a means of accountability of all involved. Governments should commit to the early release under an FOI process of all analysis and advice before Cabinet when it takes a decision to deploy troops abroad. You are putting lives at risk. The FOI legislation should be amended to provide for that. Because of the seriousness of the issue, that information release should occur promptly, say two years after the initial date of deployment.

To ensure both full and considered release it would be necessary to put in place a vetting mechanism, one purpose of which would be to ensure that the sources of genuinely sensitive intelligence information were not compromised, another to ensure and certify that all relevant documents, bearing on Cabinet’s decision, were being made public. A credible independent expert could be formally charged with that role in the legislation.

The mechanism is designed to ensure, first and foremost, that the pressure is on the government’s senior advisers, not only to think through the full implications of any military involvement, but to ensure the government of the day is fully informed and advised. It would improve both the quality of advice, and the public’s trust in government decision making.

The implications of Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war are indeed worth revisiting, but on a far far wider plain than “intelligence” alone.

Greg Wood was formerly Deputy Secretary in Prime Minister & Cabinet, and High Commissioner in Canada. He also headed the Americas and Europe Division in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has had a long involvement in international trade policy and trade negotiations.


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