History damns John Howard on Iraq war

Jan 17, 2024
Army camouflage uniform with flag on it, Australia.

Missing cabinet documents relating to the 2003 Iraq war are unlikely to reveal the impulses that drove John Howard to a disastrous foreign policy decision.

Sometime around mid-2003, a colleague of then-secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ashton Calvert, asked after the cabinet submission authorising Australia’s commitment of military forces to Iraq.

As senior diplomats recall, Calvert fumed. “What do you think we are running here? A f—ing debating society? There is no cabinet submission.”

The Australian people can stop looking for any reasoned explanation of why Australia went to war in Iraq. As recently revealed, that the relevant National Security Committee documents relating to the March 2003 decision to take Australia to war are missing from this year’s release of cabinet documents is deeply troubling.

More disturbing is that even when those materials become public, it is unlikely they will reveal definitively why the Howard government went to war.

Fewer foreign policy decisions have been so disastrous. Howard’s call took Australia on President George W. Bush’s reckless military adventure.

That adventure was cataclysmic for Iraq and sowed the path for Iran’s mischief in the Middle East. The vast financial cost to the US was a factor in the 2008 global financial crisis. It harmed America’s standing in the eyes of the region and the world, and the civil war in Iraq led to the rise of ISIS and further destabilisation in the Middle East.

Even though US Secretary of State Colin Powell was opposed to the war, Howard and others in his Cabinet gave him no support or used their influence to advise caution to the US and warn of the risks it was courting.

Calvert before his lamentably early death was not inclined to recognise the mistake.

Nor did ministers – or Howard – ask the bureaucracy fundamental questions about the country being invaded; about its history and culture, its ethnic and religious divisions. Whether the political soil there was fertile for western-style democracy.

As former Defence Department head Ric Smith said, “the message from ministers by [November 2002] was that they did not want strategic advice from the Defence Department. This reflected a conviction that ministers knew the issues and would take the decisions for war”.

Howard had made his mind up well before parroting Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair on Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons of mass destruction. In his autobiography, Howard remarks he had been told by Australian ambassador to the US, Michael Thawley, within hours of the 9/11 attacks that “Iraq would be back on the agenda for the Americans”.

The eerie echoes with how Howard’s political hero Robert Menzies decided to take Australia into war in Vietnam are considered by former diplomat Garry Woodard. In an oral history for the Lyndon Johnson presidential library in 1969, Menzies admitted that “it did not take five minutes to decide that when it came to the point of action we would be in it”. Says Woodard, “the decision in principle to commit troops was made early and quickly”.

As in Vietnam, so in Iraq there was no substantial Western liberal tradition on which to build, and even if there was, it would have become tainted by association with the foreign occupiers. By staying on in Iraq, even after it had exited from the early stages of the war with no casualties, and with Bush’s gratitude, Australia remained responsible for the consequent bloodbath. It became caught up in the maelstrom, in an internal conflict in Iraq it could not control and in which Australia became a further destructive agent.

Unlike in Britain, Australia has had no inquiry into the decision-making that led it into the Iraq war. Surely, now the time for accountability for John Howard has come.

By committing itself to that war, the Howard government became part of a desperate search for a whiteboard solution to an intractable problem. The whole episode showed that neither overwhelming military power nor massive economic inducements could bring a solution to the Iraq question. Indeed, there was no way the US or their allies could control or even significantly influence the outcome, and this was evident from the beginning. That this was not perceived or understood by the great majority of those who supported the war is indefensible. Even now, Howard appears to eschew self-reflection on the matter.

Just under two months after the beginning of the invasion, Howard was given the absurd sobriquet “man of steel” by president George W. Bush. He claimed that he and Bush were “good mates”. But what did Australia truly gain from the war?

As the late foreign policy intellectual Owen Harries remarked in 2006, Howard thought he would emerge from the conflict with an enhanced standing in the eyes of Washington. But, Harries added, “a reputation for being dumb and loyal is not one to be actively sought”.

Time’s passage lends even greater weight to Harries’ verdict. Iraq underlined the limits of US capacity and strengthened considerably the inclination among other powers to resist it. It diminished America’s capability to shape a world to its own, and its allies’, advantage.

It is not to be forgotten that prime minister Harold Holt, too, went “all the way” with an American president in an American war. But shortly thereafter, while the war was being lost, both Holt and LBJ met unhappy ends. Johnson had to give up his ambitions to stand again and retired in great humiliation. Holt disappeared while swimming off Cheviot Beach, never to be seen again.

John Howard, thankfully, has escaped Holt’s watery fate. But he cannot hold back the tide of history’s judgment on his decision to go to war.


Republished from the Australian Financial Review January 7, 2024 with permission.

John Howard’s later response to James Curran can be viewed at the AFR here (paywall):


For more on this topic, Pearls & Irritations recommends:

Who is the war criminal?

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