No split decision on Iraq war
2 Apr 2013|

At the risk of testing the patience of Strategist readers I think a brief reply is in order to Derek Woolner’s post on the Iraq war anniversary. A point of contention between Derek’s post, Graeme Dobell’s offerings (here and here) and my reply has been about the role of the public service and the claim that key advisers were ‘silent’ in making the case against against the war. This seems to imply that there was a deep wellspring of opposition to the war in the public service and therefore a failure on the part of officials not to bring their opposition to the government’s attention.

The reality of the situation is actually well captured by The Australian’s Paul Kelly in the article cited by Derek. A few lines after Ashton Calvert’s comments quoted by Derek we read:

Calvert, who died in 2007, and [then Defence Secretary Ric] Smith made clear the current generation [of officials] had not opposed the war. Calvert said: “I personally was satisfied with their (Howard and Downer) strategic judgment on Australia’s commitment.

Mr Smith said: “I think the key officials involved felt an Australian commitment was right. I was not aware of any senior official advising against it in my time. We accepted the advice on WMD and understood the alliance’s interests that were involved, although there was continuing concern about the state of planning for ‘phase four’ (after Saddam Hussein’s fall).

There you have it. For good or ill—and reasonable people can argue which—the senior bureaucracy largely shared the government’s strategic judgements about Iraq in February and March 2003.

I am still left puzzled by what Graeme and Derek think the public service should have done if (contrary to the reality) there really was a strong official-level opposition to deploy forces. Public servants can resign if they find themselves unable to tolerate government policy, but in our political system fighting rear-guard actions against government decisions is neither professional nor acceptable.

Derek’s post then takes an unexpected turn, criticising the later deployment of ADF forces to al Muthunna for not finding ways to get into the combat action. I can well understand the enthusiasm of young officers to be involved in operations—that’s why many people join the ADF—but it would be the height of irresponsibility for government’s simply to look for ways to blood soldiers. I wouldn’t call avoiding unnecessary combat ‘institutional cowardice.’ It’s very much to the Army’s and Defence’s credit that they conducted that operation without any Australians killed in action. Our forces did an important job providing overwatch in a province that was far from safe and at the same time helped build a stronger relationship with Japan’s Self-Defense Force by protecting their deployment. I call that a job well done.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.