On the eve of Iraq
3 Apr 2013|

9/11The recent exchange between Graeme Dobell and Peter Jennings over Australia’s commitment to Iraq highlighted the critical roles to be played by Parliament and the Public Service when war is being considered. I have but a small postscript to add. I believe that the onus to provide frank and fearless advice extends to everyone who earns a crust as an analyst or commentator in the public defence and foreign policy space. And just as it’s always easier to hunt with the hounds and run with the foxes inside the system, the same is often true in the public domain.

So for what it’s worth, here’s what I was thinking on the eve of the Iraq war but didn’t have the guts to publish at the time. The only changes I’ve made are to correct spelling errors and typos. If nothing else, it might provide a counterbalance to the great many column inches that have been written in recent weeks with the benefit of hindsight.

We stand on the brink of war, having willfully sauntered up to the precipice in the period since September 11. In those days immediately after those horrific yet spectacular attacks on Washington and New York, there was much debate about the world having changed fundamentally. But changed it has, though perhaps not in the manner most anticipated. Few would have predicted that the US would be ready to effectively take unilateral action against Iraq some 18 months later. This was a risk in the weeks after the attack—a threat that should have passed by now.

But no. The US is still angry and scared, and as a result it’s looking for a fight. And they are willing to start a fight with barely a token of international support and in the absence of UN backing.

So here’s how it looks. The US is hell bent on invading Iraq. There are over 200,000 troops in position and they will launch operations within days. There is no hope that they will hold off, short of Saddam being hung by meat hooks in the square in Baghdad. There’s a range of reasons given for this, sometimes it’s to stop WMD from spreading to terrorist groups, sometimes it’s to protect Iraq’s neighbours or even to set her people free. Other times it’s part of a grand scheme to create the Arab world’s first liberal democracy franchise, complete with a Mc-Parliament and drive-through judiciary. It all depends when you ask. Opponents to the war say that it’s about oil—if only there was that much though being put into it all.

It’s all about regime change—a dumb idea whose time has come because of the ascendancy of neo-conservative ideologues in the administration. The balance of risks and potential benefits is out of whack by a Texas mile. There is a problem with Iraq but this is not the solution. In fact, the central problem facing the world is the proposed solution. Some fear that both the UN system and the underlying Western alliance are under threat as a result—that’s probably true even though I don’t think it’s quite the loss implied by that statement.

But the US is not alone. Blair and Howard are there shoulder to shoulder with Bush. Their story is a little simpler than that of the US. It’s all about WMD and the threat of proliferation to terrorist groups. But it’s just a story, and not a very convincing one. Ultimately they are both there because they think that it is in their respective country’s strategic best interest to keep in good with the US. Even if that means following the US on a folly of historical proportions. And, most extraordinarily, even if that means that they have to squander their own political fortunes in the process. For Blair and Howard this has been, and will continue to be, a gamble.

First, they gambled that they could get a UN resolution and mollify the substantial anti-war sentiments in their countries. They lost.

Second, they are gambling on a quick, clean and successful war followed by a peace that is seen as fair, just and stable. On this roll of the dice their individual political fates will hang.

Third, and most important, they are gambling that the US is worth having as an ally. This means that they hope the US will remember the support they have been given and repay the debt in due course. It also means that that they hope the US will eventually moderate its unilateral and bellicose tendencies. In the long run there’s little point in having an alliance with a nation that makes emotive and dumb strategic choices.

Of course all of this is the result of another leader taking a big gamble. Osama bin Laden’s roll of the dice was September 11. Up until now he’s lost big time. He’s seen his terrorist network rolled back to the point that he’s living in a damp cave in the hills of Pakistan with little or no influence. And to nil strategic effect. US forces have not left the Gulf—far from it—and no moderate Arab regime seems in peril of reverting to Islamic theocratic rule.

But has he really lost? I suspect that the barbaric terrorist attacks of September 2001 were an attempt to elicit a disproportionate and imprudent response from the US, which in turn would ignite the Arab street against them. It failed in the first instance, though not for want of trying by the neo-conservatives in the US administration. But the dice has now been passed to Bush to roll. What more could Osama bin Laden ask for than what the US is now on the verge of doing?

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One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste –

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Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user 9/11 Photos.