What Vietnam and Iraq should teach Canberra
25 Mar 2013|

Robert Menzies meets with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon. 24 June 1964.

If we learn more from losses than wins, then the Canberra system has much to gain from examining its lousy performance in the processes that took Australia to war in Vietnam and Iraq. For Australia, both wars were all about the alliance with the United States. Both were wars of choice, although the regional implications Canberra read into Vietnam meant it was closer to a war of necessity than Iraq.

Both wars exemplify the Prime Minister’s most profound prerogative and Parliament’s lack of power. The entry to both showed the Canberra system performing below its best, revealing again the truth that artifice and farce often attend the most serious of moments of government.

In announcing the deployment to Vietnam, the farce was the last minute rush to extract a formal request from the government of South Vietnam, to veil the patent reality that this was a response to US needs. In the case of Iraq, the artifice was the Howard Government’s claim through 2002 and early 2003 that it was still to make up its mind about whether or not to go to war—a thin veil over the patent reality that this was all about the alliance and that Australia was deeply committed to US invasion plans.

A quickly mocked-up invitation to Vietnam and a false will-we-won’t-we facade on the approach to Iraq… Q: Why are voters so cynical and dismissive about the noble and historic efforts of their leaders to shape and direct history? A: History.

To examine the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, turn to Garry Woodard—a former Australian ambassador in Asia and long-time deep thinker about Oz diplomacy—who has mused several times on the subject, most notably in his book ‘Asian Alternatives: Australia’s Vietnam Decision and Lessons on Going to War’.

The focus of the book is Vietnam. Woodard was an Australian diplomat during the Vietnam War and he writes: ‘Former participants to whatever degree in any aspect of the Vietnam War are different. They write about it with a heavy heart and feelings of inadequacy.’ Iraq participants know the emotions. He concludes his book by listing 50 points of similarity between Australia’s march to both Vietnam and Iraq, headed by a quote from Proust: ‘The past not merely is not fugitive, it remains present’.

Woodard summarises his Iraq–Vietnam parallels as including, ‘the dominance of the Prime Minister, decisions made in secret by a small group of ministers obedient to him, minds closed against area expertise, preference for party political advantage over bipartisanship, and willing subservience to and some credulity about an ally, the United States.’ Some of Woodward’s examples of history repeating are:

  • advice that ministers don’t want to hear won’t be heeded
  • the focus of Australian decision makers is the US alliance
  • Australia will be part of a coalition of the willing of two or three if necessary
  • Australia’s assessment of the US is personalised and Presidential qualities weigh heavily in that assessment
  • Australia relies heavily on US intelligence
  • there was no exit strategy for either war
  • in both cases, Australia put its standing in Asia at risk.

This isn’t just a diplomat’s view. Professor Robert O’Neill, a soldier and strategist who served as an Australian Army intelligence officer in Vietnam before becoming one of our great defence thinkers has similar thoughts. O’Neill argued in 2006 that Iraq was an even worse problem than Vietnam. His view is that the US coalition invaded Iraq with little understanding of what they were about, a flawed strategy and no policy in place for responding to what was bound to follow:

The Coalition launched the war without enough troops, US or allied, to do the job and without a strategy, force structure and the necessary civil capabilities for meeting the main challenge. Having blundered into a hornets’ nest, the intervening force and its allies in Iraq have taken a hammering. The fate of our Iraqi allies, and their civil population, like that of our Vietnamese partners in the 1970s, is perhaps the saddest aspect of the war.

Not all the Iraq–Vietnam echoes are exact. Australia did a better job of military preparation the second time round. As Woodard notes, in 2002 Australian officers were embedded in the US system and took part in a prolonged period of military planning on the invasion. In Vietnam, by contrast, ‘where Australia’s first battalion was deployed was decided by the US and advised through diplomatic channels.’

Australia went into Iraq far more cautiously than it did in Vietnam and got out before the dust of invasion cleared. We were slowly drawn back in by alliance demands in later years, but again the commitment was limited and confined, which is why the price payed in Australian blood was so low. The fact that no Australian soldiers died during the invasion helps explain why the 10th anniversary of the war can pass with another bout of Canberra silence.

What we did in Iraq was all about the US and little about Iraq. Canberra even quibbled about the responsibility it bore for Iraq’s future as one of the occupying powers involved in a successful invasion. The Canberra shrug at the talk of responsibility was accompanied by a rapid pass-the-parcel gesture towards Washington.

Hugh White acknowledges the hard edge to the calculations involved in John Howard’s commitment to the invasion, while ultimately finding little positive in the final equation:

From the start Howard was determined to extract whatever benefits he could from Iraq at the minimum risk, and he seems to have understood those risks more clearly than either Bush or Blair. He pulled Australian troops out of Iraq just weeks after Baghdad fell in April 2003, and when they went back in 2005 Howard made sure they were deployed in a quiet sector, largely out of harm’s way. There is something to admire in this, but it came at a cost. The only gain Howard can claim for joining the invasion was strengthening the US alliance. But – though Bush hailed him as ‘a man of steel’ – the gap between Howard’s bold talk and his ultra-cautious actions undermined Australia’s standing as an ally. And what little we did in Iraq is increasingly irrelevant to an alliance now becoming ever more focused on China. Even in Howard’s terms, it is hard to see that invading Iraq was good for Australia.

If the real purpose, all along, was to strengthen the alliance, did Australia achieve its core aim? Peter Layton thought so in a response to the first article I wrote in this series:

Australia has a penchant for taking advantage of events to strengthen the alliance. In some respects this is a rebuttal to Graeme Dobell’s argument—in many ways, Iraq wasn’t as important as strengthening the alliance. In this, the Iraq war decision-making succeeded; we aimed to bolster our alliance credentials, and did.

On this reading, Australia shouldn’t care if the US loses, as long as the alliance is bolstered, a point that Peter also made last year:

While Australia took advantage of the American grand strategies that took them and us into the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, we were in a sense not too concerned about the outcomes and potential downsides that could—and did—leave America worse off. That surely wasn’t our desire. Nor was it overall a good outcome for us, but our limited goals were achieved.

Limited goals achieved! Grand strategy can sometimes be a bit counter-intuitive, but do we truly bolster our alliance credentials by cheering on the US as it plunges into quagmire, fiasco and folly? It surely pushes the conceptual envelope to breaking point to think that huge disasters which sap America’s treasure and national psyche are in any sense good for Australian alliance goals. As Peter also argued in last week’s post, a principal concern for Australia must be about the US doing harm to itself and thereby diminishing its ability to shape the world to its (and our) advantage.

Give more weight, I suggest, to the perspective offered by Owen Harries (PDF) about the alliance management responsibility that Australia bears: we may be junior but that doesn’t mean we have to be unquestioning. It is extremely dubious whether ‘uncritical, loyal support for a bad, failed American policy’ enhances Australia’s standing in Washington. And then the judgement sentence delivered in the classic Owen Harries’ manner, dry but deadly: ‘A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not one to be sought.’

That’s a Vietnam truth taught again in Iraq.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.