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Bush, Blair and Howard – Three reckless adventurers in Iraq (Part 40)

The Iraq Inquiry Report (2009-2016) documents how Tony Blair committed Great Britain to war early in 2002, lying to the United Nations, to Parliament, and to the British people, in order to follow George Bush, who had planned an aggression on Iraq well before September 2001.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard conspired with both reckless adventurers, purported ‘to advise’ both buccaneers, sent troops to Iraq before the war started, then lied to Parliament and to the Australian people. He continues to do so.

Should he and his cabal be charged with war crimes? This, and more, is investigated by Dr George Venturini in this outstanding series.

Australia’s involvement in Iraq (continued)

In Australia there remain – rare, given the ‘climate’ – men of conscience. One of them is Andrew Damien Wilkie, presently the independent federal member for Denison, Tasmania. He had been an army officer and an intelligence analyst in the Office of National Assessments. He resigned both appointments saying that: Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction program is very disjointed and contained by the regime that’s been in place since the last Gulf War. And there is no hard intelligence linking the Iraqi regime to al-Qaeda in any substantial or worrisome way”.

He would go on: “The unwarranted invasion of a sovereign state for fraudulent reasons was ultimately not an option for me. This was not a matter of choosing between two rights. No, this was a matter of right and wrong. I resigned about a week before the invasion and went to the media.

There could be little doubt that starting a war in Iraq would result in a humanitarian disaster with a great many people killed, injured and dislocated.”

The war started in earnest in March 2003, but for him – as he wrote: “the Iraq War started the year before when I was a senior analyst in the Office of National Assessments, Australia’s top intelligence agency which is responsible for providing advice to the Federal Government on other countries, as well as transnational and thematic issues. Working there I had long kept an eye on Iraq as a source of asylum seekers to Australia but, in 2002, as a former army lieutenant colonel, I was ordered to turn my mind to the impending war.”

Prime Minister John Howard suggested – with feigned generosity – that Wilkie was ‘irrational’ – from such a mouth, a charitable word for ‘mad’. ‘Idealist’ – in pub language.

Recently Wilkie clarified his views as follows: “Until the politicians who dishonestly got us into this mess are held to account we are bound to repeat their mistakes.

This is also why I remain outspoken about the need for the Australian Parliament in future to decide when we go to war, so long of course as time permits for such consideration.

This is already the case in most other developed nations, including the US, UK, France and Germany.

The Chilcot Inquiry … helps to prove that Australia’s joining in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and subsequent combat involvement in that country, is our nation’s biggest ever foreign and security blunder.

Sometimes my critics say I should not dwell on these matters, but national and global issues are exactly what the Australian Parliament is responsible for. [Emphasis added]. National security policy is, after all, as much about putting limits on the exercise of power as it is about the unrestrained exercise of such power. There are questions to be addressed about the politicisation of the nation’s security services.”

Wilkie gave an example:

“For instance the Australian Federal Police still refuses to resolve the 2003 leak to Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt of the report I prepared in 2002 about the possible consequences of going to war in Iraq. This ham-fisted bid by the Government to discredit me appears to be a serious criminal matter because the assessment was classified Top Secret Codeword, which means that some of the information it contained, and some of the sources of intelligence it relied upon, were especially sensitive. [Emphasis added].

Unauthorised disclosure and publication of classified material are issues covered under the Crimes Act.

The [Chilcot Inquiry] also adds weight to the argument that John Howard and others should front an international tribunal where they could respond to war crimes accusations. And the inquiry vindicates the millions of people who marched in protest against the impending war in February 2003, including here in Hobart.”

It is hard to say whether these are popular views. The press is in the hands of two cartels – one quite larger than the other, and that is Murdoch’s stable. It is there that the opinion was authoritatively expressed, on the onset of the invasion, that “As we approach war with Iraq, it’s becoming obvious that George W. Bush is really a modern Winston Churchill.”

This apparently sycophantic folly could find comfort in the already mentioned article by Professor Phillip Sands, QC ‘A very British deceit.’ Writing in August 2010, when the Chilcot Committee had already been well on its work, and when expectations were not great, cynics might have considered the possibility that the Committee would produce the fifth in a series of British whitewash reports relating to the war. Three inquiries had already dealt with secret intelligence and one with the ‘suicide’ of Dr. David Kelly, an Iraq weapons inspector.

So Professor Sands wrote: “The carefully chosen composition of the five-members panel did not lead to a quickening of public interest. One member, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, had previously suggested that Tony Blair and George W. Bush might eventually bear comparison with Winston Churchill and FDR.”

It is a case of ubi maior, minor cessat, where the weak gives way to the strong. (minor) capitulates before the strong (major).

One wonders how such music sounded to the uneducated ear of John Winston Howard.

Not much can be read in the Chilcot Report about Howard’s character. Obviously he had an opportunity to counsel both Bush and Blair on several occasions. What he might have said to a simpleton like Bush earned him the moniker of a ‘man of steel.’ The Texan might not have cared much for unctuosity, and not much of that might have been offered by the cunning patsy from Down Under, who undoubtedly has more respect for the gobsmacking atmosphere of St. James Palace. Howard might have preferred the description as a ‘tough guy’ offered by Blair’s spin doctor.

In the end Blair expressed some degree of regret. Nothing of the sort came from Howard. He just resorted to the demeaning tactic of blaming the unintelligent intelligence.

In the end, it is possible to conclude that three reckless adventurers resolved to invade a debilitated Iraq because they thought it would be easy.

If Blair’s capacity to believe what suited him seems boundless, Howard’s use of his position was even more cynical.

On 4 February 2003 Howard told Parliament: “The Australian Government knows that Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons and that Iraq wants to develop nuclear weapons.” He also said: “Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons-uranium has been sought from Africa that has no civil nuclear application in Iraq; . . .”

It was left to his Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer to write in The Sydney Morning Herald of 18 June 2003 that “. . . an intelligence claim about Iraq’s effort to acquire uranium from Africa proved to be erroneous”. Howard had made the claim.

On 9 February 2003, asked by a journalist in Washington whether in his talks “tomorrow, especially at the Pentagon, do you expect to lock in a possible role for Australia if, further down the track we do decide to join a coalition of the willing ?” Howard hesitated a moment and then replied: “Look, there have been contingency discussions going on between the American and the Australian military and it’s always important in these situations to leave those sorts of things to the militaries of the two countries”.

Telling the truth was left to President Bush, the following day 10 February 2003, in the Oval Office and in the presence of Howard. In reply to a journalist: “Could you tell us whether you count Australia as part of the coalition of the willing?”, Bush said: “Yes, I do”.

Six days before Howard had told Parliament that the government had not and would not make a final decision to commit to war “unless and until it is satisfied that all achievable options for a peaceful resolution have been explored.” By that time Australian troops had already been deployed to the Middle East.

Out of Parliament, Howard returned to the matter of the invasion on two occasions: the already mentioned lecture at the Lowy Institute of Sydney on 9 April 2013: ‘Iraq 2003: a retrospective’ on the tenth anniversary of the aggression, and an interview with Tony Jones of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 7 July 2016.

To give him a credit he does not deserve, Howard could be placed with the restored Bourbons. This morose class had ‘learned nothing and forgotten nothing’ – as Talleyrand observed. Though the Talleyrand quote may proffer a reason for their repeating mistakes of the past over and over, in this case a more accurate reference is to Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

Some points from the Lowy lecture bear re-examination: “My Government never saw the obtaining of a fresh [Security Council] resolution as a necessary legal pre-requisite to action the removal of Saddam. It was always our view that Resolution 678, dating back to 1990 provided sufficient legal grounds for the action ultimately taken. That was reflected in the formal legal advice tendered to the Government, and subsequently tabled in Parliament.[8]”

Footnote [8] refers to the ‘Memorandum of advice to the Commonwealth Government on the use of force against Iraq, tabled by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives, 18 March 2003, which had been prepared by the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and DFAT, 12 March 2003. [Emphasis added].

Not quite so! The ‘advice’ – not even a legal opinion – was signed by two middle level public servants. And it can be said that by 2003 not many had survived of the type of ‘public servants’ who by accepted definition used to advise ‘without fear or favour’. Almost all had been ‘privatised’ in the new climate of neo-conservatism.

Whether by accident or design, the two signatories of the ‘advice’ had ignored Art. 2 (3) and (4) of the United Nations Charter. They had made no reference to the fact that all fourteen members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office legal team had advised the Blair government that Iraq could not be attacked without a specific authorisation from the Security Council, because no such authorisation could be subsumed in Resolution 1441.

The two signatories had not related the whole story of Lord Goldsmith, QC’s constant view for two years up to 7 March 2003. What Lord Goldsmith, QC was writing might have not been what Blair wanted to read. And this is, presumably, why Lord Goldsmith, QC was sent to Washington to hear Bush’s legal advisers. And, on return, to use only 337 words to change his mind and invent the ‘revival’ in 2003 of Resolution 678 which dealt with ceasefire after the first Iraq war.

In the lecture Howard said:

“The Clinton administration thought that 678 gave blanket legal coverage for all the military action it took to enforce the terms of that resolution.”

That might have been so, but in 1998 ! And, anyway, by that time President Clinton was already under pressure from Cheney’s oilmen and the strategists of the Project for the New American Century.

Howard went on:

“Another criticism was that joining the Americans and the British in Iraq would permanently damage us in the eyes of the Muslim world, and in particular Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country of all.” Well, is that not true?

“In Australia, there was a parliamentary inquiry, as well as the Flood Inquiry which canvassed the pre-war intelligence. In its submission to the former, “ONA said in a report of 31 January 2003 that there is a wealth of intelligence on Saddam’s WMDs activities, but it paints a circumstantial picture that is conclusive overall rather than resting on a single piece of irrefutable evidence.” [Footnote [10] Commonwealth of Australia (2003), Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD].

The Defence Intelligence Organisation said in its submission to the same inquiry “Iraq probably retained a WMD capability – even if that capability had been degraded over time. DIO also assessed that Iraq maintained both an intent and capability to recommence a wider program should circumstances permit it to do so”. [Footnote [11] Ibid.].

The Flood Inquiry found “no evidence of politicisation of the assessments on Iraq either overt or perceived” or that “any analyst or manager was the subject of either direct or implied pressure to come to a particular judgement on Iraq for policy reasons or to bolster the case for war.” [Footnote [12] Flood, Phillip (2004), “Inquiry into Australia’s Intelligence Agencies”, p 28].

Flood further said that “assessments reflected reasonably the available evidence and used intelligence sources with appropriate caution.” Flood said that the obverse conclusion that Iraq had no WMDs “would have been a much more difficult conclusion to substantiate.” [Footnote [13] Ibid.].

Neither inquiry gave a skerrick of support to the proposition that members of my Government had manufactured convenient intelligence or strong-armed the agencies into saying things they did not believe.”

There is no evidence that government had manufactured the intelligence or abused the intelligence officers, but an inquiry would establish that most definitively.

Then Howard said:

“Although the legal justification for the action taken against Iraq was based on her cumulative non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, and a properly grounded belief that Saddam possessed WMDs, a powerful element in our decision to join the Americans was, of course, the depth and character of our relationship with the US. Australia had invoked ANZUS in the days following 9/11. We had readily joined the Coalition in Afghanistan; Australia had suffered the brutality of Islamic terrorism in Bali. There was a sense then that a common way of life was under threat.” The words in Italics just demonstrate the many assumptions, generalisations, myths and mis-truths which cannot seriously explain a decision to commit to war.

Towards the end, Howard declared his attitude not to the United States but to the Bush Administration: “At that time, and in those circumstances, and given our shared history and values, I judged that, ultimately, it was in our national interest to stand beside the Americans.

There were many who argued that we should stay out; we should say “no” to the Americans for a change; that the true measure of a good friend was a willingness to disagree when the circumstances called for it, and that in the case of Iraq we would hurt our country by backing the United States, and that in the long run declining to participate in the Coalition of the willing would be good for the alliance. That argument escaped me then, and it still does. In my view the circumstances we recall tonight necessitated a 100 per cent ally, not a 70 or 80 per cent one, particularly as no compelling national interest beckoned us in the opposite direction.”

Continuing and concluding tomorrow: Australia’s involvement in Iraq (continued)

GeorgeVenturiniDr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini – ‘George’ devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980). He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.

⬅️ Part 39

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1 comment

  1. crypt0

    “Until the politicians who dishonestly got us into this mess are held to account we are bound to repeat their mistakes”
    Goes without saying …
    Oz will continue to make the same mistake as often as the US puts in a request …
    That is if we don’t “volunteer” first.
    Should be “interesting times” ( to borrow the Chinese expression) ahead if the US tries it on with an opponent a bit closer to it’s own weight division than say … Iraq, Afghanistan et al.

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