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Iraq, Chilcot, and questions for Australia

21 July 2016

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Professor Ramesh Thakur is Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) in Crawford School. Prior to joining the school he was a Commissioner and one of the principal authors of The Responsibility to Protect (2001), and Senior Adviser on Reforms and Principal Writer of the United Nations Secretary-General’s second reform report (2002).

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Britain’s report into the justification for going to war in Iraq raises questions for Australia that only an inquiry can answer, writes Ramesh Thakur.

The eagerly awaited Chilcot Report into Britain and the 2003 Iraq war has finally been published. For Australians there are three key takeaways.

First, the report systematically and comprehensively demolishes Tony Blair’s sham justifications for embroiling the UK in possibly the most disastrous war of the modern era. In order to justify the war before all peaceful options had been exhausted, the threat of Saddam Hussein was deliberately inflated. Alleging he had an active and useable program of weapons of mass destruction was the most powerful stimulus for creating fear in Western minds. Blair proved a faithful George W Bush poodle by keeping his promise to the US president on Iraq that, “I will be with you, whatever” (a phrase that will rank alongside “slam dunk” as a defining lexicon of that war).

In return Blair had little influence on US policy, undermining another important justification for joining the war. Conversely, US relations would not have been badly damaged if the UK had sat out the war (like Canada). Going along for the sake of getting along with one’s chief ally is neither good policy nor good politics.

Incomplete and flawed intelligence was cynically exploited to fit the political agenda to go to war “whatever” even though the British military were not adequately equipped for the task and post-war plans for occupation had not been developed.

The lack of a post-invasion strategy was even more criminal in light of the many credible warnings on the multiple grave risks of the humanitarian disasters that could ensue. The failure to record post-invasion civilian casualties is also inexcusable.

Most devastatingly, this is not wisdom after the fact. In a statement accompanying the publication of the report, Sir John Chilcot said: “We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”

To paraphrase Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, any good the coalition may have done lies interred with the bones of the dead in Iraq; the evil they unleashed will live on in infamy. That Blair should continue to defend his decision is beyond parody. The man is clearly deluded and calls to mind Barbara Tuchman’s description, in The March of Folly, of Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Second, the report does not address but should raise the question of national or, failing that, international criminal accountability for acts of aggression. After the Second World War, German leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg not for having lost the war, but for having started it. The International Military Tribunal described aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

One of the major normative advances over the last century is the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). It would be hard to overstate the damage to the reputation of the UN and the ICC caused by Blair being the Middle East peace envoy from 2007–15 for the quartet of the EU, Russia, the US and the UN. In 2012 Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu refused to share the stage with Blair at a scheduled international event in Johannesburg. Those responsible for the suffering and loss of life caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he explained, “should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.”

Third, the report adds weight to the growing calls for eliminating the decision to go to war as a prime ministerial prerogative in Westminster-style democracies, and instead placing it firmly with parliament as a whole.

Like Blair in the UK and the US neoconservative chicken-hawks, John Howard remains wilfully blind to the enormous disparity between the vision dreamed, the goals pursued, the means used, and the results obtained. Yet his obdurate self-justification serves a useful policy purpose. For many Australians, the Iraq war remains a troubling and unfinished business. Political closure on that tragic episode would be assisted by a public inquiry to sit alongside the multiple inquiries that have been completed in the UK.

The Iraq war will be Blair’s political epitaph. Howard deserves no less. Clearly uncomfortable at the thought that he might have led Australia into its first illegal war, Howard – like other members of his then-cabinet – deserves the opportunity to demonstrate the validity of his arguments before an independent tribunal and should therefore welcome an inquiry to clear his name. Otherwise, the ghost of Iraq will continue to haunt our own man of steel.

In addition to providing clarity on the facts – what happened and why – an inquiry would help to elucidate the pros and cons of different approaches to entrenching accountability mechanisms. Taking a country to war is the gravest foreign policy decision a government makes. Yet in parliamentary democracies, there are only limited checks and balances to ensure that the cause will be just, the ends defined, the prospects for success good, and the killing and suffering proportionate to achievable ends. Suggested improvements to the Australian decision-making process by the Australians for War Powers Reform (disclosure: I have been a founding member) include requiring a parliamentary vote, sign-off by the governor-general, independent legal advice, and intelligence and military briefings to a security-cleared cross-party parliamentary committee (comparable to standard American practice).

The international jungle can be harsh and unforgiving. Sooner or later, we will be required once again to make the call on going to war. The will to war will weaken if citizens lose faith in the justice of the cause, the integrity of the process by which the decision to go to war is made, and the democratic accountability of leaders on this gravest of government responsibilities.

This article was first published by Policy Forum, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society at Crawford School:

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