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Australia's involvement in the Iraq War.

AUSTRALIA was the third member of the 'coalition of the willing' in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The operation was conducted with little enthusiasm among the Australian population, and with misgivings from a wide range of people (including from the defence community).

Australia got involved because the conservative Liberal Party government of John Howard decided that Australia should support its ally, the United States. Australia is the only country to have fought alongside the US in every war in which the US fought in the twentieth century. It has maintained that unique reputation into the twenty-first century with the Iraq operation. On the eve of war, the US claimed that forty-four countries were committed to the Coalition. But most did not supply any military personnel. Australia sent its best personnel, including the Australian Special Air Service (SAS).

On February 16 an estimated 500,000 people took part in some of the biggest peace marches in Australian history. But the prime minister ignored the opinion polls and went ahead with the commitment. Australian opinion changed at the outset of hostilities. This was not due to any sudden belief that President Bush was now right but that Australians believe in supporting Australians.

Thankfully, no Australian lives were lost and the personnel have returned home safely. If some Australian lives had been lost, then the political mood would have turned very nasty. Howard admires the Liberal prime minister Sir Robert Menzies. He committed Australian troops to Vietnam in 1965 and shortly afterwards retired from office (having been in power for 16 consecutive years). Later on, the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War turned very sour but little of the anger was directed at Menzies, who was well and truly out of the Australian political scene by that time. Dead Australians in Iraq could have cost Howard his office.

This article begins with an examination of Australian public opinion. It then examines the Australian scepticism about why the war took place. Australians watch with some incredulity all the investigations in the US and Britain about the causes of the war. They are amazed that Americans and Britons are surprised that you cannot trust politicians. Australians rarely make that mistake.

Australian Public Opinion

There was no great clamour among the population or the 'serious' media for such an involvement. If anything, the opinion was against the war. Many of the issues were similar to ones being voiced in Britain and elsewhere.

First, some people were concerned about the overall aggressive nature of US foreign policy. They recalled the loss of Australian lives as a result of following the Americans into Vietnam in the 1960s. It took the Australian Defence Force (ADF) many years to rebuild its prestige and acceptance among the civilian population after that disastrous operation. The ADF has since been most concerned to maintain that prestige.

The month before the war began, a state funeral was held for Eric Abraham (aged 104), one of the country's last World War I veterans. He was a great admirer of the prime minister John Howard. But on Remembrance Day, November 11, 2002 he gave an interview to a national newspaper in which he said Australia would be 'downright mad' to get involved in a war in Iraq: 'Wars are a terrible waste of human life'. He spoke for many Australians.

Some military experts had their own problems with the Iraq operation. One example concerns the prime minister's use of the ANZUS treaty as the basis of the operation. The Australian New Zealand United States (ANZUS) treaty, now over half a century old, is a guarantee of mutual support in the event of one of the countries being attacked. But Article 1 prohibits the parties to the treaty from the use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN. The UN did not support the American action and so the treaty did not apply to the military operation. Additionally, the ADF is not geared up for a major military operation in the Middle East desert. It is geared up for likely threats to Australia and its sea/air approaches, plus operations in Australia's immediate region. It was being called upon to conduct an operation that it was not designed to do--and at a time when it was still involved in East Timor and with the Solomon Islands operation on the horizon.

Additionally, there is no great Australian admiration for American defence tactics. This scepticism has been vindicated by a number of Coalition forces killed in 'friendly fire' incidents. The scepticism has a long history, with the friction sometimes getting out of hand. For example, in Brisbane on November 26, 1942, one Australian soldier was killed and eight others wounded by shots fired by American military police. The following night marauding groups of Australians roamed the streets beating up American soldiers they found with Australian girls, injuring eleven so severely that they had to be taken to hospital.

ADF personnel have commented to me on the lack of professionalism among some American soldiers compared with the Australians in Vietnam. Australians may regard the British military as too class conscious and rigid (a sometimes fatal weakness in Japanese POW camps, compared with the somewhat higher Australian survival rate in those camps) but there is no doubt that the British were professionals in their military work. Americans by contrast were seen (particularly in Vietnam) as sometimes sloppy and unprofessional.

Second, there was some initial surprise at President Bush's attention to Iraq. Coincidentally, I was in New York to cover the September 11, 2002 anniversary events (about 30 Australian and New Zealanders were among the 3,000 people who died on September 11, 2001). I was at the UN General Assembly on the morning of September 12, 2002, when we expected the President to speak about Osama bin Laden and the 'war on terrorism'. Instead, we were surprised by his attention to Iraq and comparatively little attention to Osama bin Laden (who was evading US capture in Afghanistan). With Afghanistan far from settled, the President was signalling his intention to go after yet another leader. Most Australians regarded Osama bin Laden as a bigger threat to Australia than President Saddam Hussein.

In February 2003, as part of the government's attention to the 'war on terrorism', the prime minister sent to all households an anti-terrorism kit, including a fridge magnet, containing important information on what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. After the SAS were sent to Iraq, it was commented that the prime minister had sent our best troops to Iraq and left us fridge magnets to defend us.

The October 2002 Bali bombing, in which over 200 people were killed, has been linked back to the Asian end of the Osama bin Laden network. Australians would prefer that network to be targeted. Most of them did not believe that there was any direct linkage between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (a point only admitted by President Bush in September 2003).

Third, although Saddam Hussein was disliked in Australia, there was no residual hatred towards Iraqis themselves. On the contrary, Australia was centrally involved in one of the most successful relief operations in UN history. The 'oil for food' programme was a little-publicized project undertaken by the UN in the previous eight years to assist the people of Iraq. The UN imposed economic sanctions on Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Iraq's defeat in early 1991 was supposed to lead to the ending of sanctions because all it had to do was to agree not to invade Kuwait again and to surrender its weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has not invaded Kuwait again but there was still a continuing controversy over whether it had destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction.

In March 1991, at the beginning of this stalemate, the UN Secretary-General sent in a team to inspect the conditions of the people under the sanctions regime. The UN Security Council agreed that Iraq could sell some of its oil on the international market to pay for humanitarian goods. Saddam Hussein refused the offer. The issue was revived in 1995, with a specific resolution establishing the 'oil for food' programme. This time Saddam Hussein agreed. The main focus of the 'oil for food' programme has been to ensure substantial deliveries of food and health supplies to Iraq. The amount of Iraqi oil to be sold on the international market gradually increased.

Up to the 2003 war, humanitarian supplies and equipment worth about US$26.8 billion were delivered to Iraq under this programme. At the outbreak of war, an additional US$10 billion worth of supplies were in the production and delivery pipeline. 60 per cent of the country's twenty-five million people relied on those food supplies. This system was one of the world's most efficient in history. There was a network of 49,000 distribution agents. Corruption is always a problem with any relief operation. The UN 'oil for food' programme was not only one of the most efficient systems but it was also one of the least corrupt. If a hundred people complained about an agent, then the agent was removed. It also says something for the inherent ingenuity of the Iraqi people that they were able to construct this network of food distribution. They have had no previous experience of ever being required to do so.

The 'oil for food' programme was also of great interest to Australia because Australia was one of the major suppliers of food under the programme. A shortcoming of the programme (from the Iraqi individual point of view) was that only about half the oil revenue could be used for buying food and other necessities for the population. The rest of the revenues had to be paid in compensation to Kuwait for the 1990 invasion, food for Iraqi Kurds in the North, and the costs of other UN programmes, such as the ill-fated inspection teams looking for weapons of mass destruction. The 'oil for food' programme was never intended to be a substitute for normal economic activities. But as long as the sanctions programme remained in force, there was no alternative.

Despite its shortcomings, the programme made a major difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Australians were pleased to be part of that process. With the ending of the Saddam Hussein regime, they look forward to regaining their pre-1991 agricultural trade arrangements with Iraq.

The Lack of Honesty in Australian Political Life

It seems that the case for war against Iraq was exaggerated. Few Australians doubted that Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Australian scientists had been part of the international team that found some and destroyed them in the early 1990s. But those weapons degrade over time and so the real issue was the extent to which (if at all) Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction in 2002-3.

Andrew Wilkie (who has given evidence to the UK Hutton enquiry and US Congressional enquiries) is a former Australian intelligence officer. He resigned abruptly in March 2003 because he disagreed with the Howard Government's decision to go to war. In June 2003 he said that the Australian intelligence community had advised the government that Iraq did have a programme for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the 'Government was exaggerating that reasonably moderate assessment--exaggerating it a great deal to justify the war. In my opinion, the Government exaggerated the scale of Iraq's WMD programme. The Government exaggerated any links between Iraq and al-Qa'ida. The Government exaggerated any likelihood of Iraq passing weapons of mass destruction to al-Qa'ida'. Later on in the television programme, he said: 'I recall clearly PM Howard describing Iraq's WMD programme on a number of occasions as 'massive'--a word never offered to the Government by organizations such as the Office of National Assessment' (the elite intelligence body that supplies intelligence directly to the prime minister).

No weapons of mass destruction have yet been found and it would seem that the Prime Minister was wrong to make the claims that he did about the weapons. Wilkie has apparently been vindicated. Since his resignation, there have been severa attempts to discredit him (a bit like the controversy in the UK). Allegations have been made about his mental stability, the state of his marriage and whether he really did have any access to significant intelligence. The Howard Government evidently leaks material to right-wing journalists in the 'popular' press. There are currently investigations underway to see if this has been done again--to discredit Wilkie.

But there is little public anger about all this--certainly far less than in Britain. Instead, there is a just a resigned acceptance that another politician has been caught out lying again.

Politicians have very low standing in Australia and so they are not expected to tell the truth. This is nothing new. It goes right back to the settlement of the colony two centuries ago. The first Britons, having been instructed by the King to treat the natives well and make a deal with them (as the British did elsewhere in their colonies around the world), wrote back saying that the land was 'empty'. There was no one with whom they could make a deal. That was a lie. As the Indigenous Peoples fought back, so the settlers in their reports to London had to play down the level of violence, for fear of scaring off potential investors and settlers.

Some of the best known statements in Australian politics are lies. For example, at the 1987 election campaign in the Sydney Opera House, the Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke made this promise: 'By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty'. There are now more children living in poverty than in 1987. Many sardonic Australians find ways of making a play on these words. It is just part of the general cynicism towards politicians.

Ironically, when a person is able to maintain a reputation for honesty, he or she is lauded. For example, Ray Whitrod was a police commissioner, with a reputation for honesty, who fell out with crooked politicians in Queensland. His complaints about the crooked politicians were later vindicated by a royal commission. He died in July 2003, aged 88. The Sydney Morning Herald gave him a huge obituary entitled 'The honest face of a clean cop'. Thus, honesty in political/public life is seen as the exception--and not the rule.

At any one time in Australia there seems to be at least one politician in prison, on trial or under investigation. It would be interesting to see if the crime rate among them is higher than in the population at large.

A further irony is that the people who are highly regarded are usually not in political life at all. Australians admire a horse thief and a murderer: the nineteenth century Ned Kelly (currently the subject of yet another movie). Sporting personalities attract a large following. And they do not have to be still alive or even human. The stunningly successful racehorse Phar Lap remains an Australian legend: it won 37 out of 51 races; it was born in 1927 and died in mysterious circumstances in the US in 1932.

There is also a sense of resignation about the errors of the US and its capacity to make a rod for its own back. The average Australian (more than the average American) recognizes that the US armed Iraq against Iran in the 1980s (thereby providing it with some of the weapons it later used against the US in the 1990s and 2003). The US helped the southern Afghanis in their war against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s and so helped Osama bin Laden. The Americans and Australians held at Guantanamo Base went to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban regime when it was still being supported by the Americans and receiving US financial assistance for stopping the cultivation of drugs.

To sum up, Australians were proud of what their forces did in Iraq. But they are glad they are home safely. They are not necessarily convinced that Australia is any safer as a result of the Iraq operation. They remain far more worried about Osama bin Laden and his Asian connections in Indonesia and elsewhere. Australia takes little comfort from the realization that at a time when the US is the sole super power and militarily more powerful than ever before in its history, it feels so insecure. If the US should feel insecure, what hope is there for Australia? Perhaps the 'war on terrorism' needs a different grand strategy?

Keith Suter was a daily foreign affairs commentator on Australian Channel Seven national television and Sky TV throughout the Iraq War.
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Author:Suter, Keith
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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