9 Nov 2008

A Good Long Look At John Howard’s War In Iraq

The Australian media appears to have given up the task of asking Prime Minister John Howard hard questions about the Iraq War. This is regrettable, given that Howard has never provided a credible explanation for why our soldiers went into Iraq, what they are doing there, or how and when they will ever come home. A proper analysis of these questions reveals some hard facts about Australian society, the business of politics, and Australia’s place in the world today.

Why The USA Invaded Iraq

To understand why Australia supported the invasion of Iraq, one must first understand why the USA invaded Iraq. The answer has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein, WMDs, terrorism or spreading democracy.

Washington invaded Iraq – in contravention of international law and UN resolutions – to gain control of Iraq’s oil resources, and to further secure those resources by establishing a strong US military presence in the Middle East region for generations to come. The hawks in the Pentagon call this “securing America’s national interests”. To such people, “national security” and “economic prosperity” are one and the same thing.

US control of Iraq’s oil was deemed necessary because US global economic domination was being threatened by the peak oil phenomenon, coupled with economic booms in China and India. In such a competitive global environment, rogue oil states like Saddam Hussein’s were threatening to drop the US dollar as the default currency for international oil transactions. These were the big issues discussed by Dick Cheney’s secretive “Task Force” of Big Oil executives in the first two weeks of the Bush administration.

More than a dozen massive “enduring” US military bases are now being built in Iraq, along with a gargantuan “embassy” in the very heart of Baghdad. These installations became necessary after Bush (very quietly) acquiesced to Osama Bin Laden’s key post-9/11 demand: the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia. Remember: most of the 9/11 hijackers had Saudi connections, anti-US sentiment was rife in Saudi society, and the USA knew they could not stay there long without further destabilising the Bush family’s friends in the House of Saud, thereby putting their own oil supplies at even greater risk.

Donald Rumsfeld called for an invasion of Iraq within hours of the 9/11 attacks. Just a month after that invasion, Rumsfeld declared that Saudi support for the Iraq War was no longer necessary. Within four months, up to 60,000 US troops were relocated from the kingdom (ostensibly to Qatar, but effectively to Iraq). Justifying the US withdrawal, Washington neoconservatives began hinting that the Saudi royals were due for their own dose of “democratization” any day now. Ironically, anti-US sentiment is now even stronger in Saudi Arabia, across the Middle East and around the world.

Of course there are other major issues which help explain why the USA invaded Iraq:

- political manipulation of evangelical Christian extremism,
- ideological fantasies of a US empire,
- Bush’s expressed desire to be a “War President” with the “political capital” he believed his father had squandered after the Gulf War,
- the irrational military logic of the pro-Israeli lobby.

These factors helped build a consensus of support for the invasion. But documents that have come to light over the past four years, revelations by those who were involved in the decision-making process, and the harsh logic of events on the ground in Iraq, conclusively prove that the single main reason for the US invasion was exactly what anti-war campaigners have always insisted that it was:


Howard Decides

So what about Australia? Why did we help the USA invade Iraq?

The decision was announced by our Prime Minister, John Howard, on March 20, 2003, even though polls at the time showed that only one in four Australians supported military action without UN support. Howard said that Australian military forces were joining the USA’s pre-emptive invasion “because we believe it is right, it is lawful and it's in Australia's national interest.” He said that while Australia’s relationship with the USA was an important factor, it was “not the dominant reason” for his support. So what was the dominant reason? According to Howard, it was Saddam’s WMDs, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iraq, and the broader threat of Saddam-sponsored terrorist wreaking havoc on a global scale. All of these threats proved to be illusory.

Was Howard misled by hyped intelligence from Dick Cheney’s infamous Office of Special Plans? Or was he well aware of the more profound strategic and economical rationales behind the US invasion?

The Day That “Changed Everything”

John Howard famously spent the day before September 11th, 2001, meeting with President Bush and then dining with Rupert Murdoch in Washington. On 9/11, while bodies were still burning in the World Trade Center, Howard pledged Australia’s complete and unconditional support for any US military action whatsoever:
“Australia will provide all support that might be requested of us by the United States in relation to any action that might be taken.”
Howard seemed to have an immediate grasp of how the 9/11 attacks would be spun to the international media over the coming weeks and years. Indeed, Howard’s comments from the day after 9/11 remain almost uncannily in tune with the today’s PR mantra for the “Long War” on terror:
“Nobody should imagine that they’re immune from this. Australia is not immune from this kind of possibility and anybody who suggests that Australia is somehow or other different and that precautions taken by other nations don’t need to be taken by Australia and Australians are deluding themselves. The ease of travel, the ease of communications, the ease of globalisation of so much of the world now means that nobody is immune from the possibility of this kind of outrage and all of us have to take that on board.

In many respects, yesterday marked the end of an era of a degree of innocence following the end of the Cold War and a decade in which it seemed as though things which posed a continuous threat were behind us. But regrettably we now face a possibility of a period in which the threat of terrorism will be with us in the way the threat of a nuclear war was around for so long before the end of the Cold War. I think it is as bad as that and I don’t think any of us should pretend otherwise.“
Conspiracy theorists who believe that US neoconservatives orchestrated or were fore-warned of the 9/11 attacks might like to ponder John Howard’s supporting role during these critical days. Just a year earlier, the neoconservative authors of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) had acknowledged that widespread public support for their militant imperialism would not be possible without “some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor". 9/11 provided that event in a very timely fashion, and John Howard was right there to help “catapult the propaganda”. After all that has happened since, this is a coincidence that merits further attention.

The Decision To Go To War

Howard visited the White House again in June 13th, 2002, just a week after Tony Blair had visited Bush’s Crawford ranch. According to media reports at the time, the main topic of conversation between Bush and Howard was the two countries’ planned Free Trade Agreement.

But as we now know, Bush had already made up his mind to attack Iraq. Six of the leaked Downing Street memos detail frenzied meetings between senior US and UK officials in the month before Howard’s visit. The memos describe how top UK officials struggled to find legal justification for various military options proposed by the USA, and how Blair’s office implored Bush not to completely dismiss the UN route in his headlong rush for war. Where was Australia in all this discussion?

Within a month of Howard’s visit, the USA had already begun secretive “spikes of activity” designed to provoke Saddam, and UK officials were helping Washington to “fix intelligence around the policy” of a provoked or pre-emptive Iraq invasion. And the original “Downing Street Memo” (dated July 23, 2002) makes it quite clear that the pressure for an Iraq invasion was coming directly from the White House itself:
“Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.”
In such a climate of excitement, it is impossible to imagine that Bush did not eagerly inform Howard of his resolute determination for war when they met in June, 2002. And it is impossible to believe that Howard did not immediately reconfirm his unconditional pledge of Australian military and diplomatic support. And given that, it is also impossible to suppose that Australian government departments, including DFAT and Defense, were not fully advised of the President’s, and the PM’s, decisions.

Of course, Howard has always insisted that a “final decision” to go to war was not made until Bush formally requested Australian support on March 17, 2003. No senior Australian whistle-blower has ever stepped forward to contradict him, and no documented evidence is available to conclusively disprove his claim. But the evidence available today reveals the charade.

Howard’s shifting memory on this issue suggests (in the kindest possible interpretation) that he may be getting senile. On June 24, 2007, he said that Australian ground forces were not in Iraq until April 2003. But he has previously admitted that Australian SAS troops were already on the ground in Iraq when he declared war in March 2003:

MATT BROWN: On Melbourne radio 3AW the Prime Minister has confirmed this morning that Australian troops entered Iraq before the deadline George W. Bush set for Saddam Hussein to surrender expired.

JOHN HOWARD: I think Senator Hill has indicated that that did happen.

INTERVIEWER: But it was denied at the time.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think what we said at the time was that we did the right...that we went in, in...

INTERVIEWER: I remember asking you whether troops went in, after we'd been told they were, and you said no.

JOHN HOWARD: Did I say that?

INTERVIEWER: "Not to your knowledge", yeah.

JOHN HOWARD: "Not to my knowledge". Well, that could well have been the case at the time.

INTERVIEWER: How early did they go in?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, certainly after the ultimatum was rejected.

INTERVIEWER: No, but did they not go in before the deadline expired?

JOHN HOWARD: Yes, but once an ultimatum is rejected the deadline is irrelevant.

MATT BROWN: Mr Howard says the invasion was legal, and the decision to invade was not taken before the proper processes had been followed in Australia.

JOHN HOWARD: I certainly made it very plain to Bush that we needed to have a Cabinet meeting for a final authorisation, that I could not commit my forces, the Australian military forces to action in Iraq until such time as that Cabinet meeting had taken place.

And it did take place. He did ring me two or three times that week to inform me what had happened, and that's what transpired. But I was certainly diplomatically very supportive, we did pre-deploy. And we made it very clear that we were putting ourselves in a position to be involved, but the final decision to be involved was not taken until after those conversations.
In other words, our troops had already invaded Iraq before we officially declared war, and before Saddam’s public ultimatum from Bush had even expired. According to International laws to which Australia remains a signatory, that is a War Crime.

On March 18th, 2003 , Bush gave Saddam a 48-hour ultimatum to get out of town. While Saddam publicly mocked the ultimatum, a former Saddam aide later claimed that Saddam secretly offered to yield to all US demands. His offer was ignored. As Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press, US-led troops were going to enter Iraq "no matter what".

Foreign diplomats and UN weapons inspectors were forced to leave Iraq for their own safety. Tony Blair pleaded for cabinet unity as a third top UK official resigned. French PM Jacques Chirac vainly insisted on the truth:
"Iraq today does not represent an immediate threat that justifies an immediate war.”
It made no difference. Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign had already begun.

De-Bunking The Myths

Defending his unpopular decision to go to war, Howard chose his words very carefully indeed. In his address to the nation on March 20, 2003, Howard presented the evidence for Saddam’s WMDs in a hypothetical framework. He described Saddam’s former actions rather than his present ones. He also repeatedly stressed the importance of Australia’s relationship with the USA:
"The Americans have helped us in the past and the United States is very important to Australia's long-term security. It is critical that we maintain the involvement of the United States in our own region where at present there are real concerns about the dangerous behaviour of North Korea. The relationship between our two countries will grow more rather than less important as the years go by.

A key element of our close friendship with the United States and indeed with the British is our full and intimate sharing of intelligence material. In the difficult fight against the new menace of international terrorism there is nothing more crucial than timely and accurate intelligence. This is a priceless component of our relationship with our two very close allies. There is nothing comparable to be found in any other relationship - nothing more relevant indeed to the challenges of the contemporary world.”
Those words now ring as hollow as the concocted “intelligence”, delivered by Britain and the USA, that was used to justify the invasion.

Intelligence whistle-blower Andrew Wilkie resigned from the Office of National Assessments (ONA) on March 11th, 2003, just a week before war was declared, claiming top ONA officials were ignoring his protests that there was no evidence to support the government’s WMD claims. But as we now know, Wilkie was dead right. There were absolutely zero WMDs in Iraq, and Saddam’s WMD program had been non-existent for over a decade.

There were other incidents of ignored intelligence too. The British Government's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) warned the ONA more than a month before the US-led invasion that Australia would face a heightened terrorist risk because of its role in Iraq.

The JIC report was issued on February 10 and sent to Australian intelligence eight days later. It said a war leading to regime collapse would increase the risk of chemical and biological weapons getting into terrorists' hands and lead to a heightened terrorist threat to Western nations.

Howard repeatedly denied this risk. Under questioning from Labor’s Simon Crean in September 2003, Howard said neither he nor any of his ministers had been briefed on the JIC findings. Howard said all his major Iraq speeches had been checked by the ONA and he had accepted every suggestion for change. A Howard spokesman declined to reveal whether the ONA had concurred with the JIC report, as Andrew Wilkie claimed.

Then there is the little-publicized story of former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) employee Trent Smith. In February 2003, Smith leaked details of an October 2002 conversation between Alexander Downer and the NZ High Commissioner, Kate Lackey. Here’s Downer’s response when Lackey asked “whether Australia would prefer a UN mandate for action in Iraq”:
"Mr Downer said that Australia would indeed prefer UN backing. However, and this was not a point that could be made publicly, Australia was not in a position, if the UN process broke down, to withdraw our ships and other presence from the Gulf."
Downer feebly insisted that he was talking about existing Aussie forces in the Gulf, who were there to enforce the UN blockade of Iraq. By this time, 2,000 more Australian troops were already “pre-deployed” in the region, and HMAS 'Kanimbla' was steaming towards the gulf. Then the mother of a sailor on board that ship leaked further embarrassing facts:
"During September and October 2002, in the weeks prior to Alexander Downer making those statements to New Zealand's High Commissioner, HMAS 'Kanimbla' was performing beach landing exercises off Townsville with the troops from Ross Island, some of the same troops now on board on their way to the Gulf.

Following this exercise, the crew of the 'Kanimbla' were on stand-by to go to the Gulf it would appear not to replace one of the ships doing sanctions but to carry Australian troops to Bush's war on Iraq."
So in September 2002, just three months after Howard met Bush, our Foreign Minister was secretively discussing impending “action in Iraq” with our allies, and Australian armed forces were already practicing amphibious landings (funny way to enforce a naval blockade).

The DFAT whistle-blower, Trent Smith, was stood down and investigated for 3-and-a-half years, at a cost of $1 million, while police sifted through 8,000 emails. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but then sacked, in July 2006, for referring a Labor staff member to publicly available Senate records. He remains locked in an unfair dismissal case with his former employer.

The broader threat of Saddam’s “state-sponsored terrorism” has also been conclusively de-bunked. Documents discovered in Baghdad conclusively prove that Saddam had absolutely no links whatsoever to Al Qaeda. In fact, he saw their Islamic radicalism as a threat to his secular dictatorship. Although it is true that Saddam was buying popularity by giving money to the families of anti-Israeli suicide bombers, the only known terrorist living in Iraq at the time of the invasion was Muhammad Zaidan (aka “Abu Abbas”), an aging thug who had publicly renounced terrorism and apologized for hijacking the Achille Lauro nearly two decades earlier (Zaidan died in US custody in March 2004, after eleven months of interrogation which yielded no useful evidence).

So did John Howard know that his justifications for war were bogus, or didn’t he? Howard would prefer to leave the question unanswered, so that he does not have to face accountability either way. He insists that it does not matter, because he and his ministers “believed” the evidence presented to them. But the facts show that Howard and his cabinet actively conspired to ignore and suppress any evidence contrary to their own pro-war spin.

As Howard said, his government supported the invasion “because we believe it is right, it is lawful and it's in Australia's national interest.” Notice the clever ambiguity, so typical of Howard. Is he saying the war “is lawful” or “we believe… it is lawful”? There was plenty of advice to say it was NOT lawful, and a group of former Australian Prime Ministers and Defense Force chiefs had even sent Howard a letter to that effect back in September 2002:
“It would constitute a failure of the duty of government to protect the integrity and ensure the security of this nation, to commit any Australian forces in support of the US military offensive against Iraq without the backing of a specific UN resolution.”
As we now know, even the UK Attorney General was pressured to change his original advice that the war was illegal. But if there was any doubt, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan later confirmed the obvious: the war was illegal. The pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation without UN support is (once again) a War Crime under International Laws to which Australia is a signatory.

Even if we take Howard at his word, there is really no escaping accountability here.

On the one hand, if John Howard was not fully aware of the USA’s unstated economic and military goals when he committed Australian troops to the invasion of Iraq, then he was duped into committing our troops to a dangerous military adventure which has developed into a bloody quagmire, killing something like a million people, rendering 4.5 million homeless, and throwing the entire Middle East into chaos. He did so in the face of overwhelming public opposition to military action, while actively suppressing contrary intelligence. In such a situation, Howard’s failure to confirm the facts can only be judged an unforgivable failure, for which he should have resigned long ago.

On the other hand, if Howard actually was aware of the real reasons for the US invasion of Iraq, then he – like Bush and Blair - has lied repeatedly, brazenly and shamelessly to the whole world, particularly the Australian people and our troops. He has committed Australia to a subservient military and economic role, entirely dependent on US decision-makers, without ever consulting the Australian public or even (it would seem) his own cabinet. Furthermore, he has committed our nation to a policy of illegal pre-emptive invasions, a dangerously immoral precedent which continues to destabilise the globe without producing any evident benefits for anyone but the US military industrial machine and their Big Oil friends.

The Real Reason For Australian Involvement

The real reasons for Australian participation in the invasion of Iraq are there for all to see, who care to look. The facts, which have slowly accumulated over the past four years, now speak for themselves. Let’s look beyond the lies.

Howard knew.

His government actively worked with Downing Street and Washington to manipulate intelligence and sell an unpopular, pre-emptive war on false premises. The real goals of the Iraq War were US economic and military domination, and Howard was well aware of that hidden agenda. His own actions and words at the time of the invasion (and since) belie the fact that he never believed his own over-inflated war-mongering hype. Nevertheless, he eagerly hitched Australia’s wagon to the US juggernaut.

The real question is: “Why?”

Howard claims that he did what he had to do for the long-term benefit of the Australian people. He concurs with the opinions of disgraced US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who says that “quaint” post-world-war international laws, such as the Geneva Conventions, simply do not apply after 9/11. He presumably agrees with US Vice President Dick Cheney, who says that governments in this dangerous new world are forced to work on “the dark side, if you will”.

But Howard has never presented such arguments to the Australian public, and he never will. He prefers to let the debate rage on the other side of the Pacific. Curiously, the opposition Labor Party, the Australian media, and even the Austtralian people, have been happy to accommodate him.

Howard’s most recent and coherent argument on this matter came in an April, 2007 radio interview:
"There is nothing in it for Australia in seeing America humiliated in the Middle East. And that's the effect of calling for Australian withdrawal…I'm simply not going to support a policy that leads [to] the humiliation, the withdrawal and the weakening of American power and prestige around the world. That would give great power to terrorists."
It’s an astonishing argument. Even if all the justifications for war were wrong, and despite all the death, carnage and mayhem that has decimated Iraq over the past four years, Howard still insists that Australia must maintain its blind support for US policy, now and into the future.

But how does our support for the USA’s military and economic goals in Iraq benefit us? Has Howard made a secret deal to secure Australian companies a share in Iraqi oil revenues? Have we traded military support for agricultural deals? Or have we traded away our nation’s good name just for the promise of military protection, even as we help the USA create new enemies who might one day cause us to need such protection?

Are we Australians now content to play the role of an outlying US state? Are we permanently hitching our economy to the USA’s? Is that wise? Is that what the Australian people want? Is anybody ever going to ask us?

These are not idle questions. The fact is that, whether by intent or incompetence, Australia’s Prime Minister is a War Criminal. And that is something that Australians will have to come to terms with, if we are ever to restore faith in our system of government and reclaim a sense of national moral rectitude.


1. Howard Bush press conference June 13, 2002.
2. Bush Blair press conference June 13, 2002.
3. Downing Street Memos.
4. Wolfowitz comments on WMDs.
5. SMH: Australia commits troops to US attack.
6. CNN: Howard on US alliance.
7. John Howard’s Address To The Nation, 20 March 2003.
8. “Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century”, 2000, Project for the New American Century (PDF).
9. Howard admits troops on the ground in Iraq early.
10. Howard reacts to JIC questions from Simon Crean.
11. 7:30 report, Downer and NZHC memo leak.
12. SMH story “One lie leads to another”.