Broinowski, Alison: Streaker’s defence: history and war powers


The streaker’s defence: history and the war powers

Alison Broinowski

It takes a particular kind of courage for people in public life to admit that they got something wrong, even after their error is publicly obvious. All three leaders who planned and executed the 2003 invasion of Iraq said at the time that they would take ultimate responsibility for the war but none of them did. For ten years, neither George W. Bush, Tony Blair, nor John Howard has said they were wrong, let alone admitted that life for many Iraqis is nastier and shorter than before the 2003 invasion.

Their claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons didn’t stand up in 2003 and they don’t now. What Howard and Alexander Downer said publicly didn’t accurately reflect what they were told by the Defence InteIligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments. This was reconfirmed in April 2013 by a former secretary of the Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, Margaret Swieringa.

Yet Howard believed Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), apparently because Bush and Blair believed this. Having unilaterally invoked ANZUS after 11 September 2001, Howard was determined to support Bush’s ‘war on terror’ even if he did so in defiance of the Security Council and international law. So Australians would fight, kill, and die, not for what the government knew, but for what three leaders believed, and for Howard’s interpretation of ANZUS .


This photograph of The (late) Goons, Spike Milligan, Harry Seccombe and Peter Sellers, illustrates their 1957 broadcast ‘The giant bombardon’, about ‘a mighty cannon designed to win the Crimean War’. This fantasy about a weapon of mass destruction from an earlier era can be accessed here. (source: BBC)

If Bush, Blair and Howard accepted the evidence then, they could now deploy the ‘streaker’s defence’ and say it seemed like a good idea at the time. Instead, Bush is silent, Blair says it was right to eliminate Saddam Hussein and Howard ducks responsibility, telling Sydney’s Lowy Institute on 9 April 2013 that the intelligence agencies got key assessments wrong. Now, he even claims that the Arab Spring was connected to the fall of Saddam and points to the growth of Iraq’s economy and the ‘freedom’ he believes Iraqis are now tasting – except the many who continue to be killed or injured in sectarian violence and who live in worse conditions than before.

Bush, Blair and Howard won’t admit that just as the Soviet Union was bled to impotence by Afghanistan, America’s superpower status has been diminished by the Iraq (and Afghanistan) disasters. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard would not admit this either and neither will Tony Abbott: to do so would be to question the capacity of the United States to defend us and no Australian prime minister will do that. But President Obama admitted it at the Pentagon in January 2012, saying that US forces would no longer undertake major, protracted wars without clear exit strategies. ‘With reduced resources, thoughtful choices will need to be made regarding the location and frequency of these operations’, he said. ‘U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.’ Iraq, like Vietnam, was the wrong war, in the wrong country, for the wrong reasons, leading – predictably – to the wrong outcome. Obama said then – and repeated in May 2013 – that America cannot and will not go there again. But he has come very close to ‘going there’ in Syria.

The historical record of European manipulation of the Middle East goes back at least to the Crusades; the United States took over the process after World War II. Under the Truman Doctrine (12 March 1947), Americans vowed to defend ‘free people’ anywhere against Communist subversion. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the threat of global Communism was no longer available as a pretext for war, ‘terrorism’ took its place as a convenient term to describe all attacks on US assets or interests. It was in use well before 11 September 2001 and in the 1990s the neo-conservatives (Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and their colleagues) had already selected from among Middle Eastern countries those which would support the US (most of them being monarchies or hereditary dictatorships) and those whose leaders the US would overthrow (mostly secular rulers who wanted to control their nations’ oil). The neo-cons believed they had five to ten years to do that without Russian interference. Former US General Wesley Clark revealed this on 3 October 2007, adding that the neo-cons planned to overthrow seven countries in five years: Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Iran. This is the process we now see continuing.

Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, why does all this still matter? For three reasons: war crimes, war powers, and the next war.

First, war crimes. Australia and the United Kingdom are signatories to the International Criminal Court, as the US is not. Australia has agreed to extend the jurisdiction of the Court to crimes of aggression, which means that Australian ministers, service chiefs, and governors-general could be investigated over decisions to engage in future wars. Australia is obliged to set up credible and independent processes for such investigations by 2017 or the ICC may intervene to do so.

Next, war powers. Howard exercised them in 2003 with no authorisation by the Governor-General, no vote in parliament, and no real debate, even by the Coalition parties. The Australian Constitution allows him to exercise war powers more easily than his American and British counterparts could. At almost the last minute, both Blair and Howard advised parliament of their intentions and Blair secured House of Commons approval of the invasion. Howard didn’t have to and only sought parliamentary approval retrospectively. According to Peter Hollingworth, Governor-General at the time, Howard cited Australia’s entry into peacekeeping operations and the undeclared war in Vietnam as precedents for invading Iraq. This could happen again unless the war powers are redefined, something in which Gillard and Stephen Smith as Defence Minister showed no interest. Prime Minister Abbott has indicated that he wants the powers left as they are.

Finally, another war. Howard made an ominous comment on 9 April 2013: he anticipates Australia being involved in Iran. No sooner was Senator David Johnston sworn in as Defence Minister than he announced that the military was to be ‘battle-ready’ for future conflicts in the unstable Middle East and South Asia, even including the possibility of fresh trouble in Afghanistan.

Why Australia would seek involvement in such conflicts, Johnston did not say, nor did Howard explain why Australia would wish to invade Iran, but they would both be likely to have known about General Clark’s list. Australia’s record speaks for itself: in recent years Australia has become more dependent than ever on US defence, culminating in Gillard’s offer to the US of bases on Australian soil for the first time since the Pacific War. Wherever the US is at war, Australia will be inextricably involved, for better or more likely for worse, unless we change our own rules.

A growing number of Australian groups, concerned at this prospect, are calling for the war powers to change. Some of these groups want an inquiry into how and why Australia went to war in Iraq, some want US bases out, others seek independence and ‘just peace’ for Australia, and others again advocate transparency in government. None of these issues was debated by the major parties before the election and no debate on them can be expected from the new Parliament.

13 October 2013

© 2013 Alison Broinowski


Dr Alison Broinowski is a member of the coalition for an Iraq War Inquiry and the author of Howard’s War (2003) and Allied and Addicted (2007).




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