Very disturbing questions are arising from reports of Australian intelligence officers rebutting claims by former prime minister, John Howard, that their advice supported allegations of an imminent threat from
Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
Howard repeatedly claimed that he had clear and conclusive evidence about the imminent threat from Saddam’s weapons, and on this basis decided to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with the USA and Britain. No other country joined this invasion, not even erstwhile US allies like Canada and New Zealand.
Howard and others in his government later maintained that they were surprised no weapons of mass destruction were found following the invasion.
This apologia has been blown apart by revelations that intelligence agencies advised the Australian government that Saddam’s regime had very few chemical or biological weapons left, and was not an imminent danger to other countries. Moreover, there was no evidence that Saddam had been involved in terrorist attacks on the United States, despite claims to the contrary.
Former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, is among a group of eminent Australians calling for an enquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war. Such calls will likely become much increasingly insistent, as it appears that the Howard government deliberately misled the Australian people into the war against the advice of its own intelligence agencies. As Fraser said, “the war was begun on the basis of a lie”. In response to Howard’s address at the Lowy Institute on 9 April, the secretary of the Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2007, Margaret Swieringa, replied in an explosive article in the Ageon 12 April:“None of the government’s arguments were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.”
The implications of these revelations are very serious: that government leaders manipulated intelligence reports as pretexts for the invasion of Iraq, in defiance of international law and violating key criteria of the western tradition of just war, on which international relations and peacekeeping rely so heavily.
Not only did these leaders deliberately, it seems, mislead the Australian people, they did so in the face of widespread opposition from leading thinkers, huge mass protests, and the concerns of most churches and social policy connections religious networks internationally. Pope John Paul II himself led the Catholic Church in opposing the invasion, with the support of all the major bishops’ conferences hroughout the world, including that of the USA itself.
The churches have historically been key custodians of the just war tradition to constrain violence and warfare. Yet for the first time in our history, Howard took Australia to war against firm opposition from the churches.
Many people at the time supported the war in Iraq on the presumption that the government must have had very reliable information on which to base its decision, even if it had not fully revealed this. It is now very clear that this was not the case. The reasons the Howard government adduced were simply spurious.
Many of those who had studied the debate closely already knew this. There was a wealth of information from highly reputable institutes and expert commentators, challenging the claims of the Bush Administration and the British Blair government about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction, posing an imminent threat, and being linked to Al Qaeda.
Before the war I assembled such data in a 17,000- word pamphlet, War on Iraq: Is it Just? published by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, rebutting the arguments for war. How is it that my critique was so accurate, while the Howard government could be so wrong? My point is, the truth was not hard to determine.
The responsibility does not lie with Howard alone. Others were implicated in this collapse of moral values and judgement, including membersof his government (some of them still in office),their advisers, and sections of the media.What accountability will there now be for all this,with such savage consequences for millions of people worldwide? Australia could have played a constructive role in restraining the United States and Britain from this venture. Instead, our government encouraged the rush to war.
The full import of the apparent deceit of the Howard government has yet to hit home to Australians. If it is true that our government deliberately misled our country on such a grave issue, is it acceptable that those responsible can simply walk away, with no accountability whatever?
As Dr Margaret Beavis from the Medical Association for the Prevention of War pointed out in the Age on 12 April, how do we ensure that a future prime minister no longer has the power to involve Australia in war?
And what of the media and commentators who campaigned so diligently on the case for war, particularly in the Murdoch press and other media networks? Was it simply a means to make money from the media, or
ideology and political manoeuvring? Is there no accountability here either?
Dr Bruce Duncan lectures in history and social ethics in the MCD University of Divinity, including courses on war and peace.
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Image:March against war in Iraq by Flyover Living, flickr cc