The view from Billinudgel

A lovely war
The Chilcot report is a reminder of John Howard’s unapologetic and reckless enthusiasm for American wars

George W Bush presents John Howard with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, January 2009. Source

Sir John Chilcot’s mammoth report on the second Iraq war is, on an objective reading, damning: the war was probably illegal, the intelligence flawed, the political judgments premature and over-eager.

The major protagonists in the United States, Britain and Australia stand condemned. If they were not actually guilty of war crimes, they should certainly be chastened and ashamed: apologies and repentance are the least they can offer.

But one man, at least, is unfazed: our own John Howard remains convinced that it was a perfectly good war and he wouldn’t have changed a moment of it. Apologies, after all, have never been part of his repertoire.

Howard threw himself into what George Bush called “the coalition of the willing” – indeed, he egged Bush on when the United Nations Security Council failed to endorse the war to topple Saddam Hussein and a majority of the international community refused support.

In return Bush, in reply to a question by the media, dubbed the Australian prime minister his “deputy sheriff.” Howard played down his new role, but never resiled from it. He was the leader of what Labor’s Mark Latham described as “a conga line of suckholes” to our great and powerful ally.

The relationship with Bush had been cemented on 11 September, 2001: Howard happened to be in Washington when the attacks by Al Qaeda took place. Without hesitation, he offered Australia’s unconditional and open-ended support before consulting either his cabinet or the parliament.

Thus Australia went into the adventure in Afghanistan, and one thing followed another. When Bush decided to move on to Iraq, Howard was already committed, meaning the nation was dragged along with him.

The nation was not happy; the opinion polls showed that a majority actually opposed the war. But Howard never doubted, even when it became clear that the evidence for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – the ostensible reason for the invasion – was highly dubious, if not non-existent.

Bush finally declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq and the combat troops left, but the country was destroyed. In the words of another general in another war, we had to destroy the village to save it.

Iraq fell into a quagmire of sectarianism and corruption, becoming effectively a failed state. Al Qaeda, which had been kept out by Saddam, gained a foothold and that paved the way for the even more ruthless and savage Islamic State. And with the region destabilized, the troops were brought back.

Howard thinks there was no causal connection; the most he will admit to is that perhaps the intelligence he was fed at the time was not entirely accurate. But none of that was his fault: indeed, he would do it all again.

And again and again and again and again. For the reliable deputy sheriff, it was just a matter of waiting for the call from Washington. As it still is, as it has always been.

So far Malcolm Turnbull has resisted the call to ramp up our commitments in the cauldron – the cesspool – of the region.

And the Chilcot report will give him an incentive to hold out. But his previous mentor remains gung ho.

John Howard really regrets that so many people died over the years in Iraq. But hardly any of them were Australians. In the end, it was really a lovely war.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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