Thursday, November 5, 2015

Today by Richard Cooke

Stuck in flypaper
Australia has never come to terms with its role in the Iraq War. It doesn’t look like that’s going to change.

An Australian officer prepares to head home from Iraq in 2003. Source

It’s a week since Tony Blair apologised for the Iraq War. “I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong,” he told Fareed Zakaria on CNN, “because, even though he had used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, against others the program in the form that we thought it was did not exist in the way that we thought.” There’s not a lot of responsibility in that “we received”, or a lot of contrition wrapped around the excuse. But I guess it’s something.

Here in Australia there’s nothing. Not long after the interview, Andrew Wilkie made one of his semi-regular calls for an enquiry into the war, and got the usual tumbleweeds in response. A few weeks ago, Tanya Plibersek suggested there might be a parliamentary debate on our involvement in Iraq and Syria. Liberal backbencher Andrew Nikolic said this was “a political bone designed to appease the hard-left members of the Labor Left faction and their fellow travellers in the Greens party.” After almost 15 years of fighting, even asking what it’s for is ideologically suspect.

But there have been some climb-downs from the old vaunting rhetoric. Last year John Howard said he was “embarrassed” that WMD claims had proved false. (In the past, those holding out for a Howard apology have had a long wait on their hands.) The most interesting change came from Tony Abbott. Introducing Australia’s Syria mission, he assured the public that “no one is talking about what might be described as trying to bring liberal pluralist democracy to a part of the world which hasn’t experienced very much of that”. Because who would sign up to a crazy scheme like that, right??

Perhaps Australia never had a real reckoning over Iraq because our involvement was mainly rhetorical. Alexander Downer would say things like “we are engaged in a war to protect the very civilisation we have worked so hard to create”, and then deploy a few hundred troops to build schools, far away from the action. Not a single digger died in combat. For all the blather about leftish fifth columns, the Howard government recognised the Australian public would only indulge an involvement on the most limited scale possible.

But that shouldn’t obscure that we assisted in a murderous, multi-trillion dollar campaign to destabilise and then democratise the Middle East. And that’s the real problem with the Iraq War – not that it was a failure, but that it was a phenomenal success. At the start of the conflict, journalists like Mark Steyn (who enjoyed an unusual level of access to the Australian government) enthused about just how chaotic things would get. “Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, issued a stern warning to the BBC: a US invasion of Iraq would ‘threaten the whole stability of the Middle East’,” Steyn wrote in his internationally syndicated column. “He’s missing the point: that’s the reason it’s such a great idea." Mission accomplished, then.

The thinking was that after the “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” (Condoleezza Rice’s phrase), power in the region would tilt towards pro-Western powers and away from Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Elections would serve as a beacon, disintegrating dictatorships through uprisings and reform. Iraq would become a model (once a neo-con favourite, the expat blog “Iraq the Model” hasn’t been updated since 2011).

Except the new Middle East is a breech birth. Instead of Iraq becoming more like Turkey, Turkey has become more like Iraq, through elections, ironically enough. Days ago it quickened its slide into a Sunni autocracy, one that sponsors barbaric transnational terrorists groups and attacks its own people (the Kurds, just like Saddam). Australia continues to train Iraqi troops, who have a disconcerting tendency to hand billions of dollars’ worth of weapons over to ISIS without fighting. “That’s a bad sign,” the US Senator Roy Blunt said when told Iraqi troops had taken to wearing civilian clothes under their uniforms.

There were also bad signs in 2006, when Iraqi troops were handed the city of Najaf by Coalition forces. After the ceremony, they celebrated by biting the heads off frogs, and ate the heart of a live rabbit. That’s when everything was going swimmingly according to the war’s cheerleaders, the point right before Obama’s supposed weakness and Western vacillation came and ruined the prosperous future of a stable Middle East. One of these cheerleaders, Richard Perle, was saying Iraq should be run by Ahmad Chalabi as late as last year. That’s the man who fed the CIA with bogus intelligence, but he can hardly be blamed. “Ahmad’s problem is that Ahmad is usually the smartest man in the room,” one of Chalabi’s colleagues told the reporter Dexter Filkins. “And he thinks he can control what happens.” Chalabi died this week; that problem didn’t. Still, to talk it through would be picking over old bones. We should save accountability for areas where it belongs, like pink batts.


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Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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