Gimmick exacted a great cost from Iraq

Gimmick exacted a great cost from Iraq

Ten years down the track and still John Howard is in denial about the Iraq War.

John Howard is wrong. He must know it but cannot concede it.

Let's slay some myths that continue to be recycled and perpetuated.

<i>Illustration: Andrew Dyson</i>.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

In his speech at the Lowy Institute on Tuesday marking the 10th anniversary of the 2003 Iraq war, Howard said:

"The belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was near universal.''


Really? This is what I published, as a serving senior UN official, in The Japan Times on February 9, 2003 (weeks before the war): "Iraq does not have usable nuclear weapons. Little evidence links Hussein to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Hussein has been successfully contained and does not pose a clear and present danger to regional, world or US security. Washington has scarcely concealed its real agenda of regime change."

Jonathan Owen of The Independent reported last Sunday that British intelligence services informed Tony Blair in April 2002 (a year before the war) that Saddam had no nuclear weapons and any other WMD would be "very, very small". The Chilcot inquiry has been told that Blair accepted this but converted to George W. Bush's way of thinking after a subsequent visit to the US president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

This is corroborated in the infamous Downing Street memorandum written by British foreign policy aide Matthew Rycroft on July 23, 2002, summarising a briefing by Richard Dearlove, head of MI6. Bush was determined to go to war and military action was seen as inevitable. But British officials did not believe it was legally justified, so "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy".

We know on the authority of no less a person than then US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz - the leading intellectual among the neocons - that WMD were chosen as the trigger because they were the one issue around which the vast Washington bureaucracy could congeal for attacking Iraq. In other words, it was a marketing gimmick.

Is it okay to commit criminal aggression against a country on a prime ministerial whim in order to get along with your most important ally?

It doesn't matter why we went in, we got rid of Saddam

Actually it does, greatly. Suppose the government eliminates someone and says he was a mass murderer. Having first killed him, we will search for, find and provide definitive evidence and only then charge him with whatever crime the evidence indicates.

If we don't find any evidence, it's only because he killed witnesses. The lack of evidence is sufficient proof of his evil murdering ways.

This roughly is analogous to what Bush, Blair and Howard did in 2003. Once it was proven Iraq had no WMD - the sole ground on which the invasion was justified - someone could/should have been charged with the supreme crime of aggression. Or is international criminal accountability only for the rest and never for the West?

It doesn't matter that the UN said no, we had a duty to act to save humanity from thugs like Saddam.

"It was always our view that resolution 678, dating back to 1990, provided sufficient legal grounds for the action ultimately taken," said Howard. This is disingenuous. The argument might have had some plausibility if they had not sought a second specific authorising resolution. They did seek but were denied, at which point the lawfulness of the whole enterprise collapsed.

A rules-based order cannot tolerate Washington (with coalition allies Australia and Britain) deciding who should be other countries' rulers. No country needs a UN permission slip for self-defence (Israel in 1967 when war was imminent, Britain when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982).

All require such a UN permission slip for a war of choice. Iraq was not implicated in September 11 (self-defence), and was not pursuing weapons of mass destruction (threat to international peace and security). The US had no more right to attack Iraq in 2003 than it would have had to attack Mexico because of Pearl Harbour in 1941.

One cannot put a price on exterminating Saddam

Say I discover I have a rat in my kitchen. I call in the exterminators. When they are finished, my dinnerware is shattered, shelves and cupboards are broken, the food in the pantry is poisoned, and the house is wrecked. If I complain about the cost of having killed one rat being too high, does that make me a kitchen rat-lover?

The extermination of Saddam - a global public good - must be weighed against the well-documented costs (military casualties, civilian deaths, treasure expended, reputational damage, expanding pool of terrorism recruits, added incentive to get or keep nuclear weapons, weakening of US will elsewhere when force is justified). Not that we detest Saddam any less; we detest the grim and richly predicted toll even more.

Rarely can Bismarck's aphorism have been truer, that a preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death. Some wars cannot be won and so should never be fought; some winnable wars are not worth fighting for the toll they exact as the price of victory.

In net terms, many lives were saved

Estimates of deaths in Iraqi violence since 2003 range from 170,000 (round figures) by the Iraq Body Count, almost a quarter million by the Iraqi government (both to the end of last year), 650,000 "excess deaths" in the first three years as calculated by a team of Iraqi and US specialists and published in The Lancet, to more than a million by August 2007 estimated by the London-based polling organisation Opinion Research Business.

Who to believe?

Suppose I gather a group of armed criminals, attack a village, and kill all 200 inhabitants. That is the only "body count" of those violently killed.

Suppose instead I round up all doctors in every village hostile to my rule, empty all villages of medicine, destroy all crops and food, bar any food or medical relief supplies from outside, and all the people die in due course. What does a body count of zero (no one killed by guns) mean in these circumstances?

Which would be a better toll for Sri Lanka's brutal civil war over several decades - an actual body count of all those killed by the guns of the soldiers and the guerillas, or the excess deaths estimate because of severely degraded food and health security?

Coalition forces did not attempt a deliberate policy of death by starvation and disease. But the war badly degraded Iraq's health infrastructure and caused many doctors to flee. Epidemiologists use scientifically validated procedures to estimate the range of "excess deaths": numbers dead who otherwise would have lived.

Because of how they abandoned professional scepticism and proved credulous of government claims, it's hard to think of an event that did more damage to the international credibility of the West's English-language media than Iraq. Unless commentators are lazy, incompetent, or intimidated, they should say "between 174,000 and 1 million Iraqis have been killed or have died as a result of the 2003 war".

It's fair enough for journalists, analysts and officials to insist on the strict body count rather than the best available scientific estimates of excess deaths, provided they are consistent in applying this stricture to all conflicts. What the rest of the world sees is that when the victims die from US violence, the lowest confirmed toll is used. But for anti-Western regimes, the phrase "up to x thousand may have been killed" is substituted to plant the upper end of casualty estimates.

Do we think they do not notice and care, or is it simply that we do not care about what they think? Noted Middle East journalist Rami Khouri last week wrote: "Mainstream media coverage of Iran in the US is professionally criminal." Western media has a growing credibility problem in the rest of the world.

Iraq has been transformed into a stable and peaceful democracy

Yeah, right. At the St Petersburg G8 summit in 2006, President Vladimir Putin pointedly retorted to Bush that he did not want Iraq-style democracy in Russia. Iraq has been left a broken and dysfunctional country, increasingly authoritarian and riven by sectarian hatreds and enmity. The big winners of the war are Iran regionally and China globally.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and a former UN assistant secretary-general.

Most Viewed in National