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A View From Afar
When I was in Australia the other week, former Prime Minister John Howard had just issued his take on his years in office, “Lazarus Rising: A Personal and Political Memoir,” (HarperCollins). The Australian newspaper had an excerpt, parts of which I publish below as it’s an interesting take on the lead-up to war in Iraq, Prime Minister Howard being a staunch ally of the United States and Britain in the effort.
Within hours of the attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Michael Thawley, our ambassador in Washington, said it would put Iraq back on the agenda for the Americans.
It was neither unreasonable nor implausible of the Americans to believe that weapons of mass destruction possessed by Iraq might, in the future, be handed to a terrorist group for use against the U.S. or others.
The combination of the even closer relations we had established with the Bush administration and the quality of Thawley’s representation in Washington meant that we had a direct line to administration thinking all through the first half of 2002.
By mid-2002 I had formed the view that if Iraq did not satisfactorily respond to international pressure about its WMD capacity, the Americans would take military action and that Australia would need to decide whether to join that action.
The public record in the U.S. in 2001 and 2002 is replete with statements calling for regime change in Iraq, and not only from neo-conservatives. On October 10, 2002, the House of Representatives in Washington voted by 296 to 133 to authorize the use of military force. The Senate resolved likewise, by 77 to 23.
Many leading Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, voted for the use of force. Clinton’s speech was remarkable for its tone of support for the Bush approach. She showed no reluctance to put the boot into the first Bush administration for “leaving the Kurds and the Shiites, who had risen against Saddam Hussein at our urging, to Saddam’s revenge in the 1990s.”
From the beginning we knew what was in the minds of the American military. We also knew how we might contribute in the most effective manner possible and in a way that safeguarded, as best one could, the position of Australian troops that might be committed.
Tony Blair led a British Labour government which included many with an almost childlike faith in the processes of the United Nations. To them the sine qua non of good foreign policy was always adhering to the dictates of multilateral organizations, especially the U.N.
As the months passed I found that, despite our political differences, Blair’s world-view on issues such as terrorism was similar to my own.
In our discussions, President George W. Bush and I were careful to avoid specifics about Australian troop commitments. He knew that discussions were under way between the U.S. military and their Australian counterparts. He was entitled to assume that if the military option were chosen by the U.S. then, in all likelihood, Australia would join.
But he knew that I had not made any commitment and that for understandable political reasons I would keep my options open until the time when a final decision was needed.
This was, in fact, his position. He and his secretary of state Colin Powell made the point that no final decision had been taken and that they were continuing to pursue a diplomatic approach. I left my discussion with the president believing that he would follow the diplomatic route and seek another U.N. resolution, without any real faith that it would work and that, in the end, he would take military action.
For Australia and the U.S., the push for a further resolution was not derived from legal concerns, but driven by Powell’s belief that the moral authority of the Coalition of the Willing would be reinforced if it had been seen to have tried to obtain another U.N. Security Council resolution.
Early in September Bush rang seeking my advice about the next steps on Iraq. Bush told me that Powell was keen that the U.S. return to the U.N. for a further resolution, that he, Bush, was scheduled to address the General Assembly the following week, and he would then need to outline American policy on Iraq.
Bush expressed concern that any further resolution he might obtain would not be of much use. I told Bush I agreed with Powell’s line about seeking another U.N. resolution. That was the path he followed.
Although this new resolution was carried unanimously, it only added incrementally to the pressure on Iraq, because it lacked a final trigger mechanism.
It is easy to understand why Vice President Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld chafed at the decision of the president to go back to the Security Council.
Their prediction that not a lot more would be obtained by doing so proved correct. Yet their arguments did not allow for the political imperative of accommodating Blair.
About 45,000 British troops would be committed to Iraq, an unmistakable sign of Britain’s determination to join the Americans. Bush was right to accommodate Blair’s domestic political realities. He owed it to an old and close ally.
On January 10, 2003, I detailed the composition of any Australian commitment to Iraq.
This was a big commitment, and much larger than the force sent in 1991. From the beginning I told the Americans that if we committed forces, it would be to the invasion phase.
We could not be part of any long stabilization operation. We had commitments, particularly in East Timor, and the Australian Defense Force was too small to sustain a sizeable ground-force in Iraq.
At this stage a final decision to commit forces had not been taken. It was obvious, though, that only a last-minute and unexpected development would preclude Australia from supporting a U.S.-led operation.
In February Bush invited me to Washington. It was clear from talks there that the Americans would act against Saddam, with or without a further Security Council resolution.
Bush wanted another resolution because he knew that it was important to his allies.
Bush described the diplomatic maneuvering over Iraq as akin to being in a mosh pit. When I told him that I would go on to New York to see both [U.N. weapons inspection chief] Hans Blix and [U.N. secretary-general] Kofi Annan, he remarked that Australia was well and truly in the mosh pit.
Blix called on me at the Pierre Hotel. He gave nothing away regarding Iraq’s weapons position. He would be a company man to the very end. Blix would not contribute to action being taken without a new Security Council resolution.
Deep down, he must have known that the Russians and the French were not going to agree to this.
Blix made the astonishing admission to me that Iraq would “not have moved an inch” without the pressure of the allied military build-up.
In other words, according to the chief weapons inspector appointed by the U.N., a resolution of the Security Council carried no weight at all. He said that military pressure must be maintained.
I saw this as remarkable because of the double standard it connoted, as well as his acceptance of the impotence of Security Council resolutions. Blix and others were critical of the U.S. acting outside any remit of the U.N., yet were happy to help themselves in the benefits of a military build-up, an essential prelude to an invasion they would later condemn.
I pointed out to Blix there came a time when the build-up no longer worked, and action needed to be considered. I said that no one should underestimate the resolve of the U.S. and Britain to carry through with military action.
Blix replied that he had emphasized to the Iraqis that it was “five minutes to midnight,” but he had not picked up a sense of desperation from them.