By Amin Saikal
07 July 2016
The Chilcot report on the invasion of Iraq offers a damning verdict, and adds weight to the call for a sincere apology from John Howard and for Australia to conduct its own inquiry, writes Amin Saikal.
With the slogan of "all the way with LBJ", Australia's 17th prime minister Harold Holt (1966-67) of the Liberal Party controversially expanded Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War in support of the United States.
The country's 25th prime minister from the same side of politics, John Howard (1996-2007), followed suit in supporting the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 along the lines of a commitment by the British prime minister Tony Blair to the US president George W. Bush that "we will be with you, whatever."
On both occasions, Australia's involvement produced no desirable results, and in fact proved counter-productive.
What Does Chilcot Mean For Iraq?
After seven years of investigation and hearings, the Chilcot report has produced a damning verdict of Blair for almost blindly following the Bush administration in taking Britain to war. If there is a Royal Commission inquiry in Australia, one can rest assured that its findings will not be all that different from those of the Chilcot report.
Both Blair and Howard have continued to justify their actions on the grounds that they acted in good faith and that they were right in removing a bloody-minded and unforgiveable dictator, Saddam Hussein, from power. They have done so with the claim that at the time, they had reliable intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), with the Blair leadership even stating that the Iraqi ruler had the capacity to launch a WMD attack within 45 minutes.
However, in the process they ignored strong warnings against going to war that emanated from three important sources: America's main European allies, France and Germany in particular, which the American secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld dismissed as "old Europe"; the head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), Hans Blix, who repeatedly stated that Iraq no longer had WMD; and Arab leaders, who vehemently stressed that an invasion of Iraq could give birth to more terrorism and terrorists comparable to Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden.
Yet, Blair and Howard followed Bush and his hawkish vice-president Dick Cheney, who had been looking for a way to get rid of Hussein, the thorn in their side, ever since the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the US.
In this, the two prime ministers went along with an American agenda, which was very much driven by a combination of three right-wing clusters that had come to dominate the Bush administration's foreign policy: born-again Christians represented by Bush himself; neo-conservatives, led by deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz; and ultra-nationalists, whose cause was championed by Rumsfeld.
Although these clusters emerged from different backgrounds, they had overlapping objectives: to invade Iraq in order to transform it into a democracy as a means to spread the gospel of democracy to the rest of the Middle East in support of US geopolitical dominance, which would also make America's only strategic partner in the region, Israel, more secure.
This bizarre agenda was apparently not taken into consideration in either the British or Australian governments' decision to go to war as America's allies in a "coalition of the willing".
Australia was fortunate to lose no more than two personnel; the same could not be said about Britain, which lost 179 troops, and America, which lost some 4,000 soldiers - not to mention tens of thousands who were injured and fell sick in the theatre of the conflict. This does not include all those returnees who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed, wounded and displaced, accompanied by massive destruction of Iraqi towns and cities since the invasion.
It is appropriate for Blair and Howard to pay tribute to all those British and Australian soldiers who fought in America's trillion-dollars war and to hold moments of silence for those who were killed. What about the unbelievable amount of suffering to which the Iraqi people have been subjected? There have been no apologies to them, other than expressions of hollow regret.
The reason that Iraq is in a mess today is largely because of the ill-advised invasion and post-invasion handling of the country. In the process of removing Hussein, whose power had been reduced to being an irritant rather than a threat to anyone and who had prevented Al Qaeda - or, for that matter, any other extremist organisation - from securing a foothold in Iraq, the US and its allies also destroyed the Iraqi state. They bombed its infrastructure and dismantled its administration and security apparatus, without having a suitable plan for replacing them.
One of the fundamental consequences of this was the transformation of Iraq from a strong dictatorial state, with suppressed societies, to a weak state, with strong societies. The latter had historically harboured serious ethnic and sectarian differences and now had the opportunity to compete to fill the political and strategic vacuum that the invasion and occupation had generated. No wonder this situation eventually gave rise to such a violent extremist entity as the so-called Islamic State, which has brought the US and some of its allies, including Britain and Australia, back to military operations in Iraq.
It is high time that Bush, Blair and Howard offered sincere apologies to the Iraqi people. In the case of Australia, it is also extremely desirable to hold an inquiry similar to that of Chilcot into Australia's involvement in the invasion.
Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.