It smirked out between the lines from Lord
Downer yesterday – the federal opposition and media pack have been wrong all
along in trying to whip up some outrage about AWB kickbacks because Saddam’s Iraq was
never really a problem for us.

That’s why Downer could claim DFAT had
acted professionally. That’s why Downer could say “I don’t recall being
shocked” when he was told a year ago that Alia was part owned by the Iraq
Government. That’s why Downer could say he didn’t think AWB “would necessarily
be in great difficulties” in the UN’s Volcker investigation. That’s why Mark Vaile was happy doing
whatever he could to help AWB sell grain to Iraq and
why no-one in the Government gave a damn about the scores of suggestions
kickbacks were being paid.

Quite simply, Downer, Vaile and co didn’t
care because Iraq was a good market paying good money and was no threat to anyone.
That’s what our spooks told them right up until the time they were asked to
tell them something different – and even then no-one took it seriously beyond
feigning a little outrage for the sake of currying favour with Washington.

DFAT’s hands off attitude to AWB’s Iraq
trade – I think “post box” was the phrase – and the desperate government
efforts to smooth things over with Baghdad when Downer first followed the
Washington line with a bit of war talk testify that Canberra simply never took
the Iraq sanctions seriously because Saddam’s government was actually fine by us.

It turns out they were pretty much right at
the time. No weapons of mass destruction, no ability to wage war, no Al-Qaeda
connections. A rather brutal and corrupt dictatorship, yes, but no worse than
many. And, like Tito’s Yugoslavia, it kept a lid on nasty tribes just itching for bloody civil war
and various cleansings.

All in all, DFAT, like most European
Governments, realised Saddam was a lesser evil, so what was the point of anyone
getting excited about enforcing some rather silly sanctions?

The thinking was present in BHP’s original
strategy in making a “gift” of wheat to Iraq.
They assumed that sanctions would eventually be lifted and business life with Iraq
would return to normal sooner or later.
That also appears to have been the attitude of the Liberal-National
Party Government by the way DFAT went limp on the sanctions from late 1996.

It was only George W Bush’s mad band of
neo-con warmongers who upset the game by starting to plot their invasion after
September 11, 2001. We didn’t get on board immediately, but eventually John
Howard and his ministers had to dredge up some faux concern about Saddam for
the sake of John’s good friend George.

See, it’s all been a terrible
misunderstanding – but don’t expect the Prime Minister to admit that on Thursday
if he fronts Cole. It’s way outside the inquiry’s mandate.

Peter Fray

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