People have taken the high road on the Iraq War, people have taken the low road. And then there’s John Howard, who is digging a tunnel so he can look for light at the end of it. The former PM’s speech to the Lowy Institute is admirable in its concision. It begins with a lie in the first sentence:

“The belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was near universal.”

It might have been among governments, but it wasn’t among the experts they refused to listen to. Both MI6 and the German secret service had cast doubt on the evidence of “Curveball” — Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi — who claimed to be a chemical engineer on a fictitious weapons of mass destruction program in exchange for a steady stream of cash. The then weapons inspector Hans Blix said the case wasn’t proven. The former weapons inspector Scott Ritter said there was no evidence at all of WMDs. The evidence presented by the UK and US governments centred on an MA thesis grabbed off the internet (“weapons 45 minutes from use”), reports of “steel tubes” (shown to be non-usable by reactors), reports of yellowcake sales from Niger (shown to be false by the US’ own investigator, who was then smeared by his own government) and, best of all, Colin Powell’s display at the UN of photos of — gasp —  water trucks, proof apparently of hydrogen bombs or something. It was all transparently false, even at the time.

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The tradition of pathetically weak proof continues here. Who does Howard quote to buttress his argument? Simon Crean and Kevin Rudd, leaders of the opposition, dependent for their information on the government of the day, led by, who was it … pathetic, really. If you have to rely for retrospective authority on the people you kept out of power, you’ve pretty much conceded the argument.

It’s not Howard’s only own goal in the piece. He quotes CIA director Michael Morrell telling President Barack Obama, during the decision as to whether to launch the raid against Osama Bin Laden: “I am telling you the case for WMDs wasn’t just stronger, it was much stronger.” It was if you were in an arrogant US thought bubble, or sycophantic to it, and wouldn’t listen to non-US intelligence agencies, or — gasp — those outside the national security establishment. Obama wasn’t, so he opposed the Iraq war and launched the raid against Bin Laden. We call that judgement and cool reason, which conservatives used to see as a virtue.

It must drive John Howard mad that the man he denounced as a dangerous contender for the presidency turned out to be the statesman, and George Bush and Howard himself were the dupes of excitable and self-serving shadow players. Libya, Obama’s own US military involvement, supported a grassroots revolution, earnt the US a wealth of genuine gratitude and resulted in less than 200 civilian casualties and not a single American casualty. That’s what Obama did instead of Iraq. Obama: 3, Bush/Howard: 0, by my reckoning.

Howard’s finale is Catch-22 worthy: “Iraq’s economy is growing by 10% a year!” So did Germany’s post-1945. Destruction tends to be a demand creator.

Iraqis still lack the electricity, health supplies and basic services they had access to even under Saddam Hussein’s torpid, sinister, sanctions-afflicted regime. Doubtless few want Saddam back. But the Arab Spring — in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and most bloodily in Syria — shows people who fight for their freedom own it in a genuine fashion. The post-conflict Spring societies have genuine pluralism, public involvement of women, new media and global interconnection. The Iraq invasion may well have delayed that process by years, tarring any dissent in such countries as “pro-American”, and giving Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and others a last chance to present themselves to their populace as national leaders.

By contrast, Iraq’s elections are owned by corporate power elites, it is dominated by Iran, and it has sharia law written into the constitution of what was once the most gender-progressive country in the region. That’s what happens when you invade people and impose a parliamentary order, rather than assisting, or simply standing back, while they secure their own liberty.

The tragic part beyond the self-parody is not merely the several hundred thousand Iraqi dead, or those still to die from the continuing violence — it’s the toll on American soldiers, many of them from the underclass enlisting to get an affordable education. Some 5000 died in combat over a decade; more than that will die of suicide in the years to come. When you factor in early deaths from alcoholism and drug abuse, the largest cause of US death in the Iraq war will be simply going to it. The cost in terms of veteran care, criminality and then imprisonment will run well past $100 billion.

The war itself will eventually have cost close to $4 trillion, or two decades’ worth of US GDP growth. The war’s overall result has been to hurry on American decline relative to China by a decade or more.

Howard knows all this, but he has two modes: acute politician and fantasist. And where war and the US are concerned the latter takes over, in a manner that is not merely politically self-serving, but psychologically so.

The Lowy Institute is a pretty transparent centre-right Israel booster outfit, but it has pretensions to contributing to that politics through rational reflection. We’ll watch with interest to see if anyone associated with the place allows Howard’s self-serving farrago to go unchallenged.