Last night, John Howard was confronted face-to-face with the question that has been 10 years coming: why did you take us to war in Iraq on a false premise, with no proof?

His answer — that he “had the most responsibility” for Australia going to war, and that some “key assessments” from intelligence agencies were “wrong” — will likely do little to alleviate people’s concerns about the decision. But it’s nevertheless important the question was asked to him.

Sydney’s Lowy Institute scored a coup last night when it hosted Howard’s speech marking 10 years since the war began. Such was the intense interest in the speech, widely thought to be the first time the former PM had publicly spoken about the Iraq War in recent times, that the venue had to be changed to increase security. Faced with the prospect of a huge protest, Lowy head Dr Michael Fullilove switched it at the last minute from Lowy’s Bligh Street headquarters to the Hotel Intercontinental, so Howard could enter and leave via the car park.

However, about 120 protesters did stand under the window of the room on Macquarie Street and kept up a kind of Greek chorus of chants until the police moved them on, mid-way through the speech. Inside the room, several beefy-looking men with ear pieces scanned the crowd for signs of trouble — adding to an expectation that we were about to hear something exciting, which was sadly unrealised.

In 2003, the Australian government took us to war in Iraq because Us president George W. Bush, enraged and emasculated by 9/11, wanted it. Last night’s speech was a myriad excuses for this act, widely believed to be Australia’s most catastrophic foreign policy error since entering the Vietnam War.

Howard didn’t concede any of this in the speech, although he did face a few hard questions, none of which he fully answered.

Academic and writer Alison Broinowski stood up to remind the former PM that “you told Parliament several times before Iraq that your government would not breach international law … However, in defiance of the UN Security Council and with no proof of weapons of mass destruction … you decided to invade Iraq. So who is responsible for Iraq, if not you?”

Howard conceded that “I, as the ultimate head of the government, had the most responsibility” for that. However, he then went on to say that the issue had been debated by the National Security Committee and the full cabinet, where it was “endorsed by every single member”.

There’s one problem with this argument, however — does anyone seriously believe that Alexander Downer, Robert Hill and Peter Costello were ever going to stand up to Howard on anything? This is a group of people whose combined force of personality couldn’t even match Janette!

Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling asked Howard, given the arguments in 2003 that Iraq was a rogue state with nuclear weapons, “shouldn’t the US today be invading Iran and North Korea?”

However, the 73-year-old dodged the issue, saying the “final whistle had not yet been blown on Iran” and that “no country can exert greater influence on North Korea than China … which has, so far, refused to intervene.”

In the speech, the former PM emphatically rejected that Australia had gone to war on a lie:

“After the fall of Saddam, and when it became apparent that stockpiles of WMDs had not been found in Iraq, it was all too easy for certain people, who only months earlier has said Iraq had the weapons, to begin claiming that Australia had gone to war based on a lie. That claim merits the most emphatic rejection. Not only does it impugn the integrity of the decision-making process at the highest level but also the professionalism and integrity of intelligence agencies here and elsewhere. Some of their key assessments proved to be wrong, but that is a world away from those assessments being the product of deceit and/or political manipulation.”

We did get to hear him say, “when I left public office, or rather, when public office left me,” which shows a rare talent for self-deprecation. But, going in, I had had a fantasy we were about to hear a version of that famous mea culpa produced by former US secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who eventually regretted his support for the Vietnam War.

In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were “wrong, terribly wrong” to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he kept the war going long after he realised it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn president Lyndon Johnson around. In his 2003 book The Fog of War McNamara said: “War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend … our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

Wouldn’t it have been truly satisfying to have heard Howard admit, even in a small way, that he had been wrong?