One of the grubbiest moments of John Howard’s long public life has come some years after his removal from politics, with his effort this week to justify and explain away his government’s participation in the illegal and disastrous attack on Iraq.

Whether Howard committed Australia knowing that the justification for the attack, that Saddam Hussein possessed and was willing to use weapons of mass destruction, was an outright lie won’t be known unless Australia undertakes a similar investigation to the Chilcot Inquiry instigated by Gordon Brown in the UK. We already know, ahead of that committee’s final report, that British PM Tony Blair was told by Foreign Office lawyers that the attack was an illegal war of aggression and by MI6 that the weapons of mass destruction threat from Iraq was “very, very small” and far less significant than that posed by Libya.

That is, Blair knowingly led the UK into an illegal war based on a lie. But until such an investigation here, Howard can be given the benefit of the doubt on that issue.

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But in seeking to justify an attack that led to the death of at least 100,000 Iraqis, and probably two or three times that number, trillions of dollars of wasted US expenditure and the disastrous abandonment of the allied effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Howard resorted to the neoconservatives’ now favoured trick of claiming the attack on Iraq led to the Arab Spring. An “Arab Spring” before the overthrow of Saddam was “unthinkable” Howard said. “It is implausible that the events we now know as the Arab Spring bear no relationship of any kind to the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in 2003,” he claimed, adding that he agreed with the view “that the Arab Spring was triggered by a self-immolating street trader in an obscure Tunisian town is just not credible”.

It’s disgusting enough that Howard dismisses the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, which instigated the protests that toppled Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as a “self-immolating street trader”, but of course he goes much further in seeking to exploit the hundreds of deaths in Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt, the thousands of deaths in Libya and the tens of thousands of deaths in Syria as postfactum justification for the attack on Iraq.

The argument doesn’t stand up, as more realistic supporters of the attack admit. As Peter Maass wrote this week, Iraq repelled Arabs across the Middle East, rather than inspired them — inspired them, allegedly, to sit and wait the best part of a decade before taking action.

“The asinine claims that ‘social media caused the Arab Spring’ or ‘WikiLeaks caused the Arab Spring’ merely lent a high-tech edge to the patronising of Arab communities.”

But it’s more fundamental than using the brave sacrifice of thousands of Arab men and women to justify an illegal war. In doing so, Howard reflects the same mindset that both led the Anglophone nations into the Iraq disaster and guided Western policy toward the Middle East for decades: that Arab people have no capacity to decide their future for themselves, and that they are merely passive communities subservient to local strongmen and awaiting the intervention of Western elites, the old white men running the Anglosphere, to gift them free markets and democracy — though of course only to the extent that it suits Western interests.

This is only one variant on a broader Western attitude of condescension toward Arabs. The reflexive invocation of “the Arab Street” — perennially poised to “explode” — by Leftist commentators reduces Arab people across vastly different societies to a monolithic, inchoate vat of anger, Islamic Rage Boy multiplied a millionfold. The asinine claims that “social media caused the Arab Spring” or “WikiLeaks caused the Arab Spring” merely lent a high-tech edge to the patronising of Arab communities. But none of those came with the price tag of the Iraq War, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, the war crimes, the strategic blunders, the ongoing and horrific legacy in places like Fallujah.

But let’s take Howard at his word and accept that the Iraq War played an important role in the overthrow of the dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, among others.

It’s a little odd that Howard is now boasting of their overthrow as the splendid fruits of his government’s participation in the attack on Iraq. In 2004, Alexander Downer boasted of re-establishing a diplomatic mission to Gaddafi’s Libya and visited the country. Downer was eager to meet with the Colonel himself, but apparently couldn’t quite secure a meeting. In doing so, Downer was merely following the leader of Blair, who had enthusiastically (and literally) embraced Gaddafi.

Then there’s the Mubarak government. Its overthrow, as well, is something Howard wants reflected credit for. But Howard was happy for an Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, to be rendered to Egypt to be tortured by the Mubarak government’s intelligence agencies. Despite persistent denials at the time from the Howard government that it knew where Habib was, Egyptian officials have since confirmed that at least one Australian official was present when Habib was being abused — a revelation that led to the Gillard government immediately agreeing to settle Habib’s litigation against the government for a secret payout.

But again, the Blair government had led the way on that front — MI6 helped arrange the abduction in Hong Kong of an opponent of Gaddafi’s régime and the return of him and his family to Libya, where he was tortured for years. The British government recently paid out over 2 million pounds in compensation for that.

For anyone associated with the attack on Iraq to claim any credit for the removal of monsters like Gaddafi is beyond wrong. It’s sickening.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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