Irrefutable. Fifteen years ago, not every respected US war correspondent made this assessment of the threat posed by Iraq. Nor did every respected US scholar of international relations. Fifteen years ago, though, respectability could be lost in an instant. To oppose a war that began March 20, 2003 was to oppose freedom, humanity and the low theatre performed by Secretary Colin Powell at the United Nations.

It was to embrace a despot, to collaborate with terrorists and/or to be a conspiracy theorist. Perhaps a person was unconvinced by a drawing of weapons facilities. Perhaps a person knew firsthand that a nation already invaded by the first Bush, one subject to Clinton administration sanctions so extreme they ended half a million Iraqi lives in childhood, simply did not have the means to build such evil. In just weeks, those Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) diagrams offered to the UN Security Council were no longer evidence, but “irrefutable” bullshit drawn from the imagination of some Pentagon doodler. Didn’t matter. Journalists and nations who had joined the Coalition of the Willing found themselves unable to leave.

In Australia, John Howard remained committed to a real Middle-Eastern war that would serve the domestic culture wars from which he had derived his power. Maybe Iraq served a personal Biggles fixation as well? Who knows. We do know, though, that local opposition to the war was not immediately read here as a sign of insanity or dissent. Early editorials in The Australian were publicly dismissed for what they were: upcycled US State Department press releases. The war was despised enough to draw one decent speech from Mark Latham. To describe Australia’s servility to US foreign policy as one maintained by a “conga-line of suckholes” is to excuse at least four of the awful columns he has upchucked in the ensuing 15 years.

In the US, though, things were different. By October 2003, GW Bush had a post-WMD rationale that would not have been uttered in a cynical liberal democracy, such as ours was at the time. Sure, Bush said, he didn’t find those weapons, but he had sure formed the opinion that Hussein, former US ally, was a “madman”. The leader was, as things turned out, pretty powerless. Still. He was in urgent need of mental health care, which the US and its allies would continue to provide.

The brutality in Iraq was reconstituted daily by the posture of US pundits. It seems extraordinary to me that any human adult could argue those who “moralised” against the atrocity were just as bad as those who moralised for it. But the unstintingly average Nicholas Kristof did. Like The Washington Post, The New York Times held for as long as it could to WMD. When those disappeared, writers and broadcasters from “progressive” US outlets performed painful acts of debate-club yoga for years. The arguments are empty and embarrassing: if you don’t like the war and you say so, you’re just as bad as Bush; Iraqi people were begging for it, and look, we found one guy who promised us “sweets and flowers”; if you oppose the devastation of lives and infrastructure, why don’t you just marry Saddam?

That so many Australians protested the invasion and were so quick to counter government claims is to their credit. In 2003, as you may recall, our chief Suckhole had carefully diminished the local possibilities for public debate. That anyone felt able to say anything cranky at all is quite something. That was otherwise a bleak and deceptive era. Dissent was dismissed as elitist and protest by workers, Aboriginal people, asylum seekers or anyone, really, with a legitimate material beef became cultural under Howard. Somehow, the interests of people with almost nothing became “academic”. Got no house or land? Go back to your ivory tower, you elitist.

We everyday Australians tolerated, even believed in, those culture wars, but we did not unequivocally support the Iraq War. Fifteen years ago today, we held on to a little cynicism. Howard managed to delude many with his proto Political Correctness Gone Mad madness, but he couldn’t make us join this particular conga line. Killing civilians. It just felt wrong to a lot of us.

Today, however, US interests have become the interests of Australian pundits. Once, you could say, “Well, I don’t think we should go to war” and you wouldn’t be mistaken for Saddam’s biggest fan. Urge a reading of a Putin speech that does not tally with the local view of the leader as a despotic madman braggard, however,  and, well: You’re Just as Bad as a Dictator, I guess.

The US is preparing for conflict with Russia. Mattis has made this plain. Trump’s public defence of Putin may have a curious, perhaps a filthy, origin. The administration remains committed nonetheless to a near-trillion-dollar nuclear program aimed at that nation, and potential allies Iran and China.

Not to be a “moraliser”, which would make me just as bad as a dictator, etc, but I suggest we set aside a moment today to read US foreign policy performance as we did in 2003. Sure, the show is now more elaborate, and the star is prone to forget his lines. But the story is the same.

Peter Fray

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