The bureaucratic and parliamentary structures that enabled the Howard government to participate in the attack on Iraq on the basis of a lie in 2003 remain in place and if anything have been strengthened. With the Trump administration eager for war with Iran, there is nothing to stop the Australian government from again fabricating a threat to justify its participation in an illegal invasion of yet another Middle Eastern country.
Australia’s participation in the attack on Iraq remains a major and unaddressed problem within our political system. Despite incontrovertible evidence that the Howard government ignored intelligence agency advice and lied about the threat from Saddam Hussein, those responsible have never been held to account or even questioned in the kind of forum their British counterparts faced in the Chilcott inquiry.
Not merely did the venture increase the terrorist threat to Australia and other participating nations, lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and an array of war crimes by coalition forces — as well as generate the conditions for the rise of Islamic State — it created a deep and lingering distrust in the electorate of both governments and intelligence agencies. This is a distrust that the lack of accountability for the perpetrators only worsened.
Today, the government can still commit Australian forces to foreign missions, however illegal and misbegotten, without the approval of parliament or even parliamentary debate. Moreover, despite a push by Labor’s Left faction, that bipartisan position won’t change anytime soon, with Labor deputy and source for US diplomats Richard Marles an opponent of any change to the executive having “the sole prerogative” to send forces to invade other countries.
And while the parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies has improved marginally since the Howard years — what is now the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has a slightly broader remit than the days when it was confined to checking annual reports — it is still controlled by the government. It has no power to conduct reviews into the operations of intelligence agencies or initiate its own inquiries.
Another source of accountability has been closed off since then. In 2014, the government dramatically strengthened the laws around intelligence officials to prevent whistleblowing and increased the jail terms they face if they expose crime or misconduct. As Andrew Wilkie, the former intelligence officer who was crucial to revealing how flawed the Howard government’s pretext for attacking Iraq was, noted at the time, this was a deliberate effort to deter media scrutiny of intelligence agencies:
It is another distraction from the fact that our heightened security environment is a result of us helping to start a war that has run for 11-and-a-half years, fomented more turmoil in the Middle East and caused more angst within our own community.
What also remains in Australia is a shallowness on the right that saw little conservative opposition to the Iraq war or subsequent military adventurism like Tony Abbott’s return to Iraq in 2014. Some of the most vehement opposition to the looming Iran conflict in the US is coming from the right — both from Trump supporters anxious that he maintain his pre-election commitment to avoid foreign interventions, and from conservative Trump haters who see him blundering into another war with the encouragement of hawks and big defence contractors.
Outlets as diverse as the National Review, American Conservative Magazine and the Cato Institute have lashed Trump’s approach to Iran from a conservative perspective. Here, that kind of intellectual and ideological diversity on the right is unthinkable — let alone the idea it might support multiple media outlets and a willingness to debate policies on their merits rather than on partisanship.
But the case against attacking Iran — and the current, unprovoked sanctions regime imposed by Trump — is if anything significantly stronger from a conservative than from a progressive standpoint: Iran was not a threat until Trump unilaterally broke a JCPOA nuclear agreement, thus removing any incentive for Iran to conclude any deal with the US ever again. Sanctions and US aggression are strengthening the hand of Iranian hardliners. We have had sixteen years’ experience of what western military adventurism can do in the Middle East and how costly any attack is likely to be, and it will significantly increase the security threat to Western countries.
The only beneficiaries of any attack will be US defence companies, the murderous Saudi regime and the hard right of Israeli politics.
As it stands, Australia remains the only participant in the Iraq war that has not learnt any lessons from that debacle. That failure may yet prove costly if another generation of Washington chickenhawks get their way.