CANBERRA – The invasion of Iraq by the United States, Britain and Australia began 10 years ago on March 20. In Britain, The Guardian has reported that Foreign Secretary William Hague has written to senior members of government to ask that they not discuss the legality of the war.
The Liberal Democrats, in coalition with the Conservatives, have been consistent in their arguments then and since that the case for war was contrived and that the war was waged in violation of international law. They are expected to ignore the advice.
“Ours not to reason why, ours but to kill or die” may serve as the motto for the defense forces, but it is not acceptable for a modern accountable democracy.
I wrote several articles in these pages before, during and after the war in 2003: “U.S. test of U.N. relevance”, Feb. 9; “U.S. bears costs as U.N. is challenged,” March 12; “The United Nations: More relevant now than ever,” March 23; “War vindicates U.N. stance,” April 27; “End of the old world disorder?,” May 10; “Humor’s role in war survives,” May 19; “Contradictory U.S. triumph,” June 1; “Why India said ‘no’ to U.S,” July 17.
All were highly critical of the U.S.-led war in which Australia and Britain played deputy sheriffs with unbridled braggadocio. None required or used any special insider information beyond an intelligent analysis of publicly available sources.
A public lecture I gave at Australian National University on the eve of the war was attended by a capacity audience of 400 people — impressive for a talk by a foreign-based noncelebrity in a city of just 300,000 people. The public anger of the time may have subsided, but public disquiet over how governments manipulated facts and used evidence to justify the illegal war has never been assuaged. Does it really matter to look back in sorrow and anger at divisive events and passions from 10 years ago? For the sake of democracy it does.
Democracy was distinctly un-faddish among fellow students in the 1970s. I was in Delhi in 1975 when Indira Gandhi abrogated democratic liberties and checks on government power for two years. We take democracy for granted when we have it, but we sure miss it when we lose it.
Democracy seems to be under growing threat even in the West, from governments that have used the war on terror as an excuse to trample on civil rights, from others that have pushed antidiscrimination measures in an assault on human rights (especially free speech) that transfer more powers to government-appointed technocrats and tribunals, and from citizens increasingly disenchanted by parliamentarians who refuse to listen.
Democracy relies on a social compact between citizens and representatives. Trust once broken between them can be very difficult to rebuild.
This does not mean that governments have to be slaves to public opinion as in the quote attributed variously to a Frenchman during the upheaval in Paris in 1848 and to Benjamin Disraeli in the U.K.: “I must follow the crowd, for I am their leader.”
If democracy meant just that, we would have government by plebiscite. Instead we elect representatives based on an assessment of party policy platforms and the quality of their judgment.
In my lifetime, nothing broke the trust between people and their government in some of the world’s leading Western democracies more than the 2003 Iraq War. Millions around the world marched to demonstrate strong opposition — a unique example of a powerful antiwar movement before a war had started. But the war went ahead anyway.
The consequence was disastrous for people’s faith in answerable, responsible and responsive government. Countless times as a senior U.N. official in audiences right around the world, I heard the refrain: We made our views known very clearly; they (meaning government) ignored us, don’t trust us and are contemptuous of us; we now return the compliment.
The yearning for accountability remains undimmed. There is growing cynicism and anger, and not just in Africa, that Kenya’s president-elect, Uhuru Kenyatta, is being pursued doggedly by the International Criminal Court while those who committed the “supreme crime” of aggression against Iraq in 2003 walk free and some are still feted at international gatherings.
The American, British and Australian governments brushed aside the public as ill-informed and dismissed the United Nations as lacking in cojones. Asked to comment on reports that his office was bugged, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix reportedly replied, “My only regret was they weren’t listening to what I was saying.”
Conventional wisdom today holds that the Iraq War was among the gravest foreign policy blunders of all times, that the cause was confected with facts and evidence distorted to suit the predetermined policy. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, Islamic extremism and terrorism was further fueled, and Iraq has been left a broken and dysfunctional country deeply divided by sectarian hatreds.
Conventional wisdom is often wrong overall and rarely right in every respect. The best way to demonstrate that and to restore honor to the opinions and judgments of Australian leaders is to hold a full and open public inquiry as has been done in other countries.
The key task will not be to reopen old wounds, but rather, in an age of growing mistrust of government and rising public awareness in Western societies of the preciousness of each human life, to look to how people’s faith can be restored in the processes and institutions that send our soldiers to foreign battlefields.
The alienation of citizens from governments has manifested itself, for example, in the various “occupy” movements. Cross-national public opinion polls confirm the loss of public confidence and faith in the integrity of politicians and political systems in most democracies.
For the sake of reversing the growing tide of public cynicism in democratic governance, for the sake of our children and grandchildren who might be called upon again — perhaps sooner than we realize — to kill and risk being killed on government orders and, above all, for the sake of restoring faith in our democracy: Can we please have leaders we can trust again? — leaders who can outline a compelling vision, explain why it matters, and coax and persuade us to function as a connected community again.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org