CANBERRA - On Aug. 16 a group of Australians, led by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and former Chief of the Defense Force Gen. Peter Gration, launched a call for an inquiry into how and why Australia joined the Iraq war in 2003. The goal is not to rake over old coals, but to improve how war and peace decisions are made and to strengthen the governmental structures against precipitate and flawed decisions in the future.
In committing their countries to the United States-led war, the Blair and Howard governments pitted their judgments ahead of both mass and informed public opinion in Britain, Australia and the world.
There were massive public demonstrations against the war option: “We the peoples of the world” united to wage peace before a war began. Call it the people’s preemption. It failed.
In addition, in America, Australia and Britain, between 43 and 53 distinguished former diplomats and military chiefs published unprecedented open letters critical of their government’s deceptions in the leadup to the war and warning of its consequences. All were ignored.
Writing in The Independent (London) last month, Matthew Norman remarked that “in terms of foreign policy catastrophe, Iraq makes Suez seem a trifling diplomatic gaffe.” Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said similarly that the invasion of Iraq was “the greatest disaster in American foreign policy,” as Iran was the biggest beneficiary.
Taking a country to war is the single most solemn international responsibility of any government that puts soldiers and civilians in harm’s way, leads to broken dreams and shattered futures for families, sows bitter hatred among peoples, creates foreign enemies and can inspire acts of terror in retaliation.
For victors and defeated alike in Europe, wars meant displacement, destruction, deprivation, privation, invasion, occupation and mass murder. Europeans have a shared memory of war as a terrible human-made calamity: Would France really want to repeat its “victories” in the two world wars? In the late Tony Judt’s words, the United States today “is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military.”
Democratic states should routinely conduct an independent inquiry by competent authorities to review the decision to go to war and draw appropriate conclusions on justification, preparations and outcomes.
Since 1945, the United Nations has spawned a corpus of law to stigmatize aggression and create a robust norm against it. Countries retain the right the to use military force in individual or collective self-defense. That was not the case in 2003. In her resignation letter submitted on the eve of the Iraq war, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the deputy legal adviser to the U.K. Foreign Office, described military action in Iraq as “an unlawful use of force” that “amounts to the crime of aggression.”
What legal advice did the Australian government rely on to invade Iraq?
Whether Australia was justified in joining the U.S. misadventure requires a wide-ranging inquiry. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Iraq War. A decade on is a good time to reflect back on the reasons, circumstances and decision-making procedures by which a country went to any war.
There is by now widespread, although not unanimous, international agreement that the Iraq War was morally wrong, illegal, unjustified and had many seriously damaging consequences for Western interests. The long-term consequences of the war for Australia’s security interests require introspection.
The Iraq War was in violation of Australia’s international obligations under the ANZUS Treaty. Article 1 obligates parties “to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” The obligation to respect the U.N. Charter was breached in the Iraq War. Australia must once again reconcile its ANZUS and U.N. obligations.
The U.K. has had several Iraq War-related inquiries (Hutton, Butler, Chikcott). An all-encompassing inquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War would be following in the footsteps of the mother of parliamentary democracy — not setting a precedent. Since 2003 the international community has for the first time agreed to a definition of aggression: “The invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State on the territory of another State, or any military occupation, however temporary, resulting from such invasion or attack.”
Australia must carefully study the implications of this and draw the right lessons from the Iraq War for future calls to arms that could expose its political leaders and military commanders to prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
Next year Australia will also commence disengaging from military combat operations in Afghanistan. Because of the geographical-cum-chronological proximity of Iraq and Afghanistan, an inquiry could benefit from considering the two experiences together, including the extent to which the Iraq War undermined the prospects for success in Afghanistan.
The Mideast region remains tense, with the volatile situation in Syria and the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program threatening to descend into internal, regional and/or international war.
Some commentators see Australia being drawn into a U.S.-led strategy of containment of China in the Pacific. This, too, could potentially flare up into interstate conflict that entangles Australia.
Unless the government is confident of not having to go to war again, an inquiry to improve the structures and procedures for making the correct decisions and judgments will improve and strengthen the nation’s war-fighting capacity.
Australia is cautiously hopeful of being elected to a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council in 2013-2014. This puts extra responsibility as a member of the key international law-enforcement body to reaffirm its warmaking authority and competence, and to make sure that Australia has drawn the hard lessons from a previous flawed war.
Ramesh Thakur is professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; adjunct professor at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University; and a former U.N. assistant secretary general. He is a member of the Iraq War Inquiry Group (www.iraqwarinquiry.org.au).