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Even without WMDs, war in Iraq was justified

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Wednesday, 1 September 2004


One of the many public debates to which I have paid almost no attention has been the question about whether the Government really did believe that there were “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, before authorising Australia's tiny involvement in the invasion of that country.

As I wrote around the time invasion was being considered, I did not think it likely that there would be any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq and, in any case, the question was irrelevant. It was obvious that the Americans were seeking an excuse, any excuse, to invade, and they wanted to invade because the US Government had to be seen to be doing something following the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Iraq was an easy target in part because it was such a loathsome regime no one outside of Islamic extremists really cared if it was slapped around.

The fact that the American intelligence agencies managed to convince themselves that Iraq had WMDs is, I admit, more a matter of concern but hardly surprising. The American intelligence community, which would have been the source for most of the Australian assessment of the situation, has a history of telling Governments what they want to hear. In the 1960s and 1970s the CIA's analysis work is generally considered to be acceptable, but during the 1980s when President Reagan was in power it developed a habit of wildly exaggerating the strength and military capacity of the Soviet Union. Ample intelligence to the contrary never found its way into reports (See the 1996 interview with former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman on CNN as part of a series of specials on the Cold War. Goodman's points are echoed by others who have viewed the now extensive declassified documents on CIA analysis.) The agency took its own flawed analysis sufficiently seriously to be taken completely by surprise when the Soviet Union collapsed. Identifying non-existent weapons of mass destruction would be a mere detail.

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When those opposed to the war are tired of pointing out that there were no WMDs, they turn to arguments that the US, and its allies, broke international law by invading. I don't dispute this argument; very likely international law was broken. But appeals to such laws would be more convincing if there was any system of enforcing it. There is not. Saddam Hussein's Iraq started two, completely unprovoked wars - against Iran and against Kuwait, with the first war lasting 10 years. It gassed thousands of its own citizens and tortured and killed many thousands if not millions more. Where were the closely reasoned appeals to international law then? What was the UN doing to enforce international law? For that matter, as one of a long list of failures of that international body, why has it taken so long to react to all the well publicised ethnic cleansing - or whatever label is applied to the massacres - in the Sudan?

With the UN so ineffective, ad-hoc coalitions are about the only way to bring about regime changes in particularly dreadful countries, albeit with one key prerequisite which was not present in the recent invasion. Vietnam affected a regime change in Cambodia-Kampuchea by invasion in 1978, after Pol Pot's appalling regime attacked Vietnam several times. Idi Amin in Uganda was deposed in 1979 by a coalition of Ugandan exiles and forces from neighbouring Tanzania, after Amin attacked Tanzania. The Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in 1982, triggered by the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands (which should have been handed to Argentina decades previously, but for the fact that the inhabitants desperately did not want to be part of Argentina), had the satisfactory result of sweeping the Argentinean Military from power. Britain took back the Falklands and never went near the South American mainland, of course, but the result provoked the populace into doing something about their own government. In all of the above cases the autocrats in charge provoked the wars that swept them from power, in order to distract the population from their mishandling of domestic affairs.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was in the same vein as the other examples. It was unprovoked and undertaken so that Hussein could solve the money troubles that beset him thanks to his first war of aggression against Iran. By rights, and by tradition, Hussein should have gone then. But the first President Bush did not press home the attack. Instead, Hussein lost all his Kurdish territories and had an embargo imposed - an embargo that affected the country's poor people but did not lose him power. So the real difference in the approach by the US's Coalition of the Willing is not so much that they invaded another country with a loathsome tradition, and affected a regime change, but that they invaded without any direct link between provocation and reaction.

But is it such a bad thing that Iraq was invaded and Saddam Hussein brought low, especially now we know that the aftermath could have been handled much better than it has? Under Hussein, the engineers in charge of the water system and power plants somehow managed to muddle through by scrounging parts or patching things up as they went. When the American contractors arrived, so the story goes, they pushed aside those ramshackle arrangements that at least delivered some sort of service, saying that they were going to build new plants or get new plants. To date they have been unable to deliver on those plans, and they have blamed the country's disruption for their failure. This means that basic services have gone backward. Once these problems are finally sorted out there is little doubt that Iraq will be better off. Anything would be better than Hussein. But the interim failure is unfortunate.

On balance, and considering that Hussein's regime was long past its use-by date I still think the invasion was acceptable, although it would have been better if it had been done under the first Bush, and a lot more thought had been put into what to do after the invasion. There is a case to be made for certain regimes being deposed by other countries, and never mind what the UN says. It is better if the neighbours of the country in question do it, in response to an act of aggression. But failing strong action from any of the neighbours, a gratuitous invasion will do.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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