The Howard Government’s foreign policy in several key areas and on several levels is in serious disarray. There have been significant policy failures, leading in some cases to a deterioration in relations with regional states. But of course the worst failures are to be found in tormented Iraq.
Despite the ongoing slaughter - no other word seems appropriate, given the appalling level of civilian casualties - in Iraq, it does not appear to have dawned on the government that the presence of its troops there is not part of the solution but of the problem.
The situation Bush, Blair and Howard created by their invasion and occupation of Iraq has been exploited by al-Qaida, by Sunni and Shia extremists, by Saddam loyalists and others, to the point where scores die violently (some by torture) every week, where basic services like power are still not available 24-7 even in the capital and where no one is secure outside the fortified enclave in central Baghdad.
Now, with the scale of the failure too great to be plausibly ignored, the thieves have begun to fall out as our still purblind PM disputes Blair’s belated admission that Iraq is a “disaster”. This doubtless explains why the British are now talking about exit plans and schedules - something a bit too realistic for John Howard.
I harbour no illusions that the departure of foreign troops will herald a new era of peace, democracy and prosperity in Iraq. More likely, it will be the signal for another traditional ethnic (and religious) cleansing war or wars, where the major interest groups slug it out to see who gets to lord it over the rest and steal the oil revenue. The likely outcomes of that include an Iraq governed by some kind of authoritarian regime, possibly a Shia theocracy allied to and dependent on Iran, or a fragmentation of the country into de facto independent and probably warring regions.
Some might think this prospect reason enough to stay, but after nearly four years it is clear that the occupation regime has failed. Consider the differences with Germany and Japan by 1949, four years after their occupation by the victorious powers. True, Germany was divided - but by the Cold War only - the West German democracy was ready to begin work, and both Germanys were at least places where people were personally secure (with the obvious authoritarian exceptions in the East) and basic services were again available.
By 1949 Japan too was well on the way to recovering its sovereignty under a US-imposed democratic constitution which, whatever its failures, helped Japan achieve prosperity, stability and more in the way of democracy than it ever had before. It is noteworthy, too, that the successful occupiers of Japan were at least as much out of cultural context there (as alien to the locals) as are those presently failing in Iraq.
In Iraq, however, the US-led war of conquest has been succeeded by two concurrent conflicts - first, between the occupiers and largely anti-US forces, and second, between the major religious groups with a potential ethnic conflict (the Kurds) as well.
It is this dual postwar threat more than anything else which has tripped up the occupiers: their withdrawal now will only end the first war, and perhaps remove a goad prodding some groups into militant action. The second war was probably inevitable once Saddam’s regime fell - however it fell: consider the chaos in ex-Yugoslavia and parts of the ex-USSR once the strong authoritarian regimes there failed. Bush, Blair and Howard created the conditions for this second war, and their continued occupation of Iraq only prolongs the first as well.
The Oil-for-Food scandals
Something the government did not bargain on when it joined the clamour about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD - remember them?) was being hoist on its own petard. The pre-war UN sanctions were intended to prevent Saddam developing WMD (obviously, they did), but of course they led directly to the now infamous Oil-for-Food program and the Australian involvement in huge wheat sale kickbacks to that same Saddam regime we were excoriating daily.
Now there are revelations involving imports of Iraqi oil by at least one company, and six further “matters” are under Australian Federal Police investigation. The damaging political fallout from these scandals is the price Howard pays for his sanctimonious hypocrisy over the reasons for going to war. Unfortunately our wheat farmers, already beset by a once-in-centuries drought, get to pay the dollar costs.
It would now seem that the duplicity many suspected Howard was practising in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq was duplicity indeed. New documents from the AWB (Cole) inquiry apparently show that Howard had taken his pro-war decision about a year before the war, and long before he told the people he made it. Honest John - never ever a GST - strikes again.
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