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How is deposing a tyrannical regime 'a mistake – whatever the motivation'?

By Jim Nolan - posted Wednesday, 21 January 2004

In a recent piece of gratuitous advice to American conservatives, journalist Christopher Hitchens remarked that despite their manifest shortcomings, they at least possessed the "confidence to rehearse [their] differences in public". This insight may usefully be called in aid to highlight the essential difference in the current temper of the Australian politics on the one hand, and that of the US and UK on the other.

In the US, the traditional Republican foreign policy right has fractured along fault lines with the "realist" Kissinger, Scowcroft and Bush Snr (in spirit) conservatives on one side and the "Wilsonian internationalists", Bush Jnr, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, most conspicuously, on the other. Likewise, the UK has been alight with incandescent debates within Labour and now the Tories and the anti war left are making common cause against Blair.

In marked contrast, in Australia neither side of the parliament has exhibited the slightest fraying of the lock-step position each has adopted on Iraq.


This is a troubling phenomenon. The complete absence of any dissenting views within the somnolent liberal caucus is striking. There no John McCain figure prepared to criticise constructively the execution of the Iraq project even while accepting its moral justification. More significant still, perhaps, is the almost complete absence of any spirited polemical defence of the Iraq policy. In the ranks of Australia’s political conservatives the greatest foreign-policy issue since Vietnam has assumed all of the urgency of a sleepy summer afternoon at the beach.

Labor’s condition is similar but its predicament is in every respect worse – at least the Tories are on the winning side. It beggars belief that there are no Anne Clwyds or Joe Liebermans in the ALP caucus but a caucus "line" of singular monotony. While it has been easy to excoriate the Liberal’s support for the US as part of the "conga line of suck holes", the arguments of the most successful Social Democratic leader ever – Tony Blair – have been quietly overlooked without any felt need for explanation or justification. Passionate articles making a case for intervention on humanitarian grounds by, to name just two, Ramos Horta, and Vaclev Havel have been passed over without comment.

Since those events, however, Iraqis for the first time in three decades have a chance for a decent future, and the world has witnessed the capture of Saddam and the remarkable about face of Gaddafi. Even OBL (or his channeller) sees only devastation for the jihadists if the gloomy prognosis issued by and published in The Guardian is any guide.

One could be excused for hoping that these developments might herald a re-think by Labor on Iraq, and a loosening of the caucus line - especially after members of the federal caucus signed a letter to President Bush welcoming the removal of Saddam.

No such liberalisation appears to be in prospect. Just last week Mark Latham is quoted as saying that "they made a mistake in going to a war on Iraq. Whatever the reason or motivation was, I think it was a mistake." This statement seems to leave little room for the possibility that it was nevertheless justified on human-rights grounds.

Latham seems to have no regrets that he and others turned their backs on the desperate pleas of the Kurds and others for assistance against Saddam. In The London Observer last March, the Kurdish leader Baram Salih, (who had addressed similar remarks to the February 2003 Socialist International conference) wrote an impassioned plea for the support of the Left:


As a Kurd, I know war is a devastating undertaking and should be questioned. But in the end a fundamental moral argument needs to be made for a war of liberation to save a people from tyranny. Many on the Left ignore the daily reign of terror the Ba'athist regime inflicts on Iraqis, yet the human rights of Iraqis should also be their cause.

In 1979, when Salih first went to the UK (as a refugee) he recalled:

... some principled people, mainly left-wing, understood our plight. … Where are these friends now? Regrettably, many are denouncing a war that would liberate Iraq. Like those who shunned us in the Eighties, some of our former friends find the martyrdom of the Iraqi people to be an irritant. They avert their eyes from the grisly truth of our suffering, while claiming concern at the human cost of war. … Iraqis are overlooked by an anti-Americanism that does not understand why we need military action to break our shackles. Some call for civil disobedience to impede the bid to free Iraq. In Iraq, civil disobedience is a death sentence.

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An edited version of this article was first published in The Age on 16 January 2004.

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About the Author

Jim Nolan is an old fashioned social democrat and Sydney Barrister with an interest in Human Rights. He is a long-standing member of the Australian Labor Party.

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