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Iraq 10 years on: lessons for today

By Andrew Farran - posted Thursday, 7 February 2013

The 10th anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq will fall on 19th March (or the 18th if the pre-invasion invasion by Australian SAS forces is counted, as it should be).

While the invasion may have removed a nasty dictator, its consequences in deaths, casualties, property damage and unresolved political and ethic conflict, have been incalculable. 

The one lesson to be learnt above all others stems from the manner in which  Australia became militarily involved in that war. Indeed the term ‘war’ itself is problematical given that Australia has not made a ‘declaration of war’ at any time since World War 2, and yet Australian forces have been committed in armed conflict abroad on numerous occasions since.In several of these instances the involvement had small beginnings but with so-called ‘mission creep’ the scale of the conflict was in every meaningful sense ‘warfare’ in nature.


If Australian forces are to be deployed abroad from now on we need to be clear how these decisions are taken and about the safeguards that should exist to ensure that such actions are covered both in domestic and international law. We need to be clear also that our domestic law complies with the latter - given that Australia now is a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court and that those responsible for war crimes whether they are soldiers or politicians are accountable for their actions before the court.

In the Iraq case the political commitment was made by the then Prime Minister in consultation with his Minister for Foreign Affairs - not the Cabinet. The invasion was actioned by the Defence Minister under Section 8 of the Defence Act. The Governor-General was barely given an opportunity ‘to counsel, advise and warn’ as is the prerogative of that office. Indeed it is understood that the Prime Minister of the day was under the impression that ANZUS alone was sufficient authority, notwithstanding that the relevant clause in the treaty refers to actions being subject to ‘constitutional processes’.

In this far from thorough process no certificate as to legality was sought or obtained from the Attorney General; nor was any assurance sought as to the level of civilian casualties that might result from the invasion. Were any of our Asian neighbours consulted or advised beforehand?

Over and above was the ‘democratic deficit’. It will be recalled that the month before the invasion witnessed the largest ever public demonstrations in Australia and the U.K, and elsewhere, against the prospect of an invasion, as much because the alleged grounds as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction were not proven. Moreover the Iraqi Government had already capitulated and shown willing to submit to unconditional inspections.

The primary lesson is that Australia could again become involved in serious warfare on a tenuous line of authority, held largely by just a few politically vulnerable people. The likelihood of misjudgments over future armed conflicts is not reassuring, looking around the region and beyond. The Gillard Government recently announced in the context of a security review that inter-state conflict was a greater threat now than terrorism. While we don’t know which countries it is thought we might be warring with, the view of former Prime Minister Howard that ANZUS per se provides authority for involvement puts us on shaky ground indeed. Think of China and the South and East China seas; of Japan and China; of North Korea, let alone Iran.

A distinguished US historian, Andrew J. Bacevich, giving the 2012 George C. Marshall Lecture in Military History, stated: “With the possible exception of Israel, the United States today is the only advanced democracy in which belief in war’s efficacy continues to enjoy widespread acceptance. Others - the citizens of Great Britain and France, of Germany and Japan - took from the twentieth century a different lesson: War devastates. It impoverishes. It coarsens. Even when seemingly necessary or justified, it entails brutality, barbarism, and the killing of innocents. To choose war is to leap into the dark, entrusting the nation’s fate to forces beyond human control”


While war may have ‘worked’ for and ‘made’ the U.S. in 1917-18 and again in 1941-45, it hasn’t done so since; and Iraq and Afghanistan are clear examples. Armed force has its use in constraining belligerency and protecting lives. It can no longer be an instrument for re-making the world in one’s own image. Such use leads to assured mutual destruction. In Australia’s case we need to judge for ourselves when the deployment of our forces abroad is justified in the national interest, that all its consequences are assessed, and that decisions about its use follow and observe clear democratic and constitutionally correct principles.

Writing in “Why did we go to war in Iraq” former Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser observed: “In all this [the Iraq invasion] the Australian government may have thought it had no choice if it were to retain the confidence of the US. But was this a misjudgment, confusing the nature of our obligations under ANZUS, which requires only consultation about threats in the Pacific region?”

He went on to ask whether the government had acted independently and independently assessed the intelligence before it; or sought an authoritative opinion on its legalities or the implications for our standing with Asian neighbours?

These issues are basic to how an Australian government should proceed the next time Australia is faced with a situation where our forces might need to be involved abroad. Done correctly these decisions will have public support and Australia will have shown that we are after all a mature and independent nation.

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About the Author

Andrew Farran, is a former diplomat (Australian) and academic (Monash University Law School). Diplomatic postings included Pakistan (incl 2 visits to Afghanistan), Indonesia, and the UN General Assembly. He was an adviser to the Australian Government during the GATT/WTO Uruguay Round and a former vice-president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. He is also a publicist and company director (Australia and UK).

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