Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Australia's defence forces should build goodwill at home, not wreck it in Iraq

By Gary Brown - posted Thursday, 6 February 2003

Inch by inch the United States is moving towards war with Iraq and - as the newly announced "contingency deployments" show - inch by inch John Howard's Australia is following.

It seems that President Bush will have his war at any price. He will have it with or without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. He will have it with as many allies as he can draw in, or even with none - though Blair's Britain and Howard's Australia will certainly join him. He will have it even if the ongoing inspections do not produce evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He will have it at a time of his own choosing, whether or not the inspections teams themselves consider that they have done all that they need to.

In 1991 war against Iraq was necessary. It had invaded, conquered and annexed a neighbouring state. It refused all attempts to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal. To allow the conquest of Kuwait to stand would have sent a signal to every would-be aggressor on the planet that foreign conquest with impunity was now possible. The immense coalition that gathered against Iraq, including states that were never friends (let alone allies) of the US, and the support of the Security Council, showed that this judgement, in one way or another, was widely shared.


In 2003 there is no such necessity. The Saddam regime is certainly an oppressive and vicious dictatorship but, as the closing stages of World War II (in both the European and Pacific theatres) showed all too clearly, the people and armed forces of such dictatorships can fight bravely and with desperation against foreign invasion. The Soviets suffered heavy losses during the taking of Nazi Berlin in April 1945. American fear of Japanese fanaticism led to the use of nuclear weapons, so as to avoid the horrendous casualties expected in an invasion of Japan. It is by no means certain that the Iraqis will fold cheaply when attacked: they will be defending their homes.

Being an oppressive dictatorship has hitherto been insufficient to justify invasion. We are told that Iraq must disarm. But how can a state prove that it does not possess certain weapons? Could Australia prove it does not possess, eg, weaponised anthrax?

The Iraqi regime has no missile, either in service or under development, with a range capable of reaching the United States. Any attempt to develop nuclear weapons (and I am not so foolish as to think that Saddam would not develop and use such weapons if he could) can be countered by prompt destruction of any suspect facility. This is what the Israelis did to Iraq in 1981, when they destroyed the Osirak nuclear plant. Missile tests can be reliably detected by satellite surveillance. If we desire to prevent Iraqi development of deliverable weapons of mass destruction, invasion is unnecessary.

Where is the threat now? The Iraqi armed forces will, I fear, fight well in defence of their great cities but their potential for serious offensive operations, even against near neighbours, has been minimal ever since the 1991 disaster. To claim that they pose a significant threat to the United States itself is clearly absurd.

Even if Bush's war is successful, it will set an appalling precedent. On the basis of its unilateral judgement and without the sanction of the United Nations, the US will have waged a war of aggression. It will have appointed itself judge, jury and executioner. If this happens the United States of America will transform the way it is viewed around the world. It will no longer be possible to view it as committed to peace, with war as a last resort in self-defence or defence of others. War will have become an option used by the US when other options still remain. This is the heart of "pre-emption" Bush style.

The unease of many major US allies, such as France and Germany, shows the danger. Equally significant is the support Bush is getting from some dubiously democratic regimes in eastern Europe eager to curry favour. Instead of leading a community of democracies, Washington may become an unpredictable aggressor, mistrusted by many, hated by some (even more than now) and viewed askance by many traditional friends. It could in the end do itself great harm by undermining the natural affinity and support which many in the democratic countries have hitherto felt for it. There will be no way of knowing where Washington's military agenda will end. But the US at least has resources at its disposal to support a large military agenda; Australia, however, does not.


The Howard Government's inexorable march towards the precipice of aggressive war risks much. The lives of Australian military personnel. A lot of money. Australia's already shaky status as a country capable of adopting foreign and security policies of its own choosing. Australia's national honour, as a country which only goes to war to defend itself or its friends. If Bush wages war unsanctioned by the UN and we join that war, we tar ourselves irrevocably with the American brush. We invite every anti-American terrorist group to put us higher on their target list. It could even turn out that the "coalition" for war against Iraq effectively consists only of the US, UK, Australia and a few unattractive Middle Eastern regimes bribed to offer facilities.

We should be looking to our own backyard. The tragedy of East Timor is an enduring monument to the deliberate blindness of Australian policy towards the aggression of the former Indonesian dictatorship. Since 1999 we have gone some way towards retrieving that blunder. But now we hear pleas from Dili for a more active posture against the pro-Indonesian militias which are again raising their heads in East Timor. But we are too busy preparing for Iraq to answer the East Timorese. Several South Pacific states stand in urgent need of significant internal security assistance; some requests have already gone unanswered.

We should prioritise our limited military capabilities. Fighting a war of aggression alongside the US should not be a priority. As a long-time ally, we should do the United States a favour and tell them that, even though they will win their Iraqi war (at a cost), it is one they should not wage, need not wage, unless Baghdad does something so obviously outrageous that the international community and the United Nations agree that war is the only remaining option. Right now, it isn't.

Washington needs to understand that the costs of this war will be measured less in dollars, even in casualties, than in its international good name. If at the end of the day the US becomes feared and mistrusted by many in the West, it risks the unravelling of long-standing alliances and friendships. Do President Bush and his colleagues really wish to follow the Machiavellian dictum and become feared rather than loved (or at least respected)? Or are they themselves blinded by their military power and an emotional need to hit back at a convenient target after the trauma of 11 September 2001? And can Australia afford to be linked to such a state? We are a small power, and can inspire little fear. We depend on respect and to earn it we need to respect standards of international conduct, even if Washington does not.

The Howard Government thus risks much if it follows Bush to Iraq in an unsanctioned war. And the Australian people will have no mercy on their Government if the war goes wrong or lasts too long, or proves a costly victory, or results in a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, or requires us to provide occupation troops in a ruined Iraq for years to come with anti-western guerrillas picking our soldiers off, one here, another there.

One can only hope that the Americans retreat from the precipice, because nothing seems surer than that the Howard Government will blindly follow them over it if Washington finally opts for unsanctioned war. The present state of Australian opinion suggests that, while almost everyone will wish our forces well - they would be carrying out the orders of an elected Government - there will be serious domestic division about a decision to send them without UN support. It took decades to repair the divisions opened up by Vietnam; let us hope that today's generation of conservatives do not do it all again over Iraq.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Gary Brown
Related Links
Department of Defence
Photo of Gary Brown
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy