I don't know of any serious defence commentator
who uncritically supports an attack on
Iraq. There are those, probably including
me, who will do so if a case is made.
But all would agree that the case has
not yet been made.
Hardly anyone would doubt that Saddam
Hussein's regime in Iraq constitutes a
substantial threat to regional and, possibly,
global peace. No Arab neighbour and certainly
not Israel can feel comfortable beside
a well-armed and more populous Iraq, especially
one which is certainly advanced in the
development of weapons of mass destruction
and which has now defied the United Nations
Security Council with impunity for 12
years. This, incidentally, is the answer
to those who persist in calling for a
diplomatic solution to the problem. Diplomacy
has been tried and has so far failed in
the face of Saddam's obduracy and the
The current military build-up by the
United States and Britain in the Persian
Gulf region may presage a strike on Iraq.
Equally, it can be seen as adding to the
diplomatic pressure, for, as Kofi Annan
once said during a joint press conference
in February 1998 with Iraq's Tariq Azziz,
"You can do a lot with diplomacy,
but of course you can do a lot more with
diplomacy backed up by fairness and force".
Saddam Hussein has to be persuaded that
failure to comply with United Nations
resolutions will result in military action.
Nevertheless, an attempt to solve the
problem militarily faces serious obstacles.
The Americans could certainly defeat Saddam's
large but obsolete army once it is deployed
into Iraq. Assuming that the Americans
do launch an invasion, the conflict is
likely to be very short and, despite the
'peace' propaganda to the contrary, generally
free of civilian casualties. US military
capabilities are even more advanced than
they were in 1991 while Iraq's have not
been restored. So substantial is the American
technical superiority that the Iraqis
could be defeated totally without ever
sighting their adversary. Saddam has threatened
to withdraw to his cities and force the
US to fight house-to-house, a difficult
but not at all impossible task.
Alternatively, he could use some or all
of his weapons of mass destruction against
the US forces or their bases. That would
be a self-destructive effort, somewhat
like Hitler's Gotterdammerung in 1945.
WMDs enjoy substantial political value
which, however, evaporates once they are
used in combat. The political and military
consequences for the user will ever be
catastrophic unless retaliation in kind
can be avoided.
The most difficult challenge would be
rebuilding Iraq after such a conflict.
An indefinite and expensive period of
military occupation and nation building
would be needed in a very infertile political,
social and religious environment. Maintaining
the buffer against Iran would be essential
and this in itself would require a large
occupation force. Politically, provision
would have to be made for the various
minorities of which the most troublesome
would be the Kurds, whose territory spills
over into Iran and Turkey.
For all the hyperbole from Australian
ministers, there is very little that Australia
could contribute. Our forces are too small,
under-equipped and unsustainable for extended
commitments, especially for armoured or
mechanised operations in open country.
The Prime Minister has announced that
we are preparing a slightly larger than
current naval commitment, a team of SAS
special forces, up to a squadron of F/A-18
fighters and, presumably, some other minor
units. In the context of an operation
involving a quarter of a million troops,
this is a miniscule contribution - less
than one per cent of the total - and hardly
worthy of all the current and, dare I
suggest, manufactured angst. Moreover,
a cynic might comment that, the SAS apart,
it is relatively risk-free.
Conventional Australian ground forces
would play no role in the initial battle
but could, perhaps, play a time-limited
role in post-conflict internal security
operations. We just don't have the military
muscle and should stop pretending otherwise.
My reservations are based primarily upon
the lack of authority for any military
action and the failure so far to outline
any credible objectives for that action.
Should the United Nations Security Council
authorise action to achieve realistic
objectives that will significantly reduce
the threat to regional peace and security,
those reservations will evaporate.
In this context, it is worth noting that
the Iraq imbroglio represents a serious
challenge to the international community
not only in itself but also as a road
map to the future of the UN role in maintaining
peace and security. If the Security Council
submits to Iraq's defiance, its moral
authority will be perhaps fatally compromised.
Despite the derision that so many commentators
heap upon the United States, it ought
to be recognised that it, together with
Britain and Australia, are doing more
than most to put some backbone into the