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The case has not been made for Australia to send forces to Iraq - yet

By Michael O'Connor - posted Wednesday, 15 January 2003

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 UN's pusillanimity.

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 UN.

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About the Author

Michael O'Connor is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.

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