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We can't leave yet - Australia has much more to commit to Iraq

By Chas Savage - posted Tuesday, 13 April 2004

The debate over Australia's military engagement in Iraq has now been so contaminated and so degraded by John Howard and Mark Latham that other important considerations have been hidden from public view.

In particular, the issue of the rebuilding of Iraq and the extent and nature of Australia's civilian engagement remains obscured.

A small number of Australians stay in Iraq because the government perceives that our national interests are best served by them doing so. In this, the primary motivation for a continued presence is that it is believed to assure a close intimacy with the United States.


If, however, the relationship with the United States is put to one side, there exist ethical considerations that trump the concerns that arise because the doubtful legitimacy of a unilateral, pre-emptive occupation. Now, our foremost ethical concern must be the development of a stable, prosperous Iraq.

Although Australia does not have the legal status of an occupying power, with attendant responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention, our obligations to Iraq and the Iraqi people should not be made less for all that.

At this time - and this will come as news to Labor and Liberal MPs alike - Australia needs to make a greater commitment to Iraq.

To examine the reasons why, some recent wild thinking needs to be set aside.

In particular, we need to recognise that the contribution being made by Australian defence personnel to political, economic and social stability - the matter of much inane debate in this country - has no practical consequence in Iraq.

About 300 defence personnel currently serve in Iraq. However good these 300 are, they are not Spartans, and only a Prime Minister or Opposition Leader would assert that they guarantee peace and security in Iraq.


More important than Australian troops is tangible evidence that occupying forces come armed, not only with guided bombs but with better health services and medicines, and the wherewithal to re-establish essential infrastructure.

This should be considered a strategic imperative. The world, and the Islamic world in particular, needs evidence that, although incompetent invaders, the United States and its allies constitute a competent occupying power.

The financial ability of Iraqis to rebuild, for example, health and education services, a security system and the rule of law depends on a number of factors: revenues raised, largely from oil exports; money provided by the US and the international community; the cost of reconstruction and government operations; and whether creditor nations forgive Iraqi debt.

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Article edited by Eliza Brown.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Age on 6 April 2004.

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About the Author

Chas Savage is a freelance writer and speechwriter based in Canberra. He has worked as an economics adviser to past federal governments.

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