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The 43 signatories get it only half right

By Neville Meaney - posted Wednesday, 11 August 2004

The protest by 43 of Australia's most eminent retired foreign affairs, defence and intelligence officials against the Howard government's Iraq policy is without precedent in this country. Admittedly, it follows similar statements by British and US retired officials. Still, the range of those subscribing to the Australian statement is much more comprehensive and authoritative, and it is clear that the signatories are not simply imitating or reflecting their British and American counterparts.

Echoing President George W. Bush, Prime Minister John Howard has dismissed the statement as the work of an older generation of diplomats and bureaucrats who don't understand the strategic demands of the post-9/11 world. And he has implied that all the accumulated experience about international relations is now redundant. But this explanation is not good enough.

Only a very strong belief that something was gravely amiss could have induced such a varied and opinionated group of mandarins to agree to put their names to a joint statement. It should be a wake-up call to those Australians who sense that something has gone badly wrong as a result of Australia's involvement in the Iraq war.


Perhaps, however, the statement does not go to the heart of the matter when it leads off with the demand for "truth in government" and the assertion that this is "fundamental" in a parliamentary democracy. Although there is much to be said for this principle, the statement in making it the prime objection to Australia's participation in the war tends to obscure the central issue.

By taking this position, the statement directs attention to the questions of what the government knew and where precisely it misled the public. And on the basis of the Flood report it might well be argued, as the government has, that it was telling the truth as far as it knew it at the time. The effect of the headline, then, is to suggest that what was principally wrong with the government's action in going to war was the lack of truth in explaining itself to the public rather than the lack of wisdom and judgment in its policy-making.

Indeed, it could be said that telling the truth in a democracy does not always produce good policy and that statesmen, in order to do the best by their country, might occasionally be justified in deceiving the people.

For example, in 1940 and 1941 president Franklin Roosevelt told the American people that he was imposing ever-harsher economic sanctions on Japan and increasing military and naval assistance to the British in order to keep the US from being drawn into war - even though every step he took brought nearer the moment when Japan or Germany would declare war on the US. In the 1940 presidential election campaign, he repeatedly assured the people: "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Who, now looking back, would say that he was wrong in so deceiving the people? Who would not agree that in the difficult isolationist politics of that time he showed great wisdom? Thus, the proper focus for a critique of policy should be the decision-making.

In framing the Australian statement, it must have been difficult for this large group to find common ground that would be widely acceptable in the community, and so they began with an affirmation of one of the commonplaces about parliamentary democracy. But it is noticeable that they quickly move from charges of "deception" to a list of policy deficiencies.
Without saying so, it is here that they find the nub of their discontent. They chastise the government for acting on false assumptions, misconstruing the ANZUS Treaty, helping to weaken the influence of the US, increasing Australia's exposure to terrorism and contributing to divisions and stress in the region and in the international system. Despite the priority seemingly given to truth in democracy, it appears that these 43 concerned Australians have been impelled to issue this protest out of the wisdom they acquired over a long period in the making of the country's defence and foreign policies.

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This article was first published in The Australian on Tuesday, 10th August, 2004.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Neville Meaney is a member of the History Department at the University of Sydney.

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