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Apportioning the blame

By Brett Bowden - posted Wednesday, 14 February 2007

The Australian Government’s ill-considered attack on Democrat US presidential hopeful, Senator Barack Obama was remarkable for a number of reasons. The most obvious being the fact that it happened. No possible good can come from it and the real harm might not be known until it returns to haunt a future government of the day. Perhaps more disturbing though are the disingenuous justifications being offered in defence of the attack and the simultaneous deflection of blame for the calamitous state of affairs in Iraq.

If elected president, Obama has pledged to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq. He hopes he won’t have to wait that long as he is introducing binding legislation that he hopes will force President George W. Bush to do the same by March 2008. The tactic is unlikely to work, but it will have its supporters.

If Obama is lucky enough to make it to the White House the Iraq mess will still be waiting for him. His announcement is noteworthy for the fact he is only talking about combat troops. The real intrigue lies in what else he has in mind: could it be any worse than the current directionless policy?


The key elements of the Obama plan are:

  • stop the escalation: cap the number of US troops in Iraq at the number in Iraq on January 10, 2007. This does not affect the funding for troops in Iraq. This cap has the force of law and could not be lifted without explicit congressional authorisation;
  • de-escalate the war with phased redeployment: commence a phased redeployment of US troops out of Iraq not later than May 1, 2007, with the goal that all combat brigades redeploy from Iraq by March 31, 2008, a date consistent with the expectation of the Iraq Study Group. This redeployment will be both substantial and gradual, and will be planned and implemented by military commanders. Makes clear that Congress believes troops should be redeployed to the United States; to Afghanistan; and to other points in the region. A residual US presence may remain in Iraq for force protection, training of Iraqi security forces, and pursuit of international terrorists; and
  • enforce tough benchmarks for progress: these 13 benchmarks are based on President Bush’s own statements and Administration documents and include:

    - security: significant progress toward fulfilling security commitments;

    - political accommodation: significant progress toward reaching a political solution, including equitable sharing of oil revenues, revision of de-Baathification, provincial elections, even-handed provision of government services, and a fair process for a constitutional amendment to achieve national reconciliation; and

    - economic progress: requires Iraq to fulfill its commitment to spend not less than $10 billion for reconstruction, job creation, and economic development without regard for the ethnic or sectarian make-up of Iraqi regions.

Prime Minister John Howard is concerned that to even talk about deadlines and exit strategies emboldens al-Qaida in Iraq and weakens the US in the eyes of the world. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer fears that a precipitous withdrawal will leave a vacuum waiting to be filled by insurgents and terrorists. They accuse Obama of failing to grasp the intricacies of Iraq and just how much is at stake there.

For all the concerns over Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience, it appears as though he has the edge over Howard and Downer when it comes to the realities of Iraq. He knows the war is going badly no matter which way you try to spin it. He knows more than 3,100 US troops have lost their lives in a war he opposed from the outset. He knows there is no security, there is minimal government and there are few prospects of achieving any of these by staying the course. And he knows he is not alone in his thinking.

The prime minister and his loyal foreign minister on the other hand appear to be living in a bubble. They speak about destabilising and destroying Iraq in the future tense as though they are oblivious to the daily carnage going on there. By their reckoning, should such a terrible thing befall Iraq the fault lies not at the feet of the Bush administration and its coalition partners, but with Senator Obama and the Democrats. No doubt there is enough blame to go around to sheet some of it home to Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party as well.

The problem with Howard and Downer’s reasoning on this issue is that it is so clearly wrong. There was no al-Qaida in Iraq prior to the invasion and occupation. There was no link between Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime of Saddam Hussein. The turmoil in Iraq generated by the presence of coalition troops, insurgents and foreign terrorists has materialised since the invasion. This much has been widely conceded by all but the most diehard supporters of the war in Washington and, apparently, Canberra.


If Prime Minister Howard really was running al-Qaida in Iraq he would be wise to put a circle around March 2008 and the date of inauguration of the next US president. Whether it’s Senator Obama or another Democrat, or even a Republican like former New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani entering the White House, the odds are that things will change in Iraq. Whether the change is for the better or worse is difficult to predict. Although imagining how things could get much worse than they are now is not easy.

It is high time the Howard Government took its share of the blame and accepted some of the responsibility for the mess.

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About the Author

Brett Bowden is a Professor of History and Politics at Western Sydney University.

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