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Howard's war and peace

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 14 September 2007

With a Federal election fast approaching, thoughtful citizens will be weighing up the pros and cons of changing their government.

In evaluating a government’s performance in any area (here I will be looking at security and defence issues), one has the advantage of the record. It is harder to assess an Opposition, especially one that has been out of office for 11 years. Here I am attempting the easier task: holding a government accountable for outcomes (I will discuss the Opposition in my next column).

I would like readers to consider seriously the following responses by the Prime Minister to questions on two recent editions of the ABC’s 7:30 Report. The first is:


Now, we're not perfect, we're not full of ourselves, but I think we've been a government well above average competence.

I am not qualified to judge the extent to which Australia’s economic performance in recent years has been the result of government policies, of changes made by earlier governments or of trends beyond government control. Others can say whether Howard’s claim of economic competence is as justified by the evidence as he seeks to suggest. I can, however, say something about his government’s competence on national security matters.

This brings me to my second Howard interview response (actually the first, in date). This was a response to claims that Mr Howard is dishonest:

I'm not dishonest. There are many examples thrown up by my critics in relation to that but let me take one of the most egregious of all and that is weapons of mass destruction in relation to the war in Iraq.

I believe there were weapons of mass destruction because that's what the intelligence said … To say that I lied to the Australian people on weapons of mass destruction simply because I stated a view based on intelligence, and justified Australia's involvement in the military operation based on that, is not to say we took the country to war based on a lie.

I am not suggesting that on this matter at least John Howard is a liar. Quite the contrary, I believe him. But think for a moment what it means if Howard’s statements are true.

It means his government went to war by mistake. So, of course, did Bush and Blair and in reality if Bush hadn’t made his mistake first, the other two would not have made theirs. Now governments, like any other human institution, can make mistakes. But they must be held accountable for these mistakes. The worse the mistake, the more important accountability becomes.


In fact, Australian conservatives have bad form when it comes to ill-starred foreign military adventures - remember Indochina. In the nearly four decades since that disaster, it seems our Tories have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. We are now complicit in the illegal invasion and conquest of a foreign country - by mistake. We share in the huge responsibility for the disgusting post-Saddam carnage on all sides, for the dollar costs, for the enormous damage to the credibility and reputation of the west in the Middle East - and all by mistake.

The Iraqi debacle is certainly the most spectacular of Howard’s security policy failures. What of the rest of its record?

This too is in part a consequence of Iraq, because that black hole has been sucking up scarce resources which should be available for more useful endeavours. The deteriorating security position in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban continue to rack up successes, is at least partly due to the drain on Coalition resources in Iraq.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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