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Howard fails in his defence of road to war



17 April 2013

John Howard's reasons for going to war were unconvincing, says PhD student Malcolm Jorgensen. [Image: Flickr/Brett Tully, used under the Creative Commons licence]
John Howard's reasons for going to war were unconvincing, says PhD student Malcolm Jorgensen. [Image: Flickr/Brett Tully, used under the Creative Commons licence]

John Howard's decision to commit Australia to the 2003 Iraq war remains as indefensible as it was 10 years ago. The former prime minister's recent reflections on the anniversary of the invasion only reiterate that his reasons for dismissing alternative strategic and legal options remain unconvincing.

Two key policy alternatives were advocated at the time and each dismissed by Howard. Evaluating why he chose war is important, as this was the most costly option in blood, treasure, and the global standing of Australia's key ally. The first alternative was to continue supporting the ''realist'' policy of containing Iraq through economic sanctions, weapons inspections, and the maintenance of no-fly zones. The second was to allow for military action, but subject to explicit United Nations Security Council authorisation in conformity with international law.

They may seem unlikely bedfellows, but the dictates of political realism and international law converge in many of the great global decisions about war and peace. Such was the case in the Persian Gulf War when the realist world view of president George Bush aligned with the legal authority of the UN to authorise military force in driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Both frameworks for guiding foreign policy are centred on the principle of global order based on respect for sovereign states. The tradition of political realism, associated with statesmen from Machiavelli to Henry Kissinger, emphasises the importance of prudence and the avoidance of conflicts that disrupt order. Likewise international law prohibits the use of force except in cases of self-defence or Security Council authorisation.

Howard's first critique of the ''realists'' is that containment had failed, evidenced by Saddam's continued intransigence. Yet as the father of Cold War containment George Kennan argued, unless a hostile power poses an imminent threat, it is wiser to contain its power and influence than pre-emptively defeat it. The UN inspections failed to find weapons of mass destruction which could have established an existential threat. Yet even if they did there is no evidence Saddam would have used them and thereby assured his own destruction. Bellicose language represented the only threat with global reach left in his arsenal precisely because of containment's success.

Howard's second critique is that realism took insufficient account of the ''huge psychological shift in American attitudes'' following the attacks of September 11, 2001. This produced a ''profound vulnerability'' that rendered containment too ''passive''. This completely misses the point of realism, as it is precisely in these circumstances that it is incumbent on political leaders to exercise sound judgment borne not of fear but a realistic appraisal of national interests. To devise strategy from a reactive sense of vulnerability is an abdication of leadership.

The dismissal of international law is similarly incoherent. Howard asserts the war's legality by adopting the American argument that UN resolutions authorising force in 1990 were revived 13 years later by Iraq's ''material breach'' of obligations. On this novel interpretation the role of the Security Council dissolves, and is substituted by powerful states deciding unilaterally when to ''enforce'' international law.

Legal interpretation is more than merely rearranging doctrines until they align with political interests. Rules on the use of force are read against the purposes of the UN system in upholding a framework for global order and stability. It is clear Howard never recognised such authority in UN law. He characterises then opposition leader Simon Crean's insistence on Security Council authority as ''outsourcing'' Australian foreign policy to the veto power of Russia and France. Howard viewed the UN system as primarily a political tool, with his claims of legality no more than diplomatic rhetoric.

What instead shaped Howard's thinking was a shared sense of the American experience of vulnerability. This is a shaky substitute for the rational guidance provided by principles of statecraft and international law. The forces of realism and law converged for a second time on the eve of an Iraq invasion, but on this occasion to oppose military force. Howard's dismissal of these alternatives to war ensured strategic incoherence, and the unmooring of Australian policy from the foundations of international peace and security.


Malcolm Jorgensen is a PhD candidate at the United States Studies Centre and an associate of the Sydney Centre for International Law at the University of Sydney.


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