2 March 2004

Baghdad on the Rio Grande

Hugh White, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, writes:
Third, and in some ways most importantly, the Jull report makes clear that whole question of whether or not Iraq had WMD is itself only a small part of the logic chain that led the Government to decide to go to war.

The committee refers to the 'strategic analysis' that determines what policy conclusions are drawn from the intelligence, and argues that this becomes indistinguishable from the policy advice that ministers might have received from the policy departments - Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence and Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The committee did not look into that advice, which is beyond its powers. Had they done so, I think they might have found a surprising thing: on the big questions, the policy departments had very little to say.

Did Iraq's WMD pose a threat to Australia directly, or to wider Australian interests? Were there other ways to address such threats? What would be the costs and consequences of invasion? On all these questions, my impression is that the policy departments were mute.

The Government had already made up its mind, and their opinion was not called for, nor offered. Is that how we want the system to operate?

Finally, the committee calls for a further inquiry, and the Government has agreed. If the new inquiry is limited to our intelligence on Iraq's WMD, then it will be a waste of time.

These are old, old problems. Dressing an old problem in the contemporary language of WMDs (leaving aside the WMD/CBW argument) does not solve the problem. In 1848 Abraham Lincoln told the US House of Representatives:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,--"I see no probability of the British invading us"; but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."

The use of secret intelligence in public argument gives the citizen and the opposition an impossible task. To every question raised the answer is: 'Be silent: I see it, if you don't.' The Mexican War that Lincoln opposed was not without unintended consequences, among them the US Civil War. We do not yet know the unintended consequences of the Iraq war.

The argument of our government before the war was about WMDs, and the threat of terrorists getting WMDs from Saddam. The government specifically disavowed the humanitarian argument. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that the way the war was fought is inconsistent with the humanitarian argument. The humanitarian argument, now the central justification of the Howard government, is being raised after, not before the war, and was dismissed as a casus belli in memorandum of advice on the use of force in Iraq.

Throughout this argument, the ability of the government to publish and quote from secret intelligence has given them the trump in every trick. The parliamentary committee found:

3.22 It is impossible for the Committee to judge how independent from undue external influence the agencies were in relation to their assessments. Logic would suggest that given the ratio of material from overseas that they relied on, it would be difficult to maintain much independence. In many respects their judgements were similar to and, particularly with ONA, followed the trend of events overseas. Both agencies asserted that they remained detached from the views of the partner agencies in the US and the UK and a number of the judgements of the Australian agencies differed in some aspects from their larger partner agencies. They were on the whole more moderate, more measured and more sceptical, especially the DIO. DIO put this down to Australians being 'more sceptical by nature' 23, but also to a determination to 'insist on reliable evidence for the judgements we make.'

If we're to avoid repeating the mistakes of Iraq, the opposition and minor parties should be given access (and the right to cite, but not quote) to the intelligence briefings received by government. That is British practice now and it should be Australian practice in the future. That would automatically check any possible use misuse of intelligence. We should also seriously consider if the Australian intelligence community has sufficient capacity to defend itself from overseas and governmental pressure, especially when the two converge. It would quiet the ancient command: 'Be silent: I see it, you don't'.

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