I'm in the Middle East doing research for a forthcoming paper on Syria that I'm writing with my colleague Anthony Bubalo. My early impression is that there appears to be a complete absence of rational (let alone unified) policy views about what anybody wants or believes will be the case 'the day after' Assad.
Such is the degree of policy paralysis and fear of chaos that, in a recent Turkish television interview, Assad put himself forward as the only hope for stability, while in yesterday's Washington Post, Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki observed that 'We have been mystified by what appears to be the widespread belief in the United States that any outcome in Syria that removes President Bashar al-Assad from power will be better than the status quo.'
I will blog more on the Syria issue but, with Western states so cautious to become embroiled in the complexity of Syria, I read John Howard's speech on Iraq with interest. I was struck by the absence of attention in both the speech and the Q&A on how Mr Howard thought Iraq would turn out politically following the invasion.
Australia claims to be a close and strong US ally, and John Howard rightly laid blame at the feet of the US for poor (read virtually non-existent) post-invasion planning and execution. But Australia had lots of planning staff assisting the coalition and would obviously have been privy to the complete lack of Phase 4 (post-invasion) planning.
As one of the few countries contributing forces to the invasion, Australia should have been vitally interested in how the US was going to run the country we had helped invade. If we thought US planning was bizarrely optimistic and took no account of the complexity of Iraqi society and the regional sectarian and political dynamics, why didn't we say so? Or did we not concern ourselves with these things because we were just there to fly the flag, didn't know the region and didn't really care about the future of the country we were invading?
I get the sense that Australia's political leadership of the time is content to admit that everyone got the intelligence wrong, praise the ADF and then criticise the US for getting the occupation wrong. But you can't on the one hand criticise the US for ignoring the nature of the country it was set to invade without accepting criticism yourself for failing to look at the consequences of Australia's actions.
If I was at the speech, I would have asked John Howard how he believed Iraq's sects and tribes and regional states would react to the invasion, how much attention he paid to post-invasion planning and, if he thought it wanting, whether he raised his concerns with George W Bush. I hope we didn't accept a lift in the US car without giving any thought to where we were driving, or whether the driver even knew where he was going.
Photo by Flickr user Marc Veraart.