Michael Green served on the US National Security Council staff from 2001-2005 and is now Senior Vice President for Asia at CSIS and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. Part 1 of this post here.
In his Lowy Institute speech marking the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, John Howard rejects the assertion that Australia should have said 'no' in order to demonstrate Canberra's independence from Washington. Having served in the White House at the time, I have no doubt that a 'no' from Canberra would have done enormous political damage to both George W Bush and Tony Blair.
In 1954 the Eisenhower Administration was desperate to get Australian forces to join a US intervention in Vietnam after the French defeat at Dienbienphu. The British had already refused and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought Australian participation alone would be enough to convince a divided US Congress to support the deployments. The Menzies Government eventually opted out and as a result Ike called off the Joint Chiefs' planning for a US-led military campaign against the Vietminh.
I have wondered about that historical parallel, but have to conclude after reflecting on Howard's nuanced account that an Australian defection from the coalition in 2003 would not have deterred Bush or Blair. Koizumi, always principled and stubborn, would also have stayed the course in Japan. As Howard pointed out, the Bush Administration and large majorities in the Congress saw a clear and present danger and were determined to act.
And what would Australia have achieved by leaving the coalition? The damage to American leadership globally and especially in the Asia Pacific region would have been considerable. Would Australian relations with China or Indonesia have improved in any measurable way as a result? It is hard to see how. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made a great drama of distancing Japan from the US in 2009 and Beijing repaid his government by bullying Japan in the East China Sea and cutting off rare earth metal exports to teach Tokyo a lesson in coercion. Under John Howard, Australia's relations with China improved considerably.
Beijing respects power. Strong alliances, as Clausewitz taught, are one of the greatest sources of national power. Under any metric – public opinion, interoperability or military effectiveness — the US-Australia alliance emerged from Iraq stronger.
Yet Iraq obviously did have major consequences. The faulty logic of the 'transformation in military affairs', inadequate ground forces for post-conflict stabilisation, and amateur post-war planning at the Pentagon all caused unnecessary casualties and showed American vulnerability when the intention was to show strength and resolve.
Before that vulnerability and incompetence became clear, American diplomacy was highly effective. Immediately after the fall of Saddam, Libya abandoned its WMD and missile programs and the US National Intelligence Council argued that Iran appeared to temporarily abandon its own nuclear weapons ambitions.
It was also clear to me in negotiations with China and North Korea in the spring of 2003 that the US brought increased leverage into negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. A year later the Chinese and North Koreans appeared considerably less worried about American coercive power as US forces became bogged down in Iraq. The Six-Party Talks with North Korea drifted. Howard acknowledges the serious failings in the stabilisation phase of operations in Iraq – the fault of America and not Australia – and rightly praises President Bush for going against the grain of public opinion and his own cabinet by correcting the situation through the 'surge' in 2007.
Howard also acknowledges and appears to regret that the war polarised Australian politics. In the US the war opened an old fissure in the Republican Party, which today engages in damaging debates between neo-isolationists like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and robust internationalists like John McCain (I am 100% with McCain, it will come as no surprise).
Since the war, American strategic culture has lurched in the direction of risk-avoidance and 'leading from behind', placing us in untenable positions in Syria and possibly Iran. The Obama foreign policy doctrine, such as it is, has been framed almost entirely around the Democratic Party's interpretation of Iraq. Even the 'pivot' to Asia — a success for the President on the whole — was framed domestically in the US in terms of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq distorted the American strategic debate, though we will recover.
The personal toll of the war on thousands of Americans — and as Howard emphasises, many Australians as well – cannot be fully calculated. Traveling across the US, one is continually struck by the painful sight of young men and women bearing the tattooed names of their lost husbands, brothers or platoon members. At every Washington Nationals baseball game the crowd rises to acknowledge the wounded warriors from area military hospitals who sit in the honoured seats behind home plate. Unlike Vietnam, this is not a left-right issue in American politics. Respect for the American military is high, as it should be.
Was the US right to go into Iraq? Was Australia right to join? There is no doubt that the US should have planned and executed post-conflict operations very differently. If we had, I suspect opinion today would on balance be supportive of the war, though that is unprovable. Alternately, non-action would have left Saddam in a dangerous position and American opinion today might very well have been highly critical of the Bush Administration for not acting on bipartisan recommendations from the Congress to remove him at the time.
As it is, opinion will be divided for some years to come. In the 1920s, Gallup polling in the US showed that a significant majority of Americans thought it had been a mistake to intervene in the Great War. By the late 1930s, as the storm clouds gathered in Europe and the Pacific, the polling suddenly reversed and a large majority of Americans began saying that the US had been right to fight the Hun. In the 1950s, many Americans considered the Korean War a defeat. Today only a handful of academics on the left argue that it was a mistake to defend South Korea against Kim Il Sung.
History will render multiple and changing judgments about the Iraq War. John Howard has rendered his and it is authoritative and compelling. It will certainly not be the last.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.