Scott Burchill is lecturer in international relations at Deakin University, and comments regularly on the war in Iraq for Webdiary.
The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has had interesting effects on political life in the Western world: some amusing, others deadly serious.
With both the Federal Government and the intelligence agencies leaking in an attempt to repair their sullied reputations, Canberra is awash with incontinents busting to find sympathetic journalists willing to pose as public urinals. Growing anger and constant reminders of what the Howard Government said before the war about Iraq’s WMD are acting like a diuretic on the body politic.
It happens all the time, though not always with such a rapid flow of information. It depends on willing conduits in the Fourth Estate. On July 10 last year, “WMD doubts are ludicrous” screamed the headline of Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian. Underneath, the paper’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan claimed that “the US has material in its possession in Iraq which, if it checks out, will be conclusive evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs. The evidence that Hussein had WMD programs is so overwhelming, he [John Bolton, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Security] can barely understand how it is doubted.”
Two days later Mr Sheridan went further:
“The US has discovered what it believes is decisive proof of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and taken the material to the US for testing. …They believe the material will contain chemical weapons materials.”
Of course it didn’t. Unsurprisingly, a headline saying “We’re sorry we mislead you but we so badly wanted to believe this leak,” has yet to materialise.
All leaks should be treated with circumspection, regardless of where the stream emanates from. Writing in the late 1970s, the British historian E.P. Thompson argued that:
“The foulest damage to our political life comes not from the ‘secrets’ which they hide from us, but from the little bits of half-truth and disinformation which they do tell us. These are already pre-digested, and then are sicked up as little gobbits of authorised spew. The columns of defence correspondents in the establishment sheets serve as the spittoons.”
Putting to one side the blame game and the buck passing, there are serious concerns arising out of this tawdry saga.
First, it is astonishing that the Australian Government is not interested in why the intelligence upon which it relied to start a war with Iraq was so faulty. Nor has it expressed any concern that it led the public astray. Having opposed the parliamentary inquiry examining pre-war intelligence which will report today, the Government has already leaked it because it knows that it clears them of Opposition charges that intelligence was manipulated or sexed up.
Faced with a collapsed pretext for their war, Canberra now effectively blames its intelligence “suppliers” (Washington and London) who can also find out where the problem lies. Howard and Downer are acting like dodgy retailers – when the customers complain about misleading advertising it’s the wholesaler’s fault.
Another inquiry will be needed and reluctantly established. One question it should address is why the end users of inconclusive intelligence expressed not the slightest doubt, qualification or ambiguity about its claims when they prepared this country for war. As the 12 month anniversary of the invasion approaches, they remain utterly shameless about their conduct – as do their cheerleaders in the media who urge them “not [to] make any foolish admissions” (Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 26 February, 2004).
Secondly, in his address to the nation on 20 March 2003, Mr Howard said that “a key element of our close friendship with the United States and indeed with the British is our full and intimate sharing of intelligence material”. Following September 11, the Bali catastrophe and the WMD fiasco there are now grave concerns over the value of these arrangements. With its confidence shot, the public has every right to be concerned about the quality of both our own intelligence and that of our allies upon which we so heavily rely.
Thirdly, by retrospectively claiming that the war was justified regardless of what they argued beforehand, Howard and his counterparts in Washington and London are saying that the benchmark for aggression has been lowered: from “possession of WMD” to “intention and capability”. This authorises an attack on just about any decent high school chem lab run by a teacher with sociopathic tendencies. Nothing less than a revolutionary change to the very basis of international society, it is extraordinary that this shift remains unremarked upon.
Finally, Howard likes to upbraid opponents of the war by claiming that if they had their way, Saddam would still be in power. This is more than just a morally dubious ‘ends justify the means’ argument. Speaking to the national media on 14 March 2003, the PM said he “would have to accept that if Iraq had genuinely disarmed, I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I’ve never advocated that. Much in all as I despise the regime.”
Howard ruled out humanitarian or any other concerns as a justification for war. Given that Saddam appears to have already disarmed himself when this remark was made, the logic of Howard’s position is that he too believes that Saddam Hussein should still be in power.