The Iraq War’s coalition of the shilling

On the day Mosul fell to the savage army of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – most likely a prelude either to the disintegration of Iraq or the beginning of a fearsome Sunni–Shia civil war, or both – my mind returned to the Australian debate that accompanied our participation in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The war party here included every parliamentary member of the federal Coalition and every Murdoch newspaper. All the arguments for war they used were produced by the Bush administration, except for the suggestion that we should go to war to purchase security insurance from the United States.

The first argument involved a revolution in international law. It went like this. After the terrible al-Qaeda atrocity of 9/11, it had become clear that in our era the two enemies of freedom-loving peoples were “terrorists with a global reach”, able to attack America and its allies, and “rogue states”, who hated America, had arsenals of “weapons of mass destruction” and were led by maniacs who, unlike the former Soviet enemy, were not “risk averse”. The great danger in the post-9/11 world was that terrorists might be armed with weapons of mass destruction by a leader of a rogue state. International law accepted that when an enemy army was massing on the border, states might legitimately mount “pre-emptive strikes”. Since 9/11, however, the enemy had become invisible. It might strike at any time. For this reason the threatened state could justify going to war even where there was no visible threat. The idea of the pre-emptive strike was by this logic transformed into the idea of the preventive war, long regarded as a grave international crime.

This new Bush doctrine represented a highly dangerous development in international law. If all states could decide to wage war against enemies real or imagined, the world would become a jungle. If, however, only the United States was accorded this privilege, the theory involved nothing less than an American claim to world hegemony. Yet, despite its momentous implications, in Australia the doctrine was embraced by the war party as merest commonsense.

1 . WMDs and the invasion

In the days following 9/11, the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration decided to invade not only Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda was based, but also Iraq. As the Bush security chief, Richard Clarke, later joked: this was like deciding to declare war on Mexico following Pearl Harbour. The new preventive war theory provided the foundation for the invasion of Iraq. But it still needed some empirical justification. This was found in two main claims. First, that Iraq still possessed a vast arsenal of biological and chemical weapons and was very close to developing nuclear weapons as well. Second, that there was a close working relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. As we now know, both these claims were entirely spurious.

It is customarily claimed by the left that the key players in Washington, London and Canberra lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. This is an oversimplification. The truth is rather that the war party cherrypicked from the mass of available intelligence in a way that allowed them to discover what they needed to justify their invasion. In Washington a new ideologically driven outfit, the Office of Special Plans, was created for the precise purpose of finding the intelligence required. Rather than simple mendacity, complex self-deception prevailed. In politics it often does. The straightforward liars were Iraqi exiles, such as the émigré in Germany codenamed “Curveball”, who pretended he had overseen the construction of a mobile laboratory for the creation of chemical weapons. They provided the war party with the fairytales they needed.

Given that on the questions of WMD and the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq the lives of thousands of Coalition troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were about to be put at risk, the vicious attacks the war party launched against those who were genuinely seeking the truth, such as the US diplomat who uncovered the fraudulence of the claims about Nigerian sales of uranium to Iraq, remain unforgivable. So does their intoxicated self-certainty and aggression. In September 2002, Tony Blair produced a report on Iraq’s WMD arsenal. Greg Sheridan of The Australian exploded: “The Blair dossier should transform the debate over the Iraq threat. Either Tony Blair is a monstrous liar or Saddam Hussein is. Take your pick.”

Until the Iraq invasion, it was impossible for citizens to know whether Iraq had retained any WMD or was planning to build a nuclear weapon or whether any clandestine relation between Iraq and al-Qaeda existed. It was, however, entirely possible to know that even if all these facts were true, they did not provide an even remotely adequate cause for war. Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant. But nothing in his history suggested he was a suicidal lunatic. And yet the justification for the invasion rested on the fantasy that in the foreseeable future he was likely either to pass WMD to al-Qaeda or launch attacks on Kuwait or Israel. Here is a typical example, written once more by Sheridan. In a few years, he surmised, Iraq might have a dozen nuclear bombs. What then? Saddam Hussein might hand one to al-Qaeda so that they could sneak into New York or Sydney Harbour and blow them up. “More likely, Hussein could invade Kuwait for a second time on his way to dominating the Persian Gulf and all its strategic oil deposits… [H]e could prevent the US coming to Kuwait’s rescue by nuclear blackmail.” In 2003, Iraq’s military power was one-third of what it had been in 1990. And yet the idea that this tin-pot Middle Eastern dictatorship could achieve the kind of geopolitical victory that had eluded the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War despite its vast nuclear arsenal, or that by acts of open or secret aggression Saddam would risk the instant obliteration of his regime, provided the only justification for war.

Even more primitive was the thought that accompanied the invasion, that free market democracy was the default political and economic system at “the end of history” that would inevitably follow the collapse of dictatorship. Time and again – when US troops reached Baghdad, when President George W. Bush announced “mission accomplished”, when Saddam was captured, when Iraq held its first general election – the war party erupted into premature celebration. Here is Andrew Bolt following the 2005 election: “At last, democracy has come to Iraq. And yet our sneering ‘elite’ insist it would have been better to leave the murderous Saddam alone. This is what we who backed the liberation of Iraq dreamed of, but what our ‘peace’ movement tried so shamefully to stop. Millions of Iraqis on Sunday – wonderful Sunday – proved they would risk death for democracy showing that, yes indeed, Arabs love freedom, too.”

Unhappily Bolt’s faith in the Arab love of democracy has recently faded. As Iraq disintegrated before our eyes, he informed his readers: “The blame game over Iraq – Bush’s fault? Obama’s? – should not blind us to the real cause of the mayhem. It isn’t the West. What we see in Iraq are Muslims killing Muslims and in the name of Islam.” Freedom-loving Arabs had now become for Bolt murderous Muslims, ingrates unworthy of the arms and treasure wasted upon them in that noble Western enterprise, the invasion of Iraq.

For the war party the supposed triumph of democracy in Iraq also provided the occasion for a new offensive in their perpetual culture war against the internal enemy. When US  troops reached Baghdad, The Australian published an editorial, “Coalition of the Whining Got it Wrong”, which ended with these words: “Never underestimate the power of ideology and myth – in this case anti-Americanism – to trump reality. But at least we know for sure it is not love, but being a left-wing intellectual, that means never having to say you’re sorry.” At the end of his ecstatic election commentary, Bolt urged his readers not to “forget or forgive the enemies of this joy and this freedom”. 

2 . Australian war party

There have been several attempts to calculate the death toll in Iraq following the invasion. The most recent and methodologically sophisticated, “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003-2011 War”, was published in the journal PLOS Medicine on October 15, 2013. It involves an estimate of “excess deaths”, based on a cluster study of 2000 randomly selected households in the 18 Iraqi governorates. The study found that the death rate rose from 2.89 per thousand in the two years prior to the invasion to 4.55 per thousand between March 2003 and June 2011. The majority of the excess deaths were violent. Thirty-five per cent were killed by Coalition forces; 32 per cent by Iraqi militias. Death by shooting was more common than death by explosion. In total, there were some 500,000 Iraqis who died as a consequence of the invasion by the United States, Britain and Australia.

Let me put this plainly. The leaders of the Australian war party – John Howard, Rupert Murdoch, Alexander Downer – and their most influential cheerleaders – Chris Mitchell, Andrew Bolt, Greg Sheridan – bear some responsibility for the deaths of half a million Iraqis, for the incalculable number of deaths still to come and for the unimaginable suffering that has been endured by the people of Iraq since the invasion of their country. And yet so far as I am aware – their supreme self-confidence apparently unaffected by the catastrophe they had helped unleash in Iraq – not one of these warriors of the right has expressed even one word of contrition or remorse.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "The coalition of the shilling".

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Robert Manne is the author of Left, Right, Left and Making Trouble. He is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University.