THE US decision to disband the Iraqi army was a mistake that provided the insurgents with thousands of trained recruits, John Howard will declare today. In a speech in Sydney, the former prime minister will strongly defend his government's decision to join the US-led coalition which invaded Iraq in 2003. But he is critical of the US strategy after its unexpectedly easy victory in the initial invasion.
Mr Howard will tell the Lowy Institute that the removal of all members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the Iraqi forces and public service went too far and the US also cut back the size of its own forces much too soon. He says the fact that the current Iraqi government, despite its problems, was not seriously threatened in the Arab Spring shows democracy is taking hold there. "Unlike most of its region, Iraq's polity has not been roiled by the Arab Spring. That must surely have something to do with the democratic framework which has been established."
Mr Howard vehemently rejects the "notorious" claim that Australia went to war in Iraq based on a lie that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. He says the 9/11 attacks unnerved Americans, and many others. "Americans thought their country would be attacked by terrorists again, and soon," he says. "To many in the US, why wouldn't a rogue state like Iraq supply dangerous weapons to terrorist groups? Why wouldn't there be further plane hijackings? And the next time a hijacked plane headed for a tall building it might contain a chemical, biological or even nuclear weapon."
Such sentiments might seem exaggerated today, Mr Howard says. "They didn't in the US in the wake of 9/11," his speech says. "Here in Australia we had just felt the full force of Islamic extremism in Bali almost as if it had been on our own soil, and we had begun to embrace tough new anti-terrorism laws designed to smother home-grown threats."
Mr Howard says it is now clear that US handling of the stabilisation of Iraq was much more problematic than the initial operation to overthrow Saddam. "The decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul 'Jerry' Bremer to disband the Iraqi army was a mistake, and the deBaathification process directed by the CPA went too far," he says. "As well as denying coalition forces a home-grown vehicle through which to help maintain order, disbanding the army put on the streets tens of thousands of unemployed and disgruntled Iraqis. Many of them became eager recruits for the insurgency which raged until largely subdued by the surge in 2007-08."
"And, as the former president George Bush acknowledged in his book, it was a mistake for the Americans to cut their troop levels in the 10 months following the invasion from 192,000 to 109,000." The CPA held sway for too long, Mr Howard says. That reinforced the sense of an American occupation, which was anathema to all Iraqis, irrespective of their attitudes towards the removal of Saddam.
WITHIN hours of the attack on the US on September 11, 2001, Michael Thawley, our ambassador in Washington, said it would put Iraq back on the agenda for the Americans. It was neither unreasonable nor implausible of the Americans to believe that weapons of mass destruction possessed by Iraq might, in the future, be handed to a terrorist group for use against the US or others. The combination of the even closer relations we had established with the Bush administration and the quality of Thawley's representation in Washington meant that we had a direct line to administration thinking all through the first half of 2002.
By mid-2002 I had formed the view that if Iraq did not satisfactorily respond to international pressure about its WMD capacity, the Americans would take military action, and that Australia would need to decide whether to join that action. The public record in the US in 2001 and 2002 is replete with statements calling for regime change in Iraq, and not only from neo-conservatives. On October 10, 2002, the House of Representatives in Washington voted by 296 to 133 to authorise the use of military force. The Senate resolved likewise, by 77 to 23. Many leading Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, voted for the use of force. Clinton's speech was remarkable for its tone of support for the Bush approach. She showed no reluctance to put the boot into the first Bush administration for "leaving the Kurds and the Shi'ites, who had risen against Saddam Hussein at our urging, to Saddam's revenge [in the 1990s]".
From the beginning we knew what was in the minds of the American military. We also knew how we might contribute in the most effective manner possible and in a way that safeguarded, as best one could, the position of Australian troops that might be committed.
Tony Blair led a British Labour government which included many with an almost childlike faith in the processes of the United Nations. To them the sine qua non of good foreign policy was always adhering to the dictates of multilateral organisations, especially the UN. As the months passed I found that, despite our political differences, Blair's world-view on issues such as terrorism was similar to my own.
I went to Washington again in July 2002. In our discussions, President George W. Bush and I were careful to avoid specifics about Australian troop commitments. He knew that discussions were under way between the US military and their Australian counterparts. He was entitled to assume that if the military option were chosen by the US then, in all likelihood, Australia would join.
But he knew that I had not made any commitment and that for understandable political reasons I would keep my options open until the time when a final decision was needed. This was, in fact, his position. He and his secretary of state Colin Powell made the point that no final decision had been taken and that they were continuing to pursue a diplomatic approach. I left my discussion with the president believing that he would follow the diplomatic route and seek another UN resolution, without any real faith that it would work and that, in the end, he would take military action. For Australia and the US, the push for a further resolution was not derived from legal concerns, but driven by Powell's belief that the moral authority of the Coalition of the Willing would be reinforced if it had been seen to have tried to obtain another UN Security Council resolution.
Early in September Bush rang seeking my advice about the next steps on Iraq. Bush told me that Powell was keen that the US return to the UN for a further resolution, that he, Bush, was scheduled to address the General Assembly the following week, and he would then need to outline American policy on Iraq. Bush expressed concern that any further resolution he might obtain would not be of much use. I told Bush I agreed with Powell's line about seeking another UN resolution. That was the path he followed. Although this new resolution was carried unanimously, it only added incrementally to the pressure on Iraq, because it lacked a final trigger mechanism.
It is easy to understand why vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld chafed at the decision of the president to go back to the Security Council. Their prediction that not a lot more would be obtained by doing so proved correct. Yet their arguments did not allow for the political imperative of accommodating Blair. About 45,000 British troops would be committed to Iraq; an unmistakable sign of Britain's determination to join the Americans. Bush was right to accommodate Blair's domestic political realities. He owed it to an old and close ally.
On January 10, 2003, I detailed the composition of any Australian commitment to Iraq. This was a big commitment, and much larger than the force sent in 1991. From the beginning I told the Americans that if we committed forces, it would be to the invasion phase. We could not be part of any long stabilisation operation. We had commitments, particularly in East Timor, and the Australian Defence Force was too small to sustain a sizeable ground-force in Iraq. At this stage a final decision to commit forces had not been taken. It was obvious, though, that only a last-minute and unexpected development would preclude Australia from supporting a US-led operation.
In February Bush invited me to Washington. It was clear from talks there that the Americans would act against Saddam, with or without a further Security Council resolution. Bush wanted another resolution because he knew that it was important to his allies. Bush described the diplomatic manoeuvring over Iraq as akin to being in a mosh pit. When I told him that I would go on to New York to see both [UN weapons inspection chief] Hans Blix and [UN secretary-general] Kofi Annan, he remarked that Australia was well and truly in the mosh pit.
Blix called on me at the Pierre Hotel. He gave nothing away regarding Iraq's weapons position. He would be a company man to the very end. Blix would not contribute to action being taken without a new Security Council resolution. Deep down, he must have known that the Russians and the French were not going to agree to this. Blix made the astonishing admission to me that Iraq would "not have moved an inch", without the pressure of the allied military build-up. In other words, according to the chief weapons inspector appointed by the UN, a resolution of the Security Council carried no weight at all. He said that military pressure must be maintained. I saw this as remarkable because of the double standard it connoted, as well as his acceptance of the impotence of Security Council resolutions. Blix and others were critical of the US acting outside any remit of the UN, yet were happy to help themselves to the benefits of a military build-up, an essential prelude to an invasion they would later condemn.
I pointed out to Blix there came a time when the build-up no longer worked, and action needed to be considered. I said that no one should underestimate the resolve of the US and Britain to carry through with military action. Blix replied that he had emphasised to the Iraqis that it was "five minutes to midnight", but he had not picked up a sense of desperation from them.
Despite my resolve to join the Americans and the British if a military invasion eventuated, I continued to hope it could be avoided. If there were a further resolution, then it would be harder for the ALP to oppose our involvement, given what [opposition leader] Simon Crean had said. By now Iraq was dominating my thinking. Other issues were dealt with, but the prospect of ordering forces into battle in a conflict that would be divisive in Australia troubled me.
I wrote in my diary on February 19: "Anyone who thinks that I'm a warmonger should understand how I feel. I think about it all the time, have broken sleep and hope that a late capitulation (very unlikely) or assassination of Saddam will remove the need for military action." Writing on March 12, I said: "It is 4am in the morning. I could not sleep -- a bad, but understandable sign. The UN process has bogged down. The French appear hell-bent on a veto. The Russians are making similar noises. There is a sense in which it is all slipping away from Britain and the US. The momentum is all the other way." There was now only the remotest possibility of another SC resolution. In my diary on March 12, I said: "That will make it hard and bitter in Australia. There will be legal debates and some in the parliamentary party may object if we finally decided to go it alone with the US and UK. So far the colleagues have been superb. Their loyalty, in trying times, has been remarkable. I have had some very dark moments before, but this is as hard as it gets."
Although the cabinet, most particularly my national security committee colleagues, unconditionally supported our stance, I had been the driving force behind the support we had given to the Americans. Both the party and the public saw this as something to which I had given a deep commitment. Recognising this, I wrote in my diary, again on March 12: "I think all of us realise that if this really does go 'pear-shaped', then that would be it for me. I should take the rap, for the sake of the party's future." In thinking this I was not being unduly pessimistic, just utterly realistic. I had put everything on the line.
Australia was to commit forces to battle without bipartisan support. I did not like that one bit, but had no alternative. I had contempt for Labor's position. [Then opposition leader] Kim Beazley had backed our deployment in 1998. This time his party had effectively tied its future action to the whims of Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin. The irony of this, while I was attacked for too closely following Bush, never occurred to the opposition or much of the Australian media. I was falsely accused of slavishly following the Americans because of my friendship with the president. Yet from the stance taken by Labor, it was clear that the determinant of its position would ultimately be how France and Russia might vote in the Security Council on the further resolution sought by the US and the British late in February 2003.
Crean said that if that resolution were carried, then his party would support Australia being involved. The Labor Party, consciously or otherwise, had taken a decision, effectively, to outsource Australia's foreign policy on Iraq to the Russians and the French, both of whom agreed Iraq had WMDs but were determined to exploit their power of veto in the UN Security Council. Apparently it was wrong of me to base a decision to go into Iraq, partly at least, on the strength of our decades-old and important American alliance, yet it was in order to allow the caprice of a Security Council vote by the Russians and the French to determine Labor policy. Crean made it clear that if a further resolution of the Security Council were obtained, authorising the use of force, then Labor would support Australia's involvement. Typically, though, Labor said that it did not support the type of military involvement the government had in mind.
On January 15, 2003, Crean even suggested there might be circumstances in which he would support military action, in the absence of a further resolution of the Security Council. Nor was the debate in Australia about whether or not Saddam possessed WMDs. Kevin Rudd, then opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, famously said in an address to the State Zionist Council of Victoria on October 15, 2002, that it was "an empirical fact" that Iraq had WMDs. Although Rudd would back away from his assertion that Saddam had WMDs, the truth was that both Rudd and Beazley were rather restrained, early in 2003, in their criticism of my government's decision to go into Iraq.
An analysis of their statements showed that if the post-invasion phase had gone better for the US and its allies, neither of them would have had much difficulty in supporting what the government had done. In November 2003 Rudd wrote to me, after visiting Iraq, with suggestions for additional Australian involvement. He wrote, "Now that regime change has occurred in Baghdad, it is the opposition's view that it is now the responsibility of all people of goodwill, both in this country and beyond, to put their shoulder to the wheel in an effort to build a new Iraq." No mention there of pulling out our troops. He wanted more resources for Baghdad.
Rudd was hedging his bets. Several years later, before the surge had begun to turn things around, Rudd would allege that Iraq had been "the greatest failure of national security policy since Vietnam". I found it inconceivable that we would not stand beside the Americans. To baulk at that decision on the basis that the Security Council had not passed another resolution seemed to me to be cloaking unwillingness to confront the substance of the issue with a thin and legalistic veneer.
Edited extract from Lazarus Rising: A Personal and Political Memoir by John Howard (HarperCollins Publishing, $59.99). In stores from October 26.