28 February 2009

Rushing willingly into Iraq

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As most of us celebrate the setting of a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the important question of how we all came to be involved in this mess in the first place. The most important questions here revolve not around the questions relating to whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did or did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but whether our governments were completely open with us about what they knew and when, at what stage various decisions were taken and commitments given, when we became irreversibly committed to the invasion of another country, and whether this was all some kind of ghastly “intelligence failure”.

The question of who knew what and when has been addressed very thoroughly in a remarkable 2007 essay by Garry Woodard, Senior Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Melbourne University. In previous incarnations Garry was Head, National Assessments Staff in the Joint intelligence Organisation (now DIO), Ambassador to Burma, High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to China. His approach to the issue benefits from his thoroughly researched knowledge of the decision-making process that led to our commitment to the Vietnam War, as described in his 2004 book Asian Alternatives: Australia’s Vietnam decision and lessons of going to war. Garry’s 2007 essay on Iraq, which is a remarkable example of what can be achieved by patient sifting through disparate open sources, has been taken down from the Melbourne University website but can be accessed from my Google Drive here.

Garry tells us:

The three governments forming the coalition of the willing practised deception about when decisions were taken, and why Iraq’s cruel dictator Saddam Hussein had to be removed. The age of spin and elite manipulation in democracies has refined the art of misrepresentation, though often with exaggerated and emotive overtones, to obfuscate, to engender fear, and to bludgeon doubt and dissent. Deception has long-term effects in lowering standards in public life and diminishing democracy.

He goes on to say and demonstrate that we nevertheless now know a lot. It is not a pretty picture, but well worth the read.

The question of whether or not the decision to invade Iraq was an intelligence failure is dealt with more than adequately by Paul R. Pillar, who served as the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. Writing in the March/April 2006 edition of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs Pillar says: 

“In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community’s own work was politicised”.

Pillar went on to say: 

“If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication, it was to avoid war – or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath. What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions of recent decades.”

These assessments deserve to be taken seriously, and the lessons learned – lest we forget.

Note: The full text of Pillar’s essay is available free here to registered users (subscribers), or may be purchased as a high quality PDF reprint for $0.99.

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