From the dwindling number of people who still think that the March 2003 invasion of Iraq was a good idea, there is beginning to emerge a self-justifying little spin line that the critics of the war are taking advantage of “20/20 hindsight”. Mainstream media outlets that are either lazy or happy to excuse their failings in relation to their own analysis and reportage are more than willing, as they have been for more than a decade, to facilitate this approach to exculpation.
So in the interests of getting my own position on the record (again), I reproduce below the notes from which I spoke in launching the anti-invasion video clip The Real Face of War, on 6 March 2003, 14 days before the commencement of the full-scale invasion was announced.
The Real Face of War
Ladies and gentlemen
Thank you for joining us for the official launch of The Real Face of War, a function which I am honoured to have been invited to perform.
The core message of The Real Face of War is that war is the wrong response to the current crisis, and before launching the piece I would like to say a few words in support of that proposition. I want to comment on three issues:
- The appropriateness of war as a response in the conduct of relations between states
- The real face of war
- The outcomes we are seeking and might expect from embarking on military operations against Iraq
War is a last resort
For a democratic nation proclaiming civilised values, war should always be a last resort. In the plain English meaning of that phrase, one goes to war when there is no other choice. Clearly there remain other sensible and less destructive choices for achieving the objective of containing Saddam Hussein, and many important member states of the UN advocate them.
We need to understand the gravity of what is at stake here. We are talking about putting the sons and daughters of fellow Australian citizens in harm’s way, to contribute to an armed attack on another country. As far as I am aware, it will be the first time we will have participated in an unprovoked invasion of another country.
To the extent that our justification for this relies upon the new doctrine of the “right” of pre-emptive attack, I would respond that this new doctrine is an extremely dangerous one that will ultimately be destabilising to world peace.
The real face of war
No matter how precise the weaponry, the overwhelming majority of the killed and injured will be innocent Iraqi civilians, the very people we now say we want to liberate from the tyrant who rules them. It is not for us to decide that the deaths of some numbers of Iraqi people is an acceptable price to pay in order to improve the lot of the rest.
And the numbers will be huge. Respectable estimates put the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the Gulf War at 150,000. With the scale of opening bombardment that is being openly canvassed in the media, it is impossible to imagine that civilian casualties will be small.
We should also bear in mind when we go off to fight oppressive regimes that many of the people in uniform who are opposing us will be conscripts who would rather be somewhere else.
One of the foundations of successful military operations is a clear objective – a very clear definition of the end state that the operations are designed to achieve. Indeed, one of the stated reasons why the coalition allies did not go on to Baghdad in 1991 was the avoidance of “mission creep”.
We had a clear objective in Operation Pollard in 1998. This was the operation in which we sent an SAS contingent and two B707 refuellers to the Gulf following Saddam’s expulsion of the previous weapons inspectorate – UNSCOM, led by Richard Butler. When then Defence Minister Ian McLachlan put to the combined civilian and military leadership the question of what they would regard as a successful outcome, the response he received was unanimous and immediate:
- Saddam Hussein does what we want him to do – lets the weapons inspectors back in
- All of our personnel come safe home
- Not a shot is fired in anger.
This is pretty much the way Operation Pollard turned out. The clear objective enabled the mission to be accomplished. Saddam Hussein did let the inspectors back in. On 8 May we announced that our forces were being scaled down, and in June we withdrew our contingent completely. This is what I would call a successful military operation; the most successful military operations are the ones you manage to avoid by skilful handling of the situation.
In the present crisis the objectives are most unclear, they seem to change from time to time, and four distinct possible objectives seem to be being conflated:
- The war against terrorism
- Elimination of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein
- Resistance to radical Islam of the sort promoted by Osama bin Laden
- Creation of a democratic society in Iraq, perhaps as the first step in democratising the Arab world.
We need to sort out which of these it is, because they are in fact distinct and conflicting objectives, and confusing them could make a bad situation worse. For the record, I share the view of Professor Avishai Margalit, Schulman Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, that the real enemy is Osama bin Laden, that fighting Saddam will greatly help this enemy rather than setting him back, and that accordingly, this is the wrong war.
To the extent that the motivation of the looming military campaign is to build a better Iraqi society, I would say that it is not up to any “coalition of the willing” to go around righting all the wrongs visited on unfortunate populations by oppressive regimes. If that is to be the new international agenda, then the Australian Defence Force and its more powerful allies will be very busy indeed. In any event, I am very sceptical about the prospects of an occupying power imposing democracy at the point of a gun, and I don’t see the kind of commitment to post-war reconstruction that would make that a realistic prospect.
Once we cross the threshold from the threat to the actuality of armed force there is inevitably a loss of control of the situation, no matter how certain the final outcome might seem. Backed into a corner, a dangerous and callous adversary like Saddam Hussein might well take actions that we would find extremely regrettable, including for example destroying the Iraqi oil fields, blowing up some of the dams on the Tigris and/or Euphrates, and using such chemical or biological capability as he might have. Certainly he would not shrink from any of these steps out of regard for the impact on his own people.
I fear that the prevailing atmosphere is that Iraq faces armed attack no matter what it does. This is counter-productive to any aim of coercing Saddam Hussein into peaceful compliance with the objectives of Security Council Resolution 1441.
So, without any illusions about Saddam Hussein, what he stands for, or what he is capable of, I say that war is not the appropriate response. I think there are some very important lessons to be drawn about Saddam Hussein from the events of early 1998, and indeed from the entire twelve-year period since the Gulf War of 1991. These are:
- In pursuit of his own agenda Saddam Hussein will go right to the brink, and in that sense he is a risk taker.
- Nevertheless, he is a calculating, rational and skilful operator who is all about regime survival, and hence exercises caution about the risks he takes.
The events since the Gulf War show quite clearly that while he will twist and turn and is completely untrustworthy, he is quite able to be deterred.
In fact my views are neatly summed up by a line of a poem read by Les Murray on Radio National on Tuesday:
The blow struck now will be weaker than the blow not struck.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your attendance here this morning and now declare The Real Face of War officially launched.
Paul Barratt AO
Former Secretary, Department of Defence
6 March 2003