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To make call on Iraq war requires more than machismo

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To make call on Iraq war requires more than machismoAs I listened to the debate between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition about the war in Iraq, I was reminded of a quote I had seen many years ago. I couldn’t remember it accurately, nor who had written it. What I did remember was that it referred to a balance between courage and wisdom. The former has figured prominently in the debate between the two leaders. The latter, not at all.

The debate between Howard and Rudd was, as is well known, sparked by Howard’s condemnation of Democratic Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, who has pledged the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq should he be elected President. Howard said that Senator Obama’s position would give comfort to the terrorists – that the terrorists would be hoping that a Democrat would win the forthcoming Presidential election and will mark March 2008, the date by which Obama would withdraw troops, on their calendars. The election of a Democratic President would be a win for the terrorists, the Australian Prime Minister was suggested.

Rudd and his party were appalled, or so they said, that Howard had intervened in another country’s domestic electoral process. Senator Obama challenged the Prime Minister. If he was serious about the need not to withdraw from Iraq, to increase Australia’s presence there. After all, the US is increasing its troop numbers by 20,000.

The Prime Minister refused to back down — he had already made a gaffe on climate change the week before — and instead went on the offensive. He said that the opposition leader did not have the guts to stick it out in Iraq. He said that Rudd was gutless because he would not address the consequences of an early withdrawal from Iraq. In a moment of — as they say in sporting parlance — deja vu again, it was suggested that the Labor leader, like his predecessor, had no 'ticker'.

Rudd responded by challenging Howard to outline his strategy for winning the war in Iraq. It was Howard, and not Rudd, or so the opposition leader claimed, who lacked 'guts and courage.'

That there is something of a debate on Iraq is welcome. During the last Federal election campaign the Iraq war was the issue that no-one dared mention. Then Labor leader, Mark Latham, had promised, apparently without real thought or consultation, to bring Australian troops home from Iraq by Christmas. Given the foolishness of such a promise, Labor was keen that the issue be buried. Howard was in no rush to raise Iraq during the campaign; anything to avoid confronting the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the continuing violence in the country.

To make call on Iraq war requires more than machismoYet there is something troubling about the Howard versus Rudd debate on the Iraq war, and it is not just that an extremely complex and apparently intractable issue is being reduced to simplistic sloganeering. The debate has regressed, become a matter of machismo.

This is what reminded me of that long forgotten quote. So I dug out and dusted off an old journal and tracked it down. On the title page I found the quote. It was from Ammon Hennessy, a pacifist and radical Christian. Given his admiration of Diedrich Bonhoeffer, Kevin Rudd might have some sympathy with the sentiments expressed.

"Love without Courage and Wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member; Courage without Love and Wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier; Wisdom without Love and Courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore, one with Love, Courage and Wisdom is one in a million, who changes the world, as with Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi."

Now I can concede that it might be unreasonable to expect our political leaders to be made of such exceptional stuff. I futher confess that Love, as in Hennessy’s formulation, is perhaps misplaced on the Australian political scene – though this may be because the concept has been sentimentalised and appropriated by flag-kissing Big Day Out attendees and the like. But these reservations aside, it seems that there is a real need to inject something like wisdom into the debate about Iraq. As it is, those debating look more foolish than courageous or wise.

Of course, it may be that any debate about Iraq will necessarily touch upon the foolhardy. The longer the war continues, the more the decision to invade Iraq looks to have been made on the basis of the sort of courage that lacks both love and wisdom.



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Existing comments

There is nothing courageous about sending anonymous young men off to fight in a pointless and illegal war. It takes courage to recognise and acknowledge a mistake. In this context Rudd shows far more courage than Howard.

There is no need for further debate about the Iraq war. The war is lost. Any debate should be about the merit or lack of merit in irresponsible obstinacy.

Rod Lever | 19 March 2007  

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