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Troops return debate ignores our Iraq havoc complicity

  • 16 April 2007

Last month the Prime Minister, John Howard, embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the frontlines in the war against international terrorism. Within days of his return from brief visits to Afghanistan and Iraq he delivered a speech marking the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The speech will not go down as one of Howard’s greatest. But it is not that it was lacklustre that is of real importance. What matters is that it illustrates something about the sort of debate on Iraq we are having in Australia. In his speech Howard asked his critics to put aside their objections to the original decision to invade Iraq and instead to "consider the situation we now face and the stakes involved."

It is a line the Prime Minister has run before. And it is an attempt at shifting the focus of the debate from the decision to invade to what the Prime Minister called "our obligations to help the Iraqis." By shaping the debate in this way Howard is attempting to reposition himself on the moral high ground. Those who continue to carp on the original decision, such a position suggests, are not only engaging in a stale argument, but worse, they are letting the Iraqis down. Yet while there is no doubt that we now have obligations to Iraqis, it should also be clear where responsibility lies for their current predicament. Our obligations stem from our role in creating havoc in the place. This is not to say that the Iraqis were living in peace before Howard and his fellow hawks invaded. Iraqis had long been living under a brutal dictatorship. But the situation that Iraqis now face is the result not of Saddam’s regime but of the decision to invade and the consequences that have flowed from that decision. It was Howard and his colleagues in the US and Britain that unleashed this thing. When Howard points to the devastating implications of a "premature withdrawal of coalition forces" while failing to take responsibility for his part in creating the problem, he is engaging in clever obfuscation. The opposition leader has played right into this. Kevin Rudd’s emphasis on the withdrawal of Australian troops has meant that Australia’s debate on Iraq is shallow and parochial. Rather than focussing on the real issue—the fate of the millions of Iraqis now living in desperate insecurity and the destablising repercussions for the