Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Troops return debate ignores our Iraq havoc complicity


'Return of troops' debate ignores our Iraq havoc complicityLast 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 whole Middle East—the debate in Australia continues to revolve around when Australian troops should return.

To be fair, the Prime Minister spoke of his "concern and distress" about the continued "violence and suffering" in Iraq and of a "bloody, chaotic problem." But it is language that does more to obscure than clarify the nature of the problem.

'Return of troops' debate ignores our Iraq havoc complicityNowhere in his recent speech—in which he quoted at some length a number of military officials who had made comments favourable to his argument—was Howard able to convey the extent of the tragedy that has befallen Iraqis.

The International Committee for the Red Cross last week reported that as a consequence of the conflict in their homeland, many Iraqis are unable to access adequate food, clean water or health care. Vital infrastructure, including power, water and sanitation systems remain in a state of disrepair.

And then there is the violence. We all know from the daily news reports of suicide bombings killing scores of people. On Thursday, the Iraqi Parliament, a building that is located within the maximum security Green Zone was bombed, killing up to eight people.

There is also another sort of violence that permeates Iraqi society and that is less widely reported. As part of the vicious sectarian conflict that continues in Iraq, large numbers of civilians are being killed and tortured, including by ‘death squads’ with links to the government.

A report by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq published late last year noted that "7,054 civilians were violently killed in September and October 2006, with almost 5,000 in Baghdad alone, most of them bearing signs of torture and killed as a result of gunshot wounds."

The bodies of the victims of this violence are often dumped on the city streets, a practice that is reminiscent of Latin America’s so-called dirty wars. According to one newspaper report, there is a street in Baghdad in which so many corpses have been left that it has become known as the Street of Death.

It is almost impossible to imagine the sort of fear and insecurity that pervades the daily lives of individuals and communities living in such conditions. The situation is so dire that Iraqis are fleeing their homes and their homeland in extraordinary numbers.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since early 2006 more than 700,000 Iraqis have fled their homes for other parts of Iraq. In early 2007 it was estimated that the numbers of the internally displaced were being added to at a rate of 50,000 per month. A further 2 million Iraqi refugees have sought refuge in neighbouring states and in 2006, Iraqis were seeking asylum in Europe at a greater rate than any other nationality.

In comparison to this reality, the debate over the withdrawal of Australian troops is completely incomprehensible. For Labor, there are political points to be scored by appealing to a policy of ‘bringing our boys home’ and chastising the government for its apparent failure to have an exit strategy from Iraq.

For the government, the question of troop withdrawal keeps the debate focused narrowly on the present without any reference to the circumstances that got us – and more importantly, the Iraqis—here. That Howard and the supporters of the war in Iraq are seeking to assume the moral high ground in the current debate ought to be beyond the bounds of logic.

The failure of the media and the opposition to return again and again to the moral responsibility that the Howard government has for the disaster in Iraq might also reflect something of the state of Australian political culture. It is further evidence that we do not have the ability to have a sustained and serious debate on the things that really matter.



submit a comment

Existing comments

I think it is about time that both sides took a step back and started working out what is the best thing to do, not what will win the most votes.

c.a.matthews | 17 April 2007  

Australia's muted debate on the real truth about the Iraq war is as much a result of the total failure of Australia's media as John Howard's obfuscation and Kevin Rudd's cautious avoidance of any direct attack on Howard over the central issues.

The internet is the only real source of information and the truth is much more startling than most Australians realise.

We are told so little about events on the ground that the debate here is on the superficial and the political rather than the fact that this war has multiplied by a factor of thousands the number of Western-hating terrorists training and developing a whole new set of strategies for the future.

Nor do we learn much of the true horror in the cities. For example, an Iraqi epedimiologist, Dr Riydadh Lafta has for the sixth time been refused a visa to visit Seattle, sought by the state University of Washington, to present a study on the ravages of the war on the new generation of Iraqi babies: a dramatic increase in birth defects and infant leukemia, far greater than that of the first Gulf War.

Instead Dr Lafta is to present his study later this month, not in America as he wished, but at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Rod Lever | 18 April 2007  

I've gone to the text of Mr Howard's speech, have inserted my ripostes [DA comment: ... ], for as lon as I could stomach it. See below.
I APPRECIATE Peter Abigail and ASPI giving me the opportunity to address this distinguished group on the situation today in Iraq and the broader security implications.
In one sense, this quiet corner of Parliament House is a long way from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In another sense, it helps bring into focus much of what is at stake.
A hallmark of our free society is the ability to debate issues forcefully and to resolve inevitable differences peacefully. Our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan see this as a sign of weakness. We know it is our greatest strength. [DA comment: as members of the West, we must accept responsibility for our past peaceful resolutions, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration and the UN vote authorisation the annexation of much of Palestine for a bit of lebensraum for those who escaped Hitler. Which of these differences with Arab peoples’ right of self-determination have been resolved peacefully?]
This place is where political differences are aired and resolved in policy. I am well aware of the sharp political differences that exist in Australia today over Iraq, differences that have existed since the Government's initial decision to commit forces four years ago.
I am not asking Australians to discount the enormous difficulties in Iraq or to change their views about the original decision.

I am asking them to consider the situation we now face and the stakes involved. [DA comment: the situation is that we continue to choose to overstay such welcome as was extended by Iraqi people liberated from a noisome tyrant].

What Iraq and her people need now is time, not a timetable. They seek our patience, not political positioning. They require our resolve, not our retreat. [DA comment: nonsense. We have exhausted their patience, and their resolution is that they demand our retreat. They demand nought else of us, other than our departure].
This place also reminds us that our democratic processes, liberty and prosperity rest on a foundation of order and security. Without security, democratic politics and economic development are impossible. [DA comment: peace through superior firepower].
That's why the first duty of government is to protect and defend the nation's security, its people, its borders, its interests and its values. [DA comment: peace through superior firepower].
Sometimes that involves tough decisions which place Australian men and women in danger – no less today than in earlier times of war. [DA comment: peace through superior firepower, with guns operated by someone else’s children].
And notwithstanding our strong economy, a near record stockmarket and low unemployment, this is a time of war. [DA comment: only because we choose war.].
The long war against violent Islamic extremism goes on. It is a very different kind of war – a war without borders and with no clear frontlines; a war fought as much by our ideas and values as by our armies. [DA comment: and to think that George Orwell imagined a war would be declared against the International Jewish Conspiracy].
Terrorist cells are active today in between 30 and 40 countries plotting action based on a warped interpretation of Islam. Attacks have been planned in Australia. [DA comment: troops in Iraq will help prevent attacks in Australia, won’t they? Certainly our Iraqi expedition shows just how keen we are to help liberate Muslim peoples. ].
Nor should we forget the essential lessons of 11 September 2001 – that failed states can quickly become havens and projecting grounds for global terror; and that terrorists can turn our openness and technological achievements against us to devastating strategic effect.
Globalisation is far from a universal solvent for ideologies of hate or old wounds – real and perceived. [DA comment: Mr Howard is an unreconstructed Cold Warrior, who floundered throughout the decade after the Wall came down ... until Osama gave him a cause].
The West faces a major disjunction today between political fragmentation and economic globalisation; between abundant opportunities created by liberal, democratic societies and reactionary forces bent on crippling them; between the relative comfort and normalcy of so many Western lives in 2007 and the risks and sacrifices of those striving to bring peace and stability to troubled lands. [DA comment: liberal,democratic societies such as Israel, on a pavement made of Palestinian bones? Liberal, democratic societies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt?]
There are about 3,300 Australian Defence Force personnel on operations overseas or undertaking security tasks in our maritime protection zone. They advance our nation's interests and ideals with great courage.
I regard them as our finest patriots and our finest internationalists.
Roughly 2000 Australians are part of operations today in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Afghanistan, our largest contingent – the Reconstruction Task Force in Oruzgan Province which I visited last week – is working in partnership with the Dutch on the reconstruction and improvement of infrastructure. It has made excellent progress rebuilding schools, roads and bridges and training the local population to ensure the benefits remain into the future.
Afghanistan is a highly dangerous theatre of war with 2006 the most violent year since the country was liberated. We can expect a revived Taliban to launch further waves of attack this year.
As winter in Afghanistan gives way to spring, coalition forces are again on the offensive to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be a safe-haven for terrorism – and to help the Afghan people surmount the many problems they face in building a secure, stable and democratic future.
This will take time and effort. I assured President Karzai when I met him that Australia remains committed to this task.
Last week, I also visited Australian troops in Iraq. I spoke with their commanding officers and men and women of all ranks; I spoke with Prime Minister Maliki; and I spoke with General Petraeus, the new US commander of the Multinational Force in Iraq.
It's just over four years since I announced the commitment of Australian forces to the US-led military operation in Iraq. This was one of the most difficult and contentious decisions this government has taken.
I share the concern and distress of all Australians about the continued violence and suffering in Iraq – and their frustration that it is sometimes hard to see progress. [DA comment: Mr Howard shares my concern, that the invasion was founded upon a lie, then another lie, that Australia supports the slaughter of Iraqi innocence, that Australia supports the annexation of Iraq’s natural wealth by US corporations, all funded by taxpayers. Mr Howard is concerned that I pay, and Halliburton gets rich?]
Clearly there have been setbacks and mistakes on the way to Iraq taking full charge of its own affairs. The loss of life and injuries sustained by both Iraqis and coalition forces is tragic. [DA comment: but the loss of life(other peoples’ children, other peoples’ parents) will be worth it, once the oil is flowing].
But I would hope even critics of our involvement in the original action recognise the need to honour our obligations to the Iraqis and to help them towards a more stable future. [DA comment; and what, pray tell, are those obligations?]
Every time ordinary Iraqis are given the chance they say the same thing in overwhelming numbers: We want peace, stability and democracy. [DA comment: and they’ll have those things when there are no foreign troops on their soil, not before].
I did come away from my visit to Iraq with a sense of cautious hope – about the new security plan and about the Iraqi government's willingness to face the big challenges ahead.
Above all, I came away convinced that the Iraqi people want the same things we look for in our own lives – safety for their families, a chance to earn a living and a say in how they are governed. [DA comment: and they’ll have those things when there are no foreign troops on their soil, not before].
In March 2003 I was very clear about the reasons for taking decisive action against Saddam Hussein. I simply remind people of the strategic realities we faced.
• That Saddam's regime was a real and growing threat to the stability of the Middle East. Containment was breaking down. [DA comment: lie]
• That Saddam had form, both as an aggressor against his neighbours and as a tyrannic ruler of his own people. And that his non-compliance with 17 UN Security Council resolutions over a period of 12 years was weakening the credibility of the United Nations. [DA comment: Saddam invaded Kuwait in an attempt to wipe a debt from his war against Iran; where were we in that war .. and when will Israeli non-compliance with UN resolutions attract coalition willingness?]
• That virtually all governments (including opponents of the war such as France and Germany) as well as the now Leader of the Opposition agreed that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and had designs on developing nuclear weapons. Mr Rudd said that Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction was "a matter of empirical fact". [DA comment: the evidence of these weapons was concocted in Washington in the months before the invasion, during the time that Mr Howard made repeated visits to that city. No evidence of Iraqi weapons was obtained anywhere else].
• That the Middle East has always been very important to Australia's security and broader national interests. [DA comment: in that case, it’s rather stupid to be making so many enemies there].
• And that the strength of our alliance with the United States is based ultimately on the preparedness of each party to share risk and the overall security burden on behalf of the other. [DA comment: on the preparedness of each party to aid and abet in illegal, immoral use of overwhelming military might against populations of innocent bystanders, just in case some of them don’t like us].
Our alliance has never been stronger and has never brought greater benefits for Australia, including in our engagement with Asian countries. [DA comment: they don’t respect us, they’re scared of us]. Our practical contribution and preparedness to stand with America in Iraq is of first order importance to its current strength and vitality [DA comment: Even as the insurgency maims and drains a generation of American youth].

David Arthur | 24 April 2007  

Similar Articles

Family policy grapples with modern complexities

  • John Button
  • 16 April 2007

The social policies of the Australia's past worked reasonably well in protecting people from serious poverty. But now we require new policies providing a similar sense of security and contemporary relevance.


Election a test for East Timor's fragile democracy

  • Paul Cleary
  • 16 April 2007

Claims of irregularities in last week's presidential election speak volumes about the state of East Timor’s democracy. The elections are also a crucial test for building democracy in post-conflict countries.