All posts by Scott Burchill

Shifting ground again: Howard on Iraq and Al Qaeda

Dr Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University and a regular Webdiary contributor.


(1) “It’s my view that Iraq is really irrelevant to the intent and the purposes of Al Qaeda. It may be something that is used for propaganda and recruitment purposes, and this is not only my view but it’s also the view of the Director General of ASIO Dennis Richardson. He gave voice to this view in a major speech he gave last year.” John Howard, 7.30 Report, ABC, 15 March 2004

(2) “But we also need to understand that this contest in Iraq represents a critical confrontation in the war against terror… I find it astonishing when people claim that Iraq is a diversion from the real war against terrorism. The reality is that international terrorism has invested an enormous amount in breaking the will of the coalition in Iraq. Not only are organisations associated with al Qaeda operating in Iraq but each and every turn of the Iraq struggle is interpreted by spokesmen for international terrorism as part of the ongoing campaign against the United States and her allies. Whatever may have been the origins of the horrific attack in Madrid, al Qaeda and its associates opportunistically associated that attack with Spain’s participation in the military operation in Iraq.” John Howard, Address to the Institute of Public Affairs,The Australian Club, Melbourne, 19 May 2004


(3) “I’ll be warning that a defeat for the coalition in Iraq will greatly hearten and embolden terrorists in our part of the world. What people have got to understand is that irrespective of the views about whether we should have gone there in the first place, terrorists see Iraq as the frontline in the international struggle against countries like Australia and our friends in our region and if the coalition fails in Iraq, if the terrorists win in Iraq, they will also win and organisations like Jemaah Islamiyah with all its reach in the Asian Pacific region will also win. A win for the terrorists in Iraq will embolden and lead to the recruitment of more terrorists in our part of the world.” John Howard Doorstop interview, Canberra, 18 June 2004

How do we explain the Prime Minister’s change of view? How did Iraq go from being “irrelevant to the intent and the purposes of Al Qaeda” in March to it being seen by terrorists “as the frontline in the international struggle against countries like Australia and our friends in our region” by June?

The answer is that in March, Howard was trying to undermine AFP Chief Mick Keelty’s unremarkable and obvious remarks that Australia’s participation in the Iraq war increased the threat of terrorism. So in March it was necessary to attack Keelty and defend the war in Iraq by separating it from the so called war on terror.

By June, however, all the pretexts for the war, including WMD and Saddam-Al Qaeda links, had long since collapsed and it was necessary to attack Mark Latham’s policy of returning home Australian soldiers in Iraq by Christmas. Suddenly, Iraq is central to the intent and purposes of Al Qaeda. In fact it has regional and global significance for the war on terror.

Who said Howard didn’t see international politics through a domestic prism?

‘Reluctant occupier’: the latest US myth for Iraq

Scott Burchill, a regular Webdiary commentator on Iraq, is the lecturer in international relations at Deakin University.


First there was the “grave danger” (President Bush) posed by Saddam’s WMD, which failed to materialise. Then there were the Baghdad-Al Qaeda links that couldn’t be established. Along came the democratisation rationale, which only 1% of the Iraqi population believes. To replace the threat of non-existent WMD, a humanitarian argument was suddenly invoked. However, with over 11,000 innocent civilians killed by invading and occupying forces, Saddam’s removal from power has actually sparked a humanitarian disaster. And far from confronting terrorists in situ as promised, Iraq has became a recruiting ground for a proliferating collection of anti-Western militants.

Now a new orthodoxy is shaping comment and analysis about events in Iraq. Let’s call it the ‘reluctant occupier myth’.

Having removed Saddam Hussein and his cohorts from power and set Iraq on a path towards democracy, the US is now preparing to leave – the ‘Vietnamisation’ of Iraq. It will find a smooth way out by returning sovereignty to a new Iraqi administration, initially on 1 July through the auspices of the UN and early next year via democratic elections. Coalition forces, which don’t want to be in Iraq a day longer than what is necessary to “finish the job,” will stay on to “maintain’ security,” but only at the pleasure of a new interim Government in Baghdad.

Like the earlier myths, this one is also a fabrication.

It is difficult to see what could be more obvious than that the US is desperately trying to stay in Iraq – and specifically, in charge – as the great majority of Baghdadis at least seem to understand, judging by US-run polls. Despite disingenuous claims that coalition troops would leave if asked to by a new Iraqi authority after 1 July, Colin Powell got closer to the truth when he stated on 26 April that “I hope they [the Iraqi people] will understand that in order for this government to get up and running – to be effective – some of its sovereignty will have to be given back [to Washington].” Coalition troops will stay on regardless.

They may not be able to carry it off, but the Western states currently occupying Iraq hardly need advice about carrying out what they are desperately trying to avoid. What was the point of invading in the first place if they were going to get out?

Washington wants others to share the burden of political reconstruction (the UN) and rebuilding infrastructure, but it has no intention of relinquishing real control of the country to anyone, including the UN or the Iraqi people. As a strategic prize in the heart of the Arab world with the world’s second largest known reserves of oil, a client regime in Baghdad would be of inestimable value to the United States.

However, it is having difficulty finding a Vichy government willing to follow Washington’s orders because of the domestic risks that collaborators always face. It is keen to hand over the ‘nasties’ like local policing and law and order to indigenous control because this will reduce coalition losses. On the other hand, the lucrative gains of economic sovereignty – including control of the oil industry, the privitisation of state owned enterprises, and opening up the economy to foreign investment and ownership – will not be matters for the discretion of a post-Saddam administration.

The world’s largest embassy, which Washington intends to build in Baghdad, would not be necessary if Iraqis were going to genuinely regain control of their country. It will be a constant reminder that full sovereignty, including economic and political independence, will not be returned to them.

The US has lost the war politically. Its occupation of Iraq is the cause of regional instability and unremitting violence. Its preference for unilateralism and contempt for the UN, its reluctance to consult with long standing friends, and its failure to reconcile its global ambitions with the limits of its power has undermined the alliance system upon which its foreign policy since 1947 has rested.

According to war historian Gabriel Kolko, the strength and influence of the US in the post-WW2 period has “largely rested on its ability to convince other nations that it was to their vital interests to see America prevail in its global role”. The false pretexts used to justify the war in Iraq and the revelations of prison brutality have cost Washington considerable moral authority amongst its allies in Europe and friends in the Middle East.

It has never been more military powerful but never felt less secure. It now confronts this paradox in a much less friendly and respectful world.

The Lobby

Scott Burchill is Webdiary’s international relations commentator. He lectures at Deakin University.


The Jakarta Lobby was an informal group of like-minded bureaucrats (DFAT, Ausaid, Defence), intelligence officers (DIO, ONA), as well as journalists and academics, who argued that Indonesia under General Suharto should be judged by a different standard to the one applied to other governments.

This was despite the fact that Suharto’s rise to power in 1965 triggered one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, and his brutal dictatorship lasted for over three decades.

To the extent that Indonesia under Suharto became a “special case” for Australia, the Canberra-Jakarta axis parallels the Washington-Tel Aviv relationship which developed at around the same time. In both instances a small minority of highly influential people started lobbying their own government (often from within it) to protect and further the interests of another which illegally occupied adjacent land (East Timor, Palestine).

The strategies of both lobbies included –

* protecting each state from criticism and scrutiny (downplaying human rights violations in occupied territories (Santa Cruz, Jenin), portraying state terrorism as self-defence, silence on WMD programs, attributing atrocities orchestrated by senior state officials to middle management or “rogue elements”);

* exaggerating their strategic vulnerability (Indonesia’s fragmentation, “tiny Israel” – armed with WMD – surrounded by hostile neighbours – conventionally armed);

* providing diplomatic protection at the UN (Whitlam’s visit to UN, Washington’s Security Council veto);

* recognising the acquisition of territory by force and denying rights to self-determination (Canberra’s de jure recognition of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, Bush’s recognition of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the denial of refugees’ right of return);

* portraying critics of the governments in Jakarta and Tel Aviv as being motivated by racism (anti-Indonesian, anti-Semitic); and

* accepting, despite global trends heading the opposite way, the militarisation of politics as legitimate (TNI in politics, former generals as heads of Indonesian and Israeli governments, the brutality of their military in occupied territories – Aceh, West Papua, Palestine, Lebanon).

Since the mid 1960s and occasionally before, the Jakarta lobby in Australia believed that the Republic of Indonesia was beset by centrifugal forces which could only be countered by strong authoritarian rule from Jakarta. Presupposing both the inevitable Balkanisation of the archipelago and the dangers this posed to Australia, its members reflexively opposed secessionist (Aceh, West Papua) and independence (East Timor) movements, regardless of their legitimacy and the fact that their retention within the state was effectively maintained at the point of a gun.

Blind to the normal trends against the idea of immutable political boundaries in international politics, the lobby’s refusal to examine its own flawed presuppositions about Indonesia’s territorial integrity encouraged it to downplay or overlook Suharto’s crimes against his own people and his neighbours.

The lobby has never explained why independence for Aceh and West Papua would inexorably lead to the disintegration of the Indonesian state. Nor have they noticed the correlation between military brutality and separatism in the country’s outlying provinces. Their claims that Canberra “had to deal with Jakarta” regardless of its behaviour, disguised the extent to which they drove the relationship well beyond the level of diplomatic necessity to the point where Australian military forces became morally compromised through joint training exercises with Jakarta’s special forces – notorious for their human rights violations.

Thanks partly to their efforts in securing Canberra’s de jure recognition of Jakarta’s control of the territory in the 1980s, the legitimate aspirations of the East Timorese for independence were ultimately thwarted for 24 years at an appalling cost in human suffering.

East Timor is finally free, but the behaviour of prominent spokesmen in the media over the last fortnight suggests the Jakarta lobby is alive and well, six years after Suharto’s fall from power. Like the ‘Likudniks’ in the Pentagon and other ‘friends of Israel’ who influence the Bush Administration’s approach to the Middle East, the Jakarta lobby still contaminates Australia’s foreign and defence policies.

Currently they are seeking to discredit Lt Col Lance Collins, an experienced intelligence officer in the Army, by portraying him as an ill-informed and bitter maverick, frustrated by a lack of influence and his failure to be promoted within the armed forces. The lobby is also at pains to protect its tarnished reputation and avoid independent judicial scrutiny.

Although he was one of the very few to anticipate the charnel house that East Timor became in 1999, Collins’ principal crime was to expose the litany of policy failures by lobby members, many of whom have gone on to bigger and better things in intelligence, consultancies and private think tanks.

That is why their appearances on TV, radio and in newspapers at present, denying the very existence of a pro-Jakarta lobby which they actually comprise, makes for such a bizarre and grotesque spectacle.

Beware the leaky official

Scott Burchill is lecturer in international relations at Deakin University, and comments regularly on the war in Iraq for Webdiary.


The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has had interesting effects on political life in the Western world: some amusing, others deadly serious.

With both the Federal Government and the intelligence agencies leaking in an attempt to repair their sullied reputations, Canberra is awash with incontinents busting to find sympathetic journalists willing to pose as public urinals. Growing anger and constant reminders of what the Howard Government said before the war about Iraq’s WMD are acting like a diuretic on the body politic.

It happens all the time, though not always with such a rapid flow of information. It depends on willing conduits in the Fourth Estate. On July 10 last year, “WMD doubts are ludicrous” screamed the headline of Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian. Underneath, the paper’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan claimed that “the US has material in its possession in Iraq which, if it checks out, will be conclusive evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs. The evidence that Hussein had WMD programs is so overwhelming, he [John Bolton, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Security] can barely understand how it is doubted.”

Two days later Mr Sheridan went further:

“The US has discovered what it believes is decisive proof of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and taken the material to the US for testing. …They believe the material will contain chemical weapons materials.”

Of course it didn’t. Unsurprisingly, a headline saying “We’re sorry we mislead you but we so badly wanted to believe this leak,” has yet to materialise.

All leaks should be treated with circumspection, regardless of where the stream emanates from. Writing in the late 1970s, the British historian E.P. Thompson argued that:

“The foulest damage to our political life comes not from the ‘secrets’ which they hide from us, but from the little bits of half-truth and disinformation which they do tell us. These are already pre-digested, and then are sicked up as little gobbits of authorised spew. The columns of defence correspondents in the establishment sheets serve as the spittoons.”

Putting to one side the blame game and the buck passing, there are serious concerns arising out of this tawdry saga.

First, it is astonishing that the Australian Government is not interested in why the intelligence upon which it relied to start a war with Iraq was so faulty. Nor has it expressed any concern that it led the public astray. Having opposed the parliamentary inquiry examining pre-war intelligence which will report today, the Government has already leaked it because it knows that it clears them of Opposition charges that intelligence was manipulated or sexed up.

Faced with a collapsed pretext for their war, Canberra now effectively blames its intelligence “suppliers” (Washington and London) who can also find out where the problem lies. Howard and Downer are acting like dodgy retailers – when the customers complain about misleading advertising it’s the wholesaler’s fault.

Another inquiry will be needed and reluctantly established. One question it should address is why the end users of inconclusive intelligence expressed not the slightest doubt, qualification or ambiguity about its claims when they prepared this country for war. As the 12 month anniversary of the invasion approaches, they remain utterly shameless about their conduct – as do their cheerleaders in the media who urge them “not [to] make any foolish admissions” (Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 26 February, 2004).

Secondly, in his address to the nation on 20 March 2003, Mr Howard said that “a key element of our close friendship with the United States and indeed with the British is our full and intimate sharing of intelligence material”. Following September 11, the Bali catastrophe and the WMD fiasco there are now grave concerns over the value of these arrangements. With its confidence shot, the public has every right to be concerned about the quality of both our own intelligence and that of our allies upon which we so heavily rely.

Thirdly, by retrospectively claiming that the war was justified regardless of what they argued beforehand, Howard and his counterparts in Washington and London are saying that the benchmark for aggression has been lowered: from “possession of WMD” to “intention and capability”. This authorises an attack on just about any decent high school chem lab run by a teacher with sociopathic tendencies. Nothing less than a revolutionary change to the very basis of international society, it is extraordinary that this shift remains unremarked upon.

Finally, Howard likes to upbraid opponents of the war by claiming that if they had their way, Saddam would still be in power. This is more than just a morally dubious ‘ends justify the means’ argument. Speaking to the national media on 14 March 2003, the PM said he “would have to accept that if Iraq had genuinely disarmed, I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I’ve never advocated that. Much in all as I despise the regime.”

Howard ruled out humanitarian or any other concerns as a justification for war. Given that Saddam appears to have already disarmed himself when this remark was made, the logic of Howard’s position is that he too believes that Saddam Hussein should still be in power.

The perils of our US alliance

According to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the policies that have recently prevailed in Washington seem to all outsiders so mad that it is difficult to understand what is really intended”.

Not so, at least in Australia.

Governments in continental Europe led by Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac may be examining the consequences of the Iraq war for future trans-Atlantic ties. German and French philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida might be calling for a counterweight to US strategic preponderance. However, no such debate or reflection on the war has erupted in this country. Why not?

One explanation is that according to ideological vigilantes on the political right, it is not possible to criticise the policies of the Bush Administration without being “anti-American.” For commissars who make no distinction between the American state and American society – an old Stalinist convention – it isn’t possible to love Americans and despise the foreign policy that is enacted in their names. This is a replay of the racist slur that one could not criticise Jakarta’s behaviour in East Timor without being “anti-Indonesian”.

However, there is another more compelling reason why US foreign policy has not evoked the same concerns in Australia that are being expressed elsewhere in the West. The current state of the relationship between Canberra and Washington has produced a very different intellectual and policy climate to the one which prevails in much of Europe.

For dependent allies of the United States such as Australia, a misguided belief that “everything has changed” after 9/11 has led to a steady departure from strategic self-reliance, diplomatic independence and regional engagement. Instead, the closest possible partnership with Washington has been sought by Canberra in the belief that only trans-Pacific ties can provide a modicum of security in volatile and uncertain times. Prime Minister Howard argued that Australia’s participation in the war against Iraq was, in part, out of a duty to our alliance partner.

Little thought appears to have been given to the consequences of such an approach. And yet the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fiasco is an early demonstration of the dangers of an increasingly vicarious foreign policy. Australian diplomacy is now firmly tied to a stridently unilateralist US Administration which, despite multilateral pretences, does not believe in an alliance system that involves genuine consultation.

Current Australian attitudes towards the United Nations, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, strategic pre-emption and even France, to take only five recent examples, are indistinguishable from their American source. It may be good for alliance solidarity, but there are a number of dangers in this approach for Australia.

The first is Australia’s moral complicity in actions it can do little to influence, but for which there are significant consequences. The ethical value of Australia’s behaviour in Afghanistan and Iraq will be measured by the anticipated and predictable consequences of our actions. This extends well beyond the removal of two repressive and unpopular regimes, to include protecting individuals from avoidable harm and the welfare of people we have deprived of government, law and order, as well as basic services such as public health. Seemingly ambivalent about our role as an occupying power in Iraq, Australia has not fully discharged either its moral or legal responsibilities for nation re-building.

A second risk is guilt by association. As Australia’s foreign policy becomes indistinguishable from America’s, we should expect Washington’s enemies, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, to see matters in a similar light. But is it in our national interest to hitch our wagon so closely to the US if it means getting caught up in Washington’s blowback?

It is still unclear whether Australians were specifically targeted in Bali, whether they were mistaken for Americans or victims of a generic anti-Western attack. Policy convergence will ensure that in the future such distinctions will become superfluous. A more independent stance may not buy us immunity from anti-Western terrorist assaults, but we don’t need to consciously increase our vulnerability either.

A third problem arising from such a pro-US position is that we will be taken for granted in Washington. Countries which regularly express their fidelity to the United States lose leverage because concurrence can be assumed. Allies which play a little harder to get often win significant concessions, as Pakistan and a number of Central Asian states did after September 11. Canada, Turkey and Japan have remained close allies with the US even though they refused to join the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.

Despite Canberra’s assiduous support for Washington over the last two years, the US will not deviate from pursuing its national interests just to reward a junior partner. Even in the current amicable climate there won’t be a free trade agreement between the two countries which requires US farmers to compete on a level playing field with their Australian counterparts.

Australia is earning a reputation as Washington’s stalking horse, even in countries such as Iran where it is far from clear that our interests and Washington’s coincide. It’s not only trade policies which diverge. Australia’s more sensible approach to the North Korea problem is having little if any effect on Pentagon planners. Elsewhere in North Asia Canberra never wants to be forced to choose sides in a dispute between the US and China over Taiwan. But can it avoid the issue?

Do we actually share America’s values, as Prime Minister Howard claims in his explanation of why Australia is targeted by Islamic militants? We are certainly the only ally in East Asia which publicly identifies culturally with the US. However, it is not clear that Australians would generally embrace the neo-conservatism and Christian fundamentalism which permeates the Bush Administration – even if John Howard, Peter Costello and Michael Jeffery do.

Nor are expressions of cultural affinity especially helpful to a policy of regional engagement. Australia’s intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq put us at odds with our closest neighbours in South East Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia) just as it did during the Gulf War in 1991, reinforcing a belief that we default strategically to the US in times of global crises. These days, regional engagement looks skin deep. We habitually notify the region of decisions we have taken after they have been cleared with Washington. We don’t consult them beforehand.

Has Australia’s closer relationship with the US since 2001 actually enhanced our security? At a time when the US itself has never been more militarily powerful, it has never felt less secure. This paradox brings little comfort to Australia.

Recent legislative responses to alleged terrorist threats which peel away long-established legal protections and civil liberties, do not suggest Australians are seeing the benefits of Washington’s security umbrella. Public opinion, particularly after the Bali attack in October 2002, seems divided on the virtues of the US alliance and periodically concerned by Washington’s aggressive behaviour. There are fears that the invasion of Iraq will encourage other ‘rogues’ such as Iran and North Korea to acquire or develop the only military technology likely to deter a US strike – nuclear weapons. Encouraging the proliferation of WMD is hardly in Australia’s interests.

President Clinton’s tardy response to the East Timor crisis in 1999 tapped into subliminal doubts within the Australian psyche that, despite regular down payments on insurance premiums since the 1950s, the US may be reluctant to pay out when we ultimately make a claim under ANZUS.

Washington disregarded institutions of global order and world common good such as the United Nations and international law, once they failed to legitimate an attack on Iraq. This is a regrettable but available option for states which can use their raw military power to achieve foreign policy objectives. Why not-so-powerful states such as Australia, which are disproportionately more dependent on the stabilising features of international society, should emulate such behaviour is not obvious. Small and medium powers have a greater interest in the protections afforded by national sovereignty and international law.

Whether Mr Downer is following the neo-conservative agenda in Washington with his emphasis on “outcomes” rather than “process” and his rejection of a “blind faith in principles of non-intervention, sovereignty and multilateralism,” remains to be seen. The ends rarely justify the means. It is to be hoped, therefore, that he hasn’t sacrificed strategic perceptions for ideological solidarity. The temptations of unipolarity are not for us.

“Sovereignty in our view is not absolute,” claims the foreign minister. “Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important,” unless the country in question is Indonesia and the humans are Acehnese or Papuans. Then there is no reluctance to “hide behind” a sovereignty which is absolutely more important.

Finally, an over-reliance on the personal chemistry between leaders can be intoxicating but is almost always a short-term benefit. As the Keating-Suharto friendship showed, jointly crafted institutional structures have greater longevity than transient political leaders. If President Bush loses in 2004 or Prime Minister Howard retires from political life some time soon, the current level of goodwill between the political elites of both countries may suddenly pass and relationships will need to be made anew.

Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Victoria