The US decided to invade Iraq after Americans became convinced terrorists would launch a second September 11-scale attack on them using chemical or biological weapons provided by Saddam Hussein, John Howard has declared.
After the attacks on New York and Washington, the mindset of Americans was “when and where will the next attack on the homeland occur?” rather than “would” another attack happen, the former prime minister told The Australian.
“They were convinced there was going to be another big attack. It’s easy now to forget that.”
Mr Howard recalled conversations with George W. Bush in which the then president described the unnerving impact the attacks had had on his nation and the widespread fear that worse was to come. That was the environment in which decisions were taken to depose Saddam, Mr Howard, said.
He was responding to the release in Britain overnight of John Chilcot’s report on the circumstances that led Britain to join the US in the search for weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be non-existent.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who has declined to do a deal with the Coalition or Labor to form a government, is calling for a similar investigation to be carried out into Australia’s involvement. Bill Shorten yesterday left open the possibility of Labor supporting such an inquiry.
Sir John concluded that then British prime minister, Tony Blair, had led his country into the war before peaceful options to disarm dictator Saddam had been exhausted.
The Howard government sent Australian troops, aircraft and naval vessels to take part in the conflict. Peter Leahy, who was chief of the Australian Army for much of the time the Australian Defence Force was in Iraq, said Australia did not need a similar inquiry but it must ensure mistakes were not repeated.
Mr Shorten said it was clear from the Chilcot report that Mr Howard needed to answer questions about why Australia went to war. “We’ll consider our position carefully but Labor’s not ruling out supporting a full inquiry,” he said.
When Mr Wilkie previously called for such an inquiry, then prime minister Julia Gillard ruled it out. Mr Wilkie, who came to prominence when he quit as an intelligence analyst in 2003 over opposition to the Iraq war, said the “damning” Chilcot report proved the mission was a failure.
“The Iraq debacle turbocharged al-Qa’ida and created the circumstances for the eventual emergence of Islamic State,” Mr Wilkie said. “In other words, the terrorist danger confronting Australians to this very day is a result of Australia’s involvement in Iraq. Frankly, there are a number of political leaders who in my opinion have blood on their hands.
“The Bali bombing of 2005 would not have occurred if we hadn’t joined in the invasion of Iraq. The Lindt cafe siege would not have occurred if we hadn’t helped create the circumstances for the rise of Islamic State, which would appear to have been a motivator for the person involved in that siege.”
Mr Howard said Mr Wilkie’s claims that Australia’s invasion of Iraq had led to the 2005 Bali bombing and the Lindt cafe attack was “an absurd proposition”, and “irrational”.
He said that ignored the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali, which caused a much greater loss of life.
Mr Howard said his government’s decision to join the invasion was justified at the time. He conceded there were errors based on wrong intelligence but said Sir John had concluded that the intelligence relied on was not “doctored”, which directly challenged the popular view that the invasion was “based on a lie”.
“There was no lie, there were errors in intelligence, but there was no lie,” he said.
Mr Howard told The Australian that Sir John’s insistence that such intelligence must be beyond doubt set an impossible standard. “The truth is that if you wait for perfect proof, you could end up with another Pearl Harbor,” he said.
Mr Howard strongly rejected claims the situation in the Middle East now was a consequence of the 2003 war.
While the Greens have called for parliament to be involved in decisions to send troops to war, Mr Howard said the existing process was appropriate. “There can be a public debate about it. I’m in favour of a rigorous cabinet process and having parliamentary debates but are you going to ask the executive to surrender the power to make decisions? Do you want to give it to a statutory authority?”
Writing for The Australian today, Professor Leahy, director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said the decision to invade Iraq was based on wrong intelligence but Australia had to rely on its allies for that information.
Another key issue was the blurring of intelligence and policy, with Mr Bush’s advisers basing decisions on unverified intelligence.
The third problem was one of national strategy, Professor Leahy said. “There are good reasons to be closely aligned with the US but this does not mean we need to be involved in every action they take,” he said.
Professor Leahy said Australia needed a more robust, critical and long-term approach to assessing its national interests.
“This means a broad and informed public debate and, most importantly, the active and decisive involvement of the parliament,” he said.
Mr Howard said while he accepted that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was flawed, Iraq did have the capacity to reconstitute its WMD program.
Jim Molan, who was chief of operations for the US-led coalition, told The Australian it was important for Australia to learn lessons from the Chilcot report, “but they must be the right lessons”.
“A wrong lesson would be that there is no place for any use of military force,” the former major general said.
“And it is not true that the invasion of Iraq caused every problem that’s occurred since.”