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Chilcot’s lessons for Australia


So now we know. Saddam Hussein didn’t present an imminent threat. He could have been contained. He didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. And the consequences of the invasion were profoundly underestimated by its principal architects. Who would have guessed?

The Chilcot report’s conclusions may have taken an unbelievably long time to deliver, but they are damning nevertheless. They are also unsurprising for anyone who has been following this saga since the monumentally misjudged decision to invade Iraq was taken.

It is worth re-emphasising that even at the time, many informed observers voiced concerns about the wisdom and likely consequences of this enterprise – with or without the “dodgy dossiers” and the improbable claims that were made about Saddam’s capabilities and the threat he supposedly posed.

To say the sceptics have been vindicated would be putting it mildly. This is not the most consequential legacy of the war, however. On the contrary, apart from the immediate and continuing damage inflicted on Iraq and its long-suffering population – perhaps 500,000 deaths since the invasion – the entire region has been further destabilised.

Understandably, most discussion of Chilcot’s findings have focused on Britain and the government of Tony Blair. Remarkably enough, Blair still claims the invasion was justified and that the world is better off without Saddam. Little wonder so many in Britain loathe Blair and his tarnished legacy.

There is plenty of blame to go round for this monumental disaster, though, and it’s not just to confined to George W. Bush and the neoconservative zealots who egged him on either. In Australia, too, John Howard offered the proverbial blank strategic cheque to his close ideological ally, despite the looming conflict’s lack of obvious relevance to Australia.

In this regard, Howard was acting in response to his own instincts and a long-standing political tradition that has seen governments of both political persuasions offer uncritical and seemingly unending support for US military engagements around the world. In this context, at least, nothing much has changed.

Australia is still engaged in Middle Eastern conflicts that have no immediate relevance or strategic significance to Australia. Plainly, “something should be done” about the Middle East and a host of other potential security problems around the world. But the questions, as ever, are by whom and under what circumstances?

One of the enduring ideas about Australia’s relationship with the US is that we have the capacity to influence its behaviour. The evidence for this belief has always looked rather thin, but it neglects another possibility: the strategic closeness between the US and Australia encourages Australian policymakers to suspend their critical faculties and conflate “Australian” and “American” interests.

National interests are not fixed and immutable, but a product of a complex amalgam of history, geography, personalities and even public sentiment, on occasions. They are, in short, contingent. Crucially, however, close ties, shared historical experiences and – in Australia’s case – an abiding sense of insecurity can actually make independent judgement impossible.

The possibility that Australian policymakers could actually take a position that was at odds with our principal security guarantor, much less articulate it in a way that was likely to change American minds, looks inherently implausible. Concrete examples of this happening are conspicuous by their absence.

So what should Australian policymakers – and the public, for that matter – take from the Chilcot report? First, and most importantly, it really is possible that Australia has interests and perspectives that differ from those of the US and it may be unwise to uncritically and impetuously follow its lead on every issue.

Second, Australia – and even more importantly, the US – may, indeed, have vital roles to play in trying to maintain international peace and stability. But if the “international community” is actually to amount to anything more than an endlessly invoked rhetorical flourish, then it will need to be composed of rather more than the usual suspects from the “Anglosphere”.

The much-abused United Nations is still the best hope, despite its well-known, endlessly itemised shortcomings. Significantly, the US would benefit from an effective UN, too. It’s really no fun being the world’s hegemon anymore. Whatever the US does will be judged as wrong, biased and inept by some.

Much better to have genuinely international responses to international crises, however difficult and implausible this may seem at times. At least a more broadly based collaborative response might work in theory; we now know that “coalitions of the willing” composed of the reigning hegemon and its compliant allies are unlikely to work in practice.

Bill Clinton was undoubtedly correct to point out that the task now is to entrench interdependence and a time when the US is no longer unambiguously in the ascendant or unchallenged. Unipolar ambitions are now infeasible practically and normatively, and that’s no bad thing. Chinese hegemony might be even less benign than the American variety.

Working toward the development of a more sustainable and inclusive international order is the key thing. American hegemony may have had many positive impacts in its heyday, but the world is a very different place now than it was in the period after the second world war.

Unilateral assertions of national power are never a good idea. Finding ways to persuade great powers of this reality is something Australian policymakers might usefully undertake.

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