Labor must be clear: no troops in Iraq

By Laurie Brereton (Sydney Morning herald, October 9 2002)

The Saddam Hussein threat has been exaggerated to justify US imperialism, writes Laurie Brereton.

Now that Labor's special national conference is over, there is general agreement that the Opposition needs to concentrate on matters of policy and principle. Our first policy test is Iraq. In debate so far Labor has focused on questions of process. We have called for public disclosure of intelligence assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. We have urged action through the United Nations Security Council. We have pressed for full parliamentary debate of any Australian military contribution to an attack on Iraq. But Labor has not declared where it will stand at the end of the day. We have been careful to preserve our options. The door has been left open to support Australian involvement in a unilateral US attack on Iraq.

The time has come, however, for a clear statement of Labor's position. The Anglo-American case against Saddam Hussein has been made. Tony Blair's dossier and the CIA's assessment released last week have revealed little that wasn't already on the public record. Those looking for dramatic new disclosures were disappointed. George Bush's speech on Monday evening added nothing more. Iraq's weapons programs are a shadow of what they were before the 1991 Gulf War. It has revived activity in the chemical and biological, and perhaps nuclear, fields since the end of UN inspections in 1998. But it is questionable whether this constitutes a "clear and present danger" to regional, let alone global, security.

It is worth noting the recent assessment by the Israeli Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer: "One should not overstate the Iraqi threat. True, Baghdad has certain capabilities in the strategic sphere that could combine surface-to-surface missiles with chemical and biological capabilities but, as far as can be assessed, the number of transport platforms - planes or missiles - is not big." The Israeli military isn't impressed with Iraqi capabilities.

A strong case has been made for resuming UN weapons inspections and for using a variety of means, diplomatic and economic, to achieve compliance. It could be argued that continued Iraqi non-compliance would justify targeted air strikes against specific Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities, as was the case in December 1998.

But the case has not been made, nor will UN endorsement be forthcoming, for what the Bush Administration is obviously contemplating - a large-scale military assault aimed not merely at destroying Iraqi weapons capabilities, but at eliminating Saddam and replacing him with a pro-US client regime. This would be much less a case of enforcing international law than an imperial punitive expedition. Nor has the case been made for any direct Australian military involvement. ANZUS does not oblige us to automatically commit to every US military expedition. With the Australian Defence Force already overcommitted, any Australian military contribution will be little more than a political token.

In the absence of a broad-based international coalition, Australian military involvement will reinforce widespread perceptions that we are little more than Washington's "deputy sheriff". This can only diminish our international standing. Australia did not contribute to 1998 air strikes on Iraq. It is not in our national interest to join in a larger military offensive now. Labor should fight this fight on the front foot. A decision to oppose Australian involvement in a war on Iraq would be no light undertaking, but Labor should have the courage to take this stand.

Laurie Brereton served as Labor's foreign affairs spokesman from 1996 until last year.

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