by General Peter Gration (Melbourne Age, January 2 2003)
[General Peter Gration was chief of the Australian Defence Force during the Gulf War.]
Australia has no good reason for war and many against. There are better ways, writes Peter Gration.
As 2003 dawns, the threat of a US-led war against Iraq looms over the world. The question for Australia is, should we take part? If we do, it will be the first time in our history that we have taken part in unprovoked offensive military action against another country.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator heading an unsavoury regime that probably does possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the world would be a better place if they were removed.
Nevertheless, there are insufficient grounds for war, which is unnecessary and may lead to unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences. It is not in Australia's interests to take part in such a war. I stress that this is not a call for inaction, since better alternatives are available. Let me elaborate.
The war would be the first practical implementation of recently announced changes in US national security policy. This has moved from containment and deterrence to an open-ended doctrine of the right to pre-emptive strike if the US perceives a threat developing to its global supremacy.
In my view, this is bad policy that strikes at the very heart of efforts to create a rules-based international order, and can only lead to a less stable security environment and a marginalised UN.
The public case for war centres on Iraq's WMD and the threat they pose. There is an element of urgency built in, with what I believe are exaggerated statements on the imminence of Iraq developing a nuclear weapon.
The forcible removal of the WMD will require regime change, which seems to have been a US objective all along, and means invasion, installation of a puppet regime (or direct American rule) propped up by a large occupation force. There are also suggestions that the US may intend to pursue wider strategic objectives in the Middle East, including the control of Iraqi oil, removal of a military threat to Israel, and containment of Iran.
Iraq is not the only country with WMD, and there seems to be no reason why Iraq's use of its weapons against other countries cannot be contained and deterred by the immensely more powerful US, which did it successfully with the Soviet Union, China and North Korea.
We should note also that biological weapons have a short shelf life, and, like chemical weapons, are notoriously difficult to use tactically. Iraq also lacks credible strategic delivery means.
Again, Iraq has no history of providing WMD to terrorists. I believe the prospect of it doing so is low. No links have been established between Iraq and al Qaeda or the attacks against the US on September 11, despite strenuous attempts to do so. Indeed, Iraq is one of the more secular Islamic states, and the prospect of Iraqis cooperating with the fundamentalists of al Qaeda seems remote.
In short, the real and immediate threat from Iraq's WMD, while not zero, is much exaggerated, and is well short of providing grounds to go to war.
This unnecessary war could produce some disastrous outcomes that may worsen, rather than improve, global security. Once war starts, the outcomes may be quite unpredictable and not what is planned. Nevertheless we can speculate.
There is little doubt that a US invasion of Iraq will be militarily successful - the only questions are time, casualties and cost. Much will depend on the Iraqi army's will to fight and the attitude of the civil population. My guess is that the initial invasion should take no more than a few weeks, with low American casualties but high Iraqi casualties, particularly among the civilian population - perhaps eventually in the hundreds of thousands.
The conflict may well spread beyond Iraq. The gravest concern could be if Israel stepped in, perhaps in response to provocation by Iraq. Any involvement in the war by Israel would lead to the prospect of the conflict spreading across the whole region.
TV images of the US beating up and then occupying a fellow Muslim country could be destabilising for the leadership of Muslim countries presently friendly to the West, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Indonesia, as their leaders tried to balance the expectations of support by the US and its allies against the fired-up anti-Western anger of their people. In the worst case, this could unite the Muslim world against the West, fulfilling Samuel Huntington's prediction of a clash of civilisations. The impact on global oil supply and price, and hence on the global economy, could be disastrous.
The effect on global terrorism is hard to judge. Some believe that removing Iraq as a potential supporter could deliver a serious blow. Others observe that Iraq has no history of supporting global terrorism, and a more likely outcome would be to spawn a whole new generation of suicidal terrorists, targeting the US and its allies - including Australia.
If we go to war without UN endorsement, our actions as signatories of the UN Charter would, in effect, be illegal. And, not least, we should be aware of the humanitarian disaster that would probably be precipitated in Iraq, as its much weakened public health system collapsed in the face of invasion.
Given the prospect of these outcomes, it would be strategically unsound to risk them in an unnecessary war when an alternative is available.
That alternative is to continue to pursue the present course of action through the UN inspectors already in Iraq, even in the face of some Iraqi intransigence. This is likely to be a prolonged, frustrating and probably messy and untidy business, but in the end should be effective in removing the WMD and preventing their further development.
It will not in itself achieve regime change, nor will it deliver other possible US strategic objectives in the region, such as control of Iraqi oil, but it will avoid the dire consequences of a war.
It can only be successful if backed by the credible threat of the use of force if Iraq becomes seriously non-cooperative, and fortunately that threat is already in place. In the final outcome, we can always go to war as a last resort.
It may be politically difficult for national leaders to step back from war at this late stage, but it may be even more difficult later to justify participation in an illegal conflict with such potential to go badly wrong.