by Laurie Brereton (January 07, 2003)
IT'S often observed that Saddam Hussein and Iraq are "unfinished business" for the Bush administration.
Had it not been for the escalation of violence in Palestine and the commitment of US military resources in Afghanistan, it's likely that Washington would already have attempted to overthrow the Iraqi regime. September 11 delayed a focus on Iraq. But it was only a temporary delay.
George W. Bush is now determined upon a final settlement of accounts with Baghdad. Over the weekend he again spoke of "liberating" Iraq. Short of Hussein going into exile, it appears war is more likely than not.
Of course, Hussein is an evil dictator, responsible for appalling war crimes and abuse of human rights. But overthrowing the government of a sovereign state is an extraordinary undertaking. And in any case I haven't seen much evidence to suggest that human rights is a driving element of US or UK policy. Nor is this part of the war against terrorism.
The truth is, US policy toward Iraq is less about the threat of weapons of mass destruction than it is about redrawing the strategic map of the Middle East. "Regime change" is about installing a pro-American regime in Baghdad. It's about changing the regime that controls Iraq's oil wealth. It's about putting in place a regime supportive of the US military presence in the Middle East.
But the US may also find that it has unleashed events with unpredictable consequences especially in the longer term. The US is already engaged in an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. The occupation and reconstruction of Iraq will be a vastly greater undertaking, with uncertain consequences for the Middle East. The US may rapidly achieve its immediate military objectives, but these may prove to be steps into a strategic and political morass.
Where does Australia fit in all this? The short answer is we shouldn't fit in at all.
Having recently returned from the US, I must say I'm appalled by the poverty of debate on this issue both in the media and the federal parliament. The Howard Government will support whatever action the US takes. The old phrase "all the way with LBJ" once again has resonance.
Although Australia's military commitment to an attack on Iraq will be very modest, the Government's rhetoric has put us in the front rank of Bush's cheer squad. With this prominence comes increased risk of future terrorist attacks against Australians overseas and at home.
Since Bush asserted the right to take unilateral military action against any perceived threat to his country's inter ests, only the UK and Australia have declared enthusiastic support. There can be little doubt that Australia's outspoken identification with the US and the UK as global policemen has placed us at substantially greater risk of terrorist attack.
We should be wary that Iraq does not become Australia's new Vietnam War. A substantial element of the Australian media, led by Rupert Murdoch's pro-US, pro-war The Australian newspaper, has failed to ensure effective scrutiny of the Government's gung-ho diplomacy.
Nor has the Opposition made any real dent in the Government's stance. This is not to say that we haven't been active. A mass of press releases has been distributed, doorstops have been delivered and soundbites uttered. On Sunday our foreign policy spokesman was again calling on the Government to clarify its position on Iraq's weapons capabilities.
But the truth is this activity has had little effect for the obvious reason that we haven't made it clear where we stand.
It's a matter of record that for some months I've called for a clearer and tougher Labor line against Australian involvement in an attack on Iraq. Time is running out for us to take a clear stand. It is essential that we do so without further delay.
THERE can be no case for military action while UN weapons inspections continue without impediment. In the event of Iraqi obstruction of inspections, military action should only follow explicit authorisation from the Security Council. The ambiguous warning of "serious consequences" is insufficient.
Labor should not support our country's military involvement in a unilateral attack on Iraq. Nor should we support Australian involvement in military action extending beyond the terms of an explicit UN mandate. We should make these positions quite clear now and not continue to hedge our bets.
In the event that the UN does authorise military force, Australian involvement should be limited to our present bilateral intelligence co-operation with the US. UN endorsement is not a determining factor in whether Australian troops should be committed. Nor does our strong alliance oblige Australia to automatically lend direct support to each and every US military action.
There is no substitute for an independent assessment of Australia's strategic and diplomatic interests. There is no compelling case for Australian troops to fight in Iraq period.
At a time when many of our party's traditional supporters are asking what we stand for, this is but one area where we should speak much more clearly, and in the process differentiate ourselves from the Howard Government. Labor should do so without further delay.
Laurie Brereton, Labor's foreign affairs spokesman from 1996 to 2001, spent the past three months in New York as a parliamentary representative with Australia's delegation to the UN. This is an edited extract from his address to ALP members in Sydney last night.