Howard: repeat the line, answer no questions

By Margo Kingston, March 13 2003


John Howard's speech to the nation was the speech of a man about to go to war, with or without UN sanction. Yet while admitting that the prospects of UN sanction "are not great", he refused to discuss the considerations for and against Australia joining a unilateral US attack.

When Herald correspondent Mark Riley asked whether it was now time for him to follow the lead of George Bush and Tony Blair and be candid with the Australian people about his intentions in the absence of a UN sanction, he said no. Refusing to comment was "the only responsible decision". That makes Bush and Blair irresponsible, one supposes.

Asked by the Bulletin's Tony Wright whether Australia would still consider supporting a unilateral attack if Britain pulled out, he again refused to answer. What Britain did "is a matter for Britain".

Howard did admit it would be better politically and strategically if the UN came on board, but left it at that. He was even evasive on a matter he HAD been candid about - his support for the new Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack. When the Australian Financial Review's Laura Tingle remarked that his speech on the new world order had endorsed the pre-emptive strike doctrine and asked for comment on the implications of this for the western alliance and world security, Howard said, "I won't adopt your description". Containment was possible with the old menace of Communism, it wasn't now, and that was that.

His performance got even hairier when Catherine McGrath of the ABC asked about the dangers of Pakistan and its WMD. Howard called Pakistan "a very, very good international citizen", forgetting, perhaps, that Pakistan had helped fund the Taliban in Afghanistan, which housed Osama bin Laden, the architect of the September 11 attack.

Howard stuck to his tired old script - the nightmare was rogue states giving WMDs to terrorists, Iraq was a rogue state with WMDs, therefore he must be disarmed, by force if necessary. He did not argue that there was any current link between al-Qaeda and Saddam - thus leaving unanswered the claim of ANO defector Andrew Wilke that there was no intelligence linking the two stands, and that ONA's assessment was that an invasion would provide the incentive for Saddam to embrace al-Qaeda - that an invasion could trigger the nightmare Howard sought to avoid.

Mr Howard offered nothing but his "belief" to support his view that Australian and world security would be enhanced by an invasion. He did not mention the blowback of instability in Muslim countries, the possibility that moderate Muslim states could swing to Islamic fundamentalism in response to an invasion and occupation, or the possibility of an explosion in the Middle East.

Under questioning, he stressed that the Indonesian president had assured him that she didn't believe Australia wanted to invade Iraq for religious reasons. He did not comment on the Indonesian foreign minister's claim that the masses in Indonesia would see an invasion as a war on Islam.

It was a deeply unsatisfactory performance, one which deliberately avoided addressing the matter of most concern to most Australians - the dangers of acting outside UN authority.

By not addressing our concerns, his speech fails to reassure us. An extraordinary example of that failure was his answer to Dennis Grant, of SBS television. Grant quoted Howard's remark in his speech that his critics were "ready to mount the moral parapets" in condemning the war. He cited the opposition to a unilateral strike from former defence chief Peter Gration, major general Peter Phillips, now head of the RSL, and Richard Woolcott, former head of the department of foreign affairs, and asked Howard to name "a credible non-political figure who does support your policy".

"The question of who supports me and who doesn't support me is a matter for the Australian people," Howard replied. "This is something for the Australian people to think about." Indeed.

Evidence is, we're going without it

by Geoff Kitney, March 14 2003


Howard again failed to convince that taking part in the Iraq war was the lesser of two evils, writes Geoff Kitney.
John Howard says these are the toughest times of his prime ministership but he must be watching the plight of his British counterpart, Tony Blair, and thanking his lucky stars. Compared with Blair, Howard is getting it easy. For all the obvious disquiet and dismay in the community about Australia joining America's war against Iraq, this dissenting opinion has no voice in Howard's Liberal Party.

Unlike Blair, Howard has the good fortune to have a totally quiescent cabinet and backbench on his unpopular pro-US, pro-war stance. Of course, Howard's party is a party of the right and Blair's a party of the left, so less dissension is to be expected.

But the Liberal Party is also more right because of Howard who, together with like-minded conservatives, expended a great deal of energy over the long years of his pre-prime ministership shaping the party in his own image.

Howard also has a media advantage over Blair. Howard not only has a solid base of support in mainstream media commentary, he has the unique luxury of the unquestioning sympathy of the nation's most influential media personality, the Sydney talkback host Alan Jones. Before his Press Club speech yesterday, Howard did a long interview with Jones in which the questioning was entirely sympathetic and which concluded with Jones commenting: "These are difficult times, Prime Minister, for Australia and for our Prime Minister. I'm sure, in spite of the headlines, there there are many Australians out there who are grateful for the energy you've given this and certainly wish you well." Pure political gold for a politician under pressure.
And, as important as it is for Howard, like Blair, to go to war with UN authority rather than in defiance of it, Howard has not suffered as much as Blair from the cavalier antics of the UN sceptics in the Bush Administration.

The impersonation by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, of a diplomatic weapon of mass destruction - instanced by his spectacular insults to France and Germany and then by his suggestion that if the UN failed to pass a second resolution the US did not need Britain for the war - has undermined Blair's global diplomacy and his domestic political position.

But saying that Howard's political situation is not as difficult as Blair's is only a statement about relativities. Blair's position is absolutely terrible. Howard's is just simply bad. It is now a near certainty that Australian troops will go to war in Iraq within days in circumstances opposed by the overwhelming majority of Australians.

Howard's speech yesterday to the National Press Club was a case for war. Although he continued to stop short of explicitly saying that he was prepared to give the order to go to war without a new UN resolution, his speech confirmed unequivocally that this is his intention. The speech addressed the fundamental questions at the heart of doubts about going to war with Iraq: why Iraq? why war? why now?

But the case he presented yesterday is unlikely to suddenly change public opinion in his favour. While it removed any lingering doubts there might have been that his intention is to join a non-UN sanctioned US attack on Iraq, it did not present any new evidence for this course of action.

The case he presented for disarming Iraq was more passionate than informative.

Howard said with great force that the central issue in the case for disarming Iraq was the danger that it would provide Islamic terrorists with the means to attack with weapons of mass destruction. But suggestions from within the Government that he would produce new intelligence to support this claim failed to materialise. Howard pointed only to the existing public evidence. Few experts believe this evidence indicates a real danger, even in the medium term if Iraq was left to its own devices, which is not being advocated by anyone in the international community.

Howard argues that it should not be necessary to have a case that would stand up in court before taking action. He says it is enough simply to show that there is a potential threat to Australia's security. But he gave no new information yesterday to convince the community to change its view that there is an insufficient potential threat to Australia from Iraq justifying putting the lives of Australian troops at risk in Iraq.

Howard devoted a considerable part of his speech yesterday to the question of urgency. One of the most troubling aspects of the Iraq war debate is the view, widely held, that the US is rushing to war before all hopes for avoiding it have been exhausted.

Howard strongly backed the US view that Saddam Hussein has had a decade to show that he has a genuine intent to disarm and give up his quest for weapons of mass destruction. His argument was that to not act now, after the massive build-up of US, British and Australian forces on Iraq's borders, to compel Iraq to disarm would let Saddam "off the hook" and be a signal to other rogue regimes to also seek to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction.

The biggest problem with the case for war now is that most of the rest of the world is not convinced of it. The overwhelming majority of governments and of public opinion is that more time should be taken to pursue peaceful disarmament.

The clash between these points of view is threatening to undermine and even destroy the great institutions of productive international dialogue - the UN, NATO, the European Union and the trans-Atlantic alliance. These institutions have been the key to global stability for more than half a century. Is Saddam a threat so great as to justify the potential collapse of this world order?

Howard did not deal with this issue in his speech yesterday, a remarkable thing given what is a stake. Instead, he backed the US position which is that if the UN is unwilling to vote to back the US on timing and on strategy then the US will have no choice but to act with its friends and without the UN.

He dismissed out of hand the case for extending the time for weapons inspections and diplomacy - time which is now probably the only hope of achieving an international consensus on ultimate UN-backed military action. His reason: that it was unreasonable to expect that the US, Britain and Australia would keep their military forces poised on Iraq's borders indefinitely.

Which gets to the heart of what is driving the US on timing: military contingencies. The momentum to war is being, and has been for months, dictated by the momentum of the mighty US military machine which must fight when it is ready to fight, regardless of the diplomatic and political "collateral damage" it will cause.

That damage is likely to have a much greater effect on shaping our world than the actual physical damage that will be inflicted on Iraq in the next few weeks. It's a pity that the Prime Minister did not feel the need to address the risks of going to war as fully as he did the risks of not going.

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