Previous papers sought to clarify moral issues of the war in Afghanistan; this one looks at the Iraq War. For many people this is past history and should, like the Vietnam War, be left as such. But in mid-February the UK Guardian published an interview with Rafid Jalaban, the original source of the WMD claims, who admits he fabricated them to deceive the allies into invading Iraq. On February 17, ABC TV News24 broadcast an interview with then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who dismissed this revelation as of no consequence. Before looking at his reasons, which have so far escaped media scrutiny, it is useful to first revisit the case for the Iraq War

Readers with interests in political theory will appreciate that any serious defence of certain themes of this paper requires far more support than is possible here. Among these is an assumption that political argument is a practice based on shared values. The paper re-asserts Kant’s idea that these values entail reciprocity and defends Edmund Burke’s intuitive sense that judgments based on their constraints are intrinsically personal – they cannot be delegated to others, including political parties. The paper assumes that principles of international law describe the values which condemn pre-emptive war and argues that, to understand them, one must acknowledge the moral priority of the victims. In defending Burke’s view of the supremacy of conscience, it looks briefly at the notion of evil and at the role of indifference in justifying means by ends. But these passages barely scratch the surface of the issues they raise.

Interests and values in political argument

It is hard to imagine a more grave national issue than war, with its terrible costs to all parties. It is also clear that, unless justified by principles of international law, pre-emptive war constitutes mass murder, since it uses lethal force against all who resist, with little or no concern for those who get in the way.[1] In Iraq massive force was used to end resistance quickly but, even before the insurgency began, many thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed or maimed for life. The fact that these are innocent victims calls for an unusually high standard of justification; arguably, it calls for something much closer to the judicial process to assess the case for war.

The Senate committee system, with its power to conduct public hearings and hear evidence from experts, provides a constitutional framework for this process, in part because the Senate has never conceded that its subpoena powers are limited by executive privilege, although this issue has not yet been the subject of a definitive ruling by the High Court.[2] There is, however, a serious flaw; the Senate is limited by a political culture, based on a doctrine/practice of party unity, which in the case of Iraq made it unusually difficult for the Parliament to conduct an open and rigorous examination of the legal and factual case for invading this country.[3]

Instead, the Howard Government relied on claims of a WMD threat which had been qualified by a US National Intelligence Estimate, were contrary to findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency, rejected by UN arms inspection head Hans Blix and, as later revealed by a US Congressional inquiry, relied on unconfirmed reports from dubious sources (the most important were supplied by Achmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, an expatriate body with offices in London funded by the US).

In retrospect it is clear that the Bush Administration had used public fear and anger after 9:11, and a compliant media, to promote its claims that Iraq had stockpiled WMD, was complicit in 9:11, had tried to buy weapons grade uranium from Niger, had deployed poison gas generators, and could bomb UK bases within ‘45 minutes’; all these claims were in time discredited, and both the Washington Post and the New York Times later apologized for their uncritical reporting of these and other allegations.

Australian intelligence was given no opportunity to assess the raw evidence on which these claims supposedly relied, and it is still unclear whether they actually sought it; indeed, as former army senior intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie wrote, officials appear to have ‘cherry-picked’ reports so as to mislead the public and help align Australia with a pro-war US policy.

Later, when the WMD case collapsed, the Government changed course to support ‘regime change’. But it had also argued strongly from the outset that war was independently justified by ‘the US alliance’, that is, by the importance of our trading and security interests with the US, suggesting a strong pre-commitment to support US policy. This was certainly the view of Richard Woolcott, former head of Foreign Affairs and Trade during the first Gulf War; he asserted in May, 2004 that an ‘in-principle’ decision had been made to invade Iraq in either late 2001or early 2002; ‘what followed was the attempted justification of a predetermined decision’.

No less serious was a widespread failure by the major political parties to understand that the alliance argument repudiates a foundational idea of international law viz., that while all governments serve national interests, the use of violence is ruled out by values of humanity and justice which, because they underpin all social life, necessarily shape the rules of any domestic criminal law. International law rests on the same values; it permits the use of force in self defence against an imminent threat and by the UN Security Council to keep the peace; but national interests cannot justify the use of force against other countries any more than self-interest can justify robbery with violence.[4]

Despite this, an uncritical media response to the alliance argument (which persists to this day) helps explain a remarkable lack of interest in Iraqi casualties, seen in a Coalition policy, said to date from the Vietnam War, not to record their losses. It helped shape the daily news coverage, which highlighted the drama and technology of this war and, like any national press, the courage and professionalism of Australian units, but with little if any sense of the horrific loss and suffering to ordinary Iraqis.

This indifference was striking in an SBS Dateline interview of Alexander Downer by Mark Davis on August 11, 2004 – the first and possibly only time a Minister was asked about Iraqi losses – Downer was flustered and annoyed and it was clear that he had no idea and that no one had bothered to brief him. But his political instincts would have told him that many watching the program would find this lack of concern appalling. This was, after all, a year and a half into the war, with NGO statistics having been cited for many months in the world media. Australian journalists, with few exceptions, likewise ignored the human cost.[5]

This moral and intellectual detachment from the actual consequences of war, because it has been critical to the prosecution of both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, deserves a good deal more attention. Taken together with the idea that the ‘national interests’ of a community can override its moral values (that trade and security interests in the alliance can justify discretionary war) it is responsible for some of the West’s most appalling failures in foreign policy; two examples come readily to mind.


The first was the response by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (above) to UN reports that sanctions, imposed to ensure compliance with disarmament, had caused the deaths of several hundred thousand children. Instead of disputing the findings (as the State Department shortly did) she conceded the price was ‘worth it,’ a reply she later admitted was ‘stupid’. But it is also arguable, and has been argued, that both she and President Clinton saw the sanctions as a means to bring about regime change by military coup or an Iran type revolution – that US policy would be served by ensuring conditions were intolerable for the Iraqi public – in other words sanctions were likely to remain even if Iraq had disarmed.[6]

The second example is the Clinton Administration’s role in withdrawing UN personnel from Rwanda on the eve of the massacres, recounted by Harvard Professor Samantha Power in her ‘Bystanders to Genocide’ in the Atlantic Monthly for September 2001. Based on three years’ research, it later became a Pulitzer prize-winning book. Power sought to understand how an Administration of well-meaning officials was able to do nothing, despite many options and a clear sense both of the need to respond to a grave moral crisis, and to avoid any political stigma arising from the atrocity. But during most of the 100 days it took to kill over 800,000 Tutsis, Clinton’s Secretary of State forbad staff to use the word ‘genocide’, lest it arouse public concern and force the US hand.

There is a compelling contrast between this official stance and the response by the remarkable Canadian General Romeo Dallaire in charge of UN forces who, with a determined but skeletal force, was able to save the lives of several thousand Tutsis by ignoring orders to withdraw.

Professor Power has explained that,
‘American leaders have a circular and deliberate relationship to public opinion. It is circular because public opinion is rarely if ever aroused by foreign crises, even genocidal ones, in the absence of political leadership, and yet at the same time, American leaders continually cite the absence of public support as grounds for inaction. The relationship is deliberate because American leadership is not absent … it was present … but devoted mainly to suppressing public outrage and thwarting UN initiatives so as to avoid acting.’

These examples go to the heart of the matter and, in doing so, help to discredit a popular and self-serving myth: for despite the terrible consequences, very few critics of such policies would see their authors as evil persons (Albright, to her credit, had sought to intervene in Rwanda). It suggests just how misleading this moralistic language can be – it masks the fact that responsible and civilized leaders may likewise ignore the human and moral cost of their decisions, including the casualties of wars whether they are fought to secure national interests, promote regional stability or bring about democratic reforms. To ignore Iraqi casualties one need only see them as less important than (as collateral to) such aims, or be unwilling to see them as a consequence of one’s own actions. Much the same might be said of those Islamist leaders who advocate the use of violence to end US support for corrupt Middle Eastern regimes.[7]

Rather than frame the debate, as many apologists for war do, as a contest between forces of good and evil, with the concept of collateral damage used to explain the sacrifice of innocent lives, it makes more sense to see this war as a failure of empathy and moral imagination, and ask how political institutions can minimize the risk. One might begin by ceasing to ignore the victims, and putting them on centre stage. The haunting images of a naked, burned girl fleeing in panic from a napalm strike are said to have been a turning point in US public attitudes to the Vietnam war – they brought home the inhumanity of a war now seen to have been driven by geopolitical concerns, but which ultimately saw the deaths of well over two million Vietnamese.

There is an obvious question, relevant to the Wikileaks debate, whether the US public mood may have changed years earlier had a member of the White House Staff released tapes of Henry Kissinger trying to persuade an alcoholic US President not to ‘nuke’ Hanoi, or to carpet bomb the dams, to protect Nixon’s reputation, and the latter’s infamous reply: ‘I don’t give a f… about the Vietnamese’.

Problems arise if we lose this personal sense of what our values mean, by not standing in the victims’ shoes. That sense may evoke a range of emotions, including compassion, indignation and outrage, all of which reflect a belief in the importance of these values, as does the concern shown when members of our own community are victims of their violation, seen in the national response to the Bali bombing. But as Immanuel Kant pointed out, in order to have a moral position one must be able to universalize the values it rests on; our values must apply across the board, however inconvenient, and regardless of whether public empathy has been compromised by fear and anger. Kant’s precept, which he saw as inclusive of but more complete than, the ‘golden rule’ of Christian ethics (‘do unto others…’), rules out attempts to justify war based on arguments of national interest; they may explain and attract support for the use of violence, but they can never justify it.

It is not surprising that, when US ‘neo-conservative’ theorists appeal beyond the national interest, and attempt to justify pre-emptive war in the name of freedom and democracy, they treat these values as if they are interests – like grander versions of conventional political goals, they see them as describing aims worthy of commitment, but forget that they also impose constraints. They forget that these are valid political aims because they rest on conceptions of human dignity and fairness which also prohibit the sacrifice of innocent people, including foreign nationals. The result is incoherence – a bizarre mix of professed commitment to these universal ideals and extreme indifference to human suffering – an intellectual milieu in which John Wuu, a senior US Justice Department official, could pursue his official duties by writing memos to justify the brutal torture of detainees.[8]

If indifference, like prejudice, is a fact of human nature, then so is the risk that community values may be subverted, in this way, to justify both violence and torture. It calls for institutions and practices to minimize the risk, especially where ‘national interests’ are at stake and public feeling is aroused, as it was after 9:11. For centuries the traditional safeguard has been the idea of a community of nations governed by principles of international law. But if these principles are to protect ideals of justice and humanity, the political debate must focus on the human cost, because this is the only way to bring out the point of these values in order to guide their interpretation. The fact that they limit the use of violence to cases of absolute moral necessity is compelling, regardless of our interests in the US alliance and the use of inventive legal reasoning to support the use of force.

The Government’s stance was legalistic in the worst possible sense; at first it argued solicitor/client privilege to withhold the opinion, despite this being the official basis for taking the nation to war. But when British Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith finally issued his summary of advice on 17th March 2003 the Australian opinion (in substance identical) was released next day, just two days before hostilities began. It was surprisingly brief, simply ignoring the views of forty-three Australian International law experts who had publicly asserted that war would be illegal.

This omission, together with the claim of privilege, gave the official opinion an appearance of defensive advocacy – meant to defend a client against allegations of illegal action rather than carefully weigh the arguments to advise on the war’s legality. Both kinds of opinion are valid, but they serve different aims. In the former, counsel may put whatever arguments he or she thinks a judge might, if the facts are amenable, treat seriously; in the latter case counsel will write an opinion as if he or she were giving judgment.

Despite the Government’s focus on the WMD threat, the advice made no attempt to justify war as pre-emptive self defence; it claimed to act on the authority of the Security Council, under its Charter powers to use force to keep the peace. This is normally found in a specific resolution drafted for the purpose, which the Coalition had tried hard to secure, but could not get the votes; it also faced a veto by France. This led to an ingenious argument viz., that Iraq’s failure to fully co-operate had ended the ‘cease-fire’ established after the first Gulf War, thus reviving a UN authority given twelve years earlier to liberate Kuwait. Hence the Iraq war was really a continuation of the first Gulf war. Crucial to this desperate reasoning was the claim, comprehensively rejected by international lawyers, that it was not necessary for the Security Council to rule on whether Iraq’s conduct had in fact violated the terms of the cease fire agreement.[9]

In due course it emerged that Lord Goldsmith had given a different opinion ten days earlier. This was a long and scholarly analysis which Prime Minister Blair had withheld from Cabinet and refused to divulge despite many FOI requests (the FOI head defended the refusal on the grounds of solicitor – client privilege). When leaked in 2005 – and then released – it revealed advice that an explicit UN ruling would be the ‘safest course’ – otherwise a future court might rule the war had been illegal. This did not, understandably, satisfy Admiral Michael Boyce, head of the British forces who, on March 12, insisted on a less equivocal opinion. After meeting next day with two of Blair’s closest advisers, Goldsmith capitulated, conceding war would be legal; this led to the resignation of the deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office, who claimed the Attorney-General’s opinion was fatally compromised.

This brief sketch of factual, moral and legal issues will not impress those who still think the war was right. It does, however, make a strong case for a more conservative approach, requiring legislative authority to wage war, as both Democrats and Greens advocate and as Malcolm Fraser and many others have argued. The argument rests on the terrible consequences of getting it wrong, where there is no imminent crisis and judgment is at risk for a variety of reasons, including a simple inability to publicly question the claims of a powerful ally.[10]

Given that no government is likely to limit its future use of the defence power this responsibility falls by default on the Senate, where formal hearings can address the risks by examining the evidence, with due regard for the fate of those who must pay the ultimate price, although they may pose no threat and have committed no crime.

But the very nature of the task calls for some reflection on the Senate’s role. When hostilities began it passed a historic motion to condemn the war; this declaration had symbolic value but did nothing to clarify the issues. Shortly after, Greens Senator Bob Brown moved for hearings to highlight the weakness of the Government’s legal advice, and the lack of reliable evidence that Iraq posed a genuine threat. The Democrats concurred – the obvious need was to test the evidence against the testimony of relevant officials and independent experts, over time and with the full attention of the media.[11]

Sadly, it had no support from major parties. Senator Campbell for the Liberals naively asserted the unequivocal nature of the legal advice as a proof of merit; but it is still surprising, with so many Liberal voters opposing the war, that not one member would support a formal hearing to test the case for war. Senator Evans, for Labor, reflected on the need to consider the Senate’s powers, but then explained that he had consulted ‘quickly’ with colleagues on the previous evening and found no support. He did not explain why no one wished to scrutinize the evidence said to justify war, but perhaps it was felt the condemnation was victory enough and it was time to move on; or perhaps no one wanted to see a minor party gain credit for taking the lead. However that may be, Senator Brown’s speech was an impassioned response to the use of massive violence against thousands of innocent people.[12]

While the reasons for Labor’s stance are open to conjecture, it seems clear that a habit of deference to leaders had played a major role, despite the need to use all constitutional means to test the case for war. The habit compromised a review role widely seen as the rationale of a bi-cameral legislature. Perhaps the question no one wanted to face is whether party loyalty (to leaders rather than to party ideals) should override a duty of personal judgment on matters of such gravity as pre-emptive war. If it seems an imposition to suggest that politicians might owe this duty to their community, because it risks party censure and loss of endorsement, it must also be said that those sent to fight such wars, and their families, risk incomparably greater personal sacrifice.

The distinction between interests and values discussed above can resolve this conflict in theory, if not so easily in practice: for while party unity is important, there is a difference between the government’s right to choose from a range of goals in its pursuit of community interests (for which unity is essential, and for much of which it can claim a mandate), and its duty to uphold broad community values expressed in principles of international law and in treaty conventions to protect prisoners of war. This duty, unlike the pursuit of a practical consensus on difficult matters of party policy, calls for a quasi-judicial model, using independent expertise and a power to call witnesses. It requires each Senator to weigh the evidence and examine the case, in light of both community values and international law.

There is a close analogy with judgments about rights. When elected governments adopt a bill of rights they do so as an adjunct to democratic theory, which says only that the representatives of a majority have a better right to make the laws than anyone else, not that they can make whatever laws they like and ignore basic human values. If the rights based on these values are made enforceable, then judges who interpret them must form and act on their own opinions – they may or may not agree but they not caucus or vote; neither can they appeal to public opinion or to national interests. If the bill is merely declaratory, those who take the rights seriously must test claims of violation in just the same way; otherwise the benefits of some competing policy, such as a higher GNP, may trump the bill’s rights, undermining the community’s commitment to live by its values.

Many political decisions have this quasi-judicial character; they are not a choice between worthy goals or ways to attain them, but risk some compromise of values in seeking their benefits. The apology is a good example. The public eventually came to see it as essential for reconciliation, but it was owed as a matter of right because of the injustice arising from past official abuse. In rejecting this moral idea, Howard asserted an idiosyncratic view of a nation’s responsibility to its citizens; but his refusal to permit a free vote on the issue also made it clear, when policy changed under Brendan Nelson, that the refusal had never reflected a genuine shared conviction on the part of elected Liberal members..

Critics point to the same habit of moral submission to explain a muted response to US treatment of detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere, and to bi-partisan support for draconian laws which suspend due process in the ‘war on terror’. On these matters, as on the Iraq war, the community loses far more than it gains when its representatives give up their personal judgment for the sake of party unity.[13]

There is no proof the Government lacked a genuine belief the war was justified, whether to rid Iraq of WMD, remove a tyrant, or strengthen an alliance, but this belief should have been tested in light of the most defensible interpretation of principles of international law, against facts proved beyond any reasonable doubt, or as close to this high standard as circumstances will allow and political institutions permit. It now seems clear that this responsibility requires a far more discriminating idea of party loyalty, regardless of the obvious benefits of conformity and a prima facie duty of allegiance. While this may sound ambitious, it will be enough in a closely balanced political system if only a few find the case persuasive, and insist on ‘conscience’ votes on future issues of war.

Party unity, like cabinet solidarity, has instrumental value – it enables Westminster governments to pursue the programs for which they are elected. But it makes no sense when faced with the constraints of important legal and moral principles we also profess to respect, where their interpretation is a matter of controversy. The practice of ‘conscience votes’ is a token which blurs this crucial distinction; it ignores the fact that community values impose a uniquely personal responsibility. The idea that this is a prerogative for party leaders, or can be dispensed with by a show of hands, debases political debate in general and undermines the role of the Senate in particular.


[1]This is not hyperbole. Those who support pre-emptive war stress that, since there is no wish to harm innocent people, this is the tragic cost of any war; but if there is no right to invade, the victims are necessarily the central issue, akin to those killed in an armed robbery which seeks to avoid casualties, but use all means necessary. Such wilful use of force constitutes murder in any rational system of criminal law. Hence Carmen Lawrence, writing in On Line Opinion on 5 Feb. 2003: ‘Invading Iraq would amount to mass murder of Iraqi Civilians’. Notwithstanding, none of those responsible for the war can be prosecuted for aggression under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court because, although this crime was eventually defined at Kampala in June 2010, it was given no retrospective application.

[2]Although unlikely to use its subpoena powers against public servants under ministerial directions not to answer questions, the Senate’s ability to clarify controversial issues was seen in its March/June 2005 hearings on the extent of Australian knowledge of detainee abuse, and on alleged US and British attempts to influence the Iraq Survey Group. Testimony on both issues, by a former Australian ‘senior specialist advisor’ to the ISG, was especially informative.

[3]Although hearings would not have seen a withdrawal of Australian troops, it is notable that a bipartisan US Senate Committee on pre-war Iraqi intelligence had by mid-2004 refuted the official case for war in respect of WMD and terrorist links. The politically charged ‘phase 2’ report on how the US Administration used the intelligence was put off as long as possible by Republican Chairman Senator Pat Roberts but three years later found (in a bipartisan conclusion 10:5) that “the US Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

[4] The Prime Minister summarized the case in his Address to the Nation announcing war on March 20, 2003: “(Saddam Hussein) has sheltered and sponsored many terrorist groups…. the possession of chemical, biological, or even worse still, nuclear weapons by a terrorist network would be a direct undeniable and lethal threat to Australia and its people.… That is the reason above all others why I passionately believe that action must be taken to disarm Iraq…. There’s also another reason and that is our close security alliance with the United States. The Americans have helped us in the past and the United States is very important to Australia’s long-term security.” A brief reference to regime change suggests that he then saw it, not as a reason for war, but as an ancillary benefit: “The removal of Saddam Hussein will lift this immense burden of terror from the Iraqi people.”

[5]A failure to confront Iraqi casualties by the pro-war media may have reflected a fear of adverse public opinion. But there is also a question whether any Coalition nation would accept comparable losses to achieve the professed war aims. If justifying war requires good reasons to use lethal force against innocent people, it is also clear that these reasons, if they are to rest on ordinary moral grounds, cannot include a belief that Iraqi lives count for less. I hope no one thinks it is necessary to cite Kant in order to give credibility to this claim about moral reasoning.

[6]The US mainstream media did not, at the time, report her comments. In her 2003 book Albright regrets she did not challenge the claim that sanctions caused the deaths, but the question remains whether she had seriously considered this human cost. The CBS interview was on May 11, 1996, more than two years before Clinton made regime change official US policy by signing the Iraq Liberation Act, but only months after he had bowed to international criticism by setting up the ‘oil for food’ program to alleviate the effect of sanctions on Iraqi civilians. In July of 2004 Amy Goodman of Democracy Now spoke with Albright, who said: “the sanctions were put on because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But there never were sanctions against food and medicine. And you people need to know there never were sanctions against food and medicine and I was responsible for getting food in there and getting Saddam Hussein to pump oil.” This claim, and the official US response to the deaths, should be read in light of the testimony of successive heads of UN humanitarian relief, Denis Halliday (Deputy Secretary General) and Hans von Sponeck, who both resigned in dismay, followed by Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Program in Iraq. Their reasons, which contradict Albright, are recorded by John Pilger in the Guardian of March 4, 2000.

[7]A revealing statistic, largely ignored by the US media, was the finding by World Public Opinion in September 2006 that 61% of Iraqis approved the use of violence against US-led forces. This, and earlier polls conducted by WPO, the British Defence Ministry, and local US commanders showing over 80% wanting Coalition forces out of Iraq, had been widely cited in the international media, and filed for reference by such respected bodies as the Brookings Institution. As with Iraqi casualties, they were routinely ignored by a prominent group of Australian pro-war journalists. The most predictable of these, Piers Akerman, argued in the Hobart Mercury that Iraqis supported occupation forces; in support he cited the views of one person, a former Iraqi army officer and friend who was then settled in Australia

[8]In Graham Greene’s 1955 novel ‘The Quiet American’, Homer Alden’s commitment is born of idealism, and he is courteous and honorable in his personal life – but he is also a willing and highly professional agent in a murderous conspiracy. The story brings out, in a way no philosophical essay can, the power of Kant’s insight into the nature of morality; it also helps clarify the self-serving role of the concept of evil, which the high-minded Alden assumes must differentiate his own enterprise from the crimes committed by those with baser motives.

[9]An analysis the author found helpful is by Professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, Moritz School of Law, Ohio State University, writing in the Jurist in November, 2002. Among the many impressive legal opinions against the war, one of the most dismissive was that by former Commonwealth Solicitor General, Gavin Griffith QC, in SMH Webdiary of March 21, 2003. He described the government’s advice as resting on ‘a fanciful proposition, an Alice in Wonderland inversion of meaning of plain words in the resolutions themselves.’ A scholarly and highly critical analysis, which examines the US position in a broader ideological context, is by Phillipe Sands, Professor of International Law at University College, London, in his 2005 book, Lawless World: America and the making and Breaking of Global Rules.

[10]Major US foreign policy claims had in recent decades often proved unreliable. The Pentagon Papers revealed a history of deception, by successive administrations, to maintain public support for the Vietnam War. The Iran/Contra scandal forced the Reagan Administration, despite earlier denials, to admit it illegally sold weapons to Iran to fund a clandestine war against Nicaragua. CIA intervention in Chile and Cuba was denied for years. But a need for Australia’s Parliament to independently examine the case for war did not depend just on a belief that President Bush or his advisers might be lying; it rested on the inherent risk of self-serving interpretations of controversial evidence. This risk escalated in 2002 when the US adopted a more assertive military strategy, as urged by members of the Project for the New American Century, who had argued for invasion of Iraq since 1998. Their supporters included Vice President Cheney, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defence Secretary Wolfowitz among others who exercised influence on US foreign policy. In part by compromising the media: in April, 2008 the New York Times revealed that Rumsfeld had in early 2002 set up a ‘military analyst program’ which embedded retired pro-war military officers in major TV networks (chiefly Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC but including other networks, as well as newspaper op-ed services), providing them with regular Pentagon access, exclusive briefings and ‘talking points’.

[11]The US Congress also failed to examine the evidence. The most authoritative report was a classified US National Intelligence Estimate, withheld by Bush until the eve of the vote to authorize war. It found that Iraq had biochemical WMD, but posed no threat unless attacked. Members had Pentagon briefings but the report was not addressed because, as the Washington Post revealed in April 2004, only six Senators and a handful of House members had read it. One was Bob Graham, 2002 Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who found the WMD claims unconvincing and duly voted against war; he tried but failed to get fellow Democrats to study it. Speaking in June, 2007, he is magnanimous: ‘a lot of people, including some who are now running for president, took the position that if the president of the United States tells me something is truthful, I have the right to accept that without having to verify it… That’s not an unreasonable position.’ After Nixon and the Pentagon Papers and Reagan and Irangate it is not only unreasonable but irresponsible.

[12]Barely three months later Labor, after voting down another motion by Senator Brown for a public inquiry into pre-war intelligence, successfully referred a weaker version to a secret inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD. This motion, again in contrast with that put by the Greens, did not seek to clarify the pre-war use of the intelligence to justify war, despite claims of willful misrepresentation made by former senior intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie.

[13]Many believe Howard lost the election, not from incompetence, but through the cumulative effect of policies which could not, in the public mind, justify their human cost – they left a sense of discomfort if not national shame. However that may be, the argument from classical political theory is Edmund Burke’s defence of representative democracy in his final speech to the Bristol electors in 1774; his view that ‘your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’, applies no less to party members. While Burke saw this uniquely personal responsibility as a ‘Providential trust’ based on Christian duty, the position taken here is that, on matters of principle, it is the only way to take community values seriously.

First published: 2011-03-21 02:37 AM