Sydney Morning Herald -- Tuesday May 23 2006
One honour the PM can keep for himself
A smug morality underpins the Bush-Howard pact, writes Robert Manne.
Howard joins Bush Jnr to greenwash their killing fields in Iraq
LAST week John Howard was lavishly celebrated by the President of the US as America's best friend - with a 19-gun salute and a glittering black-tie dinner. Drawing from his ever reliable stock of mock-modest populist cliches, Howard claimed that the honour belonged to all Australians. Privately he must have known that it belonged exclusively to him. How had it been won?
For almost all its architects, the Iraq invasion has proved lethal. Largely because of Iraq, the Bush presidency is now no more popular than was the Nixon presidency in its darkest days. America's main Iraq allies in Europe, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, have lost elections to successors who regarded the invasion as wrong. Although Tony Blair did not lose his election last year, as a consequence of Iraq he is damaged goods, with an approval rating no higher than that of Bush.
The sole exception is Howard, whose reputation is entirely untarnished by the central supporting role his Government played in the invasion of Iraq. In part this is because of the generic weakness of the Labor Opposition; in part because of the influence of the pro-war Murdoch press; in part because of the successful marginalisation of the critical intelligentsia; and in part because only one Australian soldier has been killed in Iraq. Perhaps most deeply, however, it is because the Howard prime ministership has had a strangely mesmeric quality that, except for local community concerns, has put the national moral conscience to sleep.
From Bush's point of view, Howard is a wonder to behold. It is not merely that he is politically unwounded by Iraq. Over 4½ years he has not uttered one syllable of criticism concerning American strategy in the war on terrorism. No one could hope for a more blindly loyal ally. Hence, last week's celebratory words and drums and guns.
While Howard was in Washington, the centrist political think tank the Brookings Institute published its most recent study of the outcome of the invasion of Iraq. According to this study, since the invasion between 44,000 and 89,000 Iraqi civilians, perhaps 55,000 Iraqi insurgents, and 2500 members of the invading forces have been killed.
Even though the US has spent or approved the spending of $US435 billion ($574 billion) on Iraq (which is 15 times the entire annual Iraqi gross domestic product) - an even larger number of Iraqi children (9 per cent) are suffering from acute malnutrition than was the case before the invasion of March 2003; more than two-thirds of Iraqis still do not have clean water; residents of Baghdad receive on average fewer than six hours of electricity supply a day.
Two-thirds of Iraqis feel less secure now than they did before the invasion. Less than 1 per cent believe that the occupying forces have improved security. Before the invasion the Baghdad morgue processed fewer than 100 corpses a month. In the first three months of this year, it processed 3427. Iraqis are now losing hope. A year ago, 67 per cent of Iraqis believed that their country was at least heading in the right direction. At present a mere 30 per cent still believe that this is so.
The world generally acknowledges the injustice and illegality of the invasion and the catastrophe that, even after the appointment of the so-called national unity government, now confronts Iraq. Are Bush and Howard really unable to see what it is that they have done? I can only speak with confidence of the Prime Minister.
Howard took this country to war on the claim that he knew that Saddam Hussein had a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that posed a terrible danger to the world. This turned out to be entirely false. Howard argued that an invasion to bring about regime change in Iraq could not be justified. When weapons of mass destruction were not discovered, he argued that regime change was precisely the reason we had gone to war. Howard argued that the war would be concluded swiftly and that the people in Iraq would welcome the invading forces as their liberators. Three years after the invasion, the rate of insurgency is increasing steadily; 82 per cent of Iraqis are strongly opposed to the presence in their country of occupying forces; the country is descending into an unspeakably brutal Shia-Sunni civil war; very many tens of thousands of people who would be alive today, were it not for the invasion, lie dead.
Even if Howard continued to defend his actions strenuously, if he at least was anxious or agitated about this state of affairs, I would be able to feel for him some respect. What unnerves me is the calmness of his demeanour, the apparent near-absence in him of a troubled conscience or the kind of self-scrutiny that might lead eventually to remorse. Howard is one of the most nimble but also one of the most morally complacent politicians I have ever observed.
Howard rightly asks us to contemplate the pain of the families of the 3000 innocent people who were murdered on September 11, 2001. Does he, do we, feel nothing for the families of the tens of thousands of Iraqis whose lives have been lost in the killings and the murders that have occurred since the invasion of Iraq, for whose involvement in which our Prime Minister was honoured, in Washington last week, with a black-tie dinner and a 19-gun salute?
Robert Manne is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.