The Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter Hartcher

George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard collaborated in a war built on a lie. The evidence of lessons learnt is scant.

Smoke was still pouring from the Pentagon, debris was still settling on the World Trade Centre site in New York when George W. Bush grabbed his top counterterrorism official, Dick Clarke, and some other aides in the White House.

''See if Saddam did this,'' the President instructed. Clarke was shocked. ''But, Mr President, al-Qaeda did this.'' Bush replied: ''I know, I know, but … see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.''

Of course, there was no shred. It was September 12, 2001, when this encounter took place, recorded in Clarke's memoir. Bush had already decided to invade Iraq. It was a decision in search of a justification.

When Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, couldn't be fitted up with September 11 attack, Bush had to find another. He settled on weapons of mass destruction. The evidence was concocted by intelligence agencies to support a decision which had been already made.

Bush's decision was, of course, a betrayal of his country's trust, but it also put America's allies in a very tough spot. They could exercise independent judgment and risk displeasing the superpower. That was Canada's choice, for instance.

Or they could suspend disbelief and plunge headlong into a confected war. That was Britain's and Australia's choice. The decision by Tony Blair and John Howard to lead their nations into the invasion probably strengthened their alliances with the US.

Even leading Democratic politicians in the US who were opposed to Bush's war itself nonetheless expressed appreciation for the loyalty of America's allies.

Senator Carl Levin, for instance, an important force in US military matters, routinely told visiting Australian politicians that ''I don't agree with the war in Iraq, but we thank you for being there.''

But the misbegotten war weakened the ally itself — the US. America spent $823 billion on the war in immediate outlays, according to the Congressional Research Service, and will spend much more on the health needs of veterans over a generation. It lost 4484 soldiers killed and 32,000 were wounded. The war accounted for about one-quarter of all the increase in US debt over the decade. But the greatest cost has been to US credibility and standing in the world.

''Twenty years ago, US military power was universally considered awesome in its scope,'' write a pair of Australian foreign policy experts, Owen Harries and Tom Switzer. ''Today, a decade since the invasion, the world is much more aware of its limitations and costs — and it is decidedly less impressed.''

One of the best-informed and most credible of US analysts, Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, sketched the US achievement starkly as its troops withdrew in 2011:

''The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq is not a 'victory' in a war that has been a costly strategic failure. There is no end state in Iraq, even to the point where it can ensure its own internal stability.

''There is no map of how the US intends to force a new strategic structure in the region. These are the real tests of the US ability to transform the war into any form of future success, and none of these tests has yet been met.''

And, of course, it carried other big costs and consequences. Here are just four. First, more than 100,000 civilians were killed. Second, Iraq was pitched into civil war. Third, all of this weakened Iraq, and this strengthened its traditional enemy, Iran. And Iran now looms as a great risk to global security, in a way Iraq never did. Fourth, the war in Iraq sapped energy and attention from the more soundly based war under way in Afghanistan.

Ten years on, John Howard and Alexander Downer have come forward in the past week to justify their decision. They surely get credit for facing up to their actions when they could easily hide at home and refuse comment. But they both offer rationalisations, not reflections.

The great cause in Iraq to which Howard committed Australia? It was the destruction of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

There was only ever one Iraqi who testified to the existence of this WMD program. And he was a known liar. He was an Iraqi defector who was living in Germany under protection of German intelligence. The CIA codenamed him ''Curveball'' and relied heavily on his accounts as it tailored evidence for the White House.

When the CIA asked the Germans for direct access to Curveball, the Germans replied: ''You don't want to see him because he's crazy,'' according to an official US commission of inquiry after the invasion. The German went on to suggest that Curveball had suffered a nervous breakdown, that speaking with him would be ''a waste of time,'' and that he might be a ''fabricator.''

But the US steamed towards war on the basis of this man's claims that Saddam had built mobile germ warfare labs.

Howard and his government relied on the same intelligence. Before the invasion was launched, Howard was asked at the National Press Club whether he had proof of Iraq's WMD: ''Now, you say proof, I mean as I say, I can't prove before an Old Bailey or a Central Criminal Court jury but can I say to you again, I mean if the world waits for that, it's too late. I mean, that is I said a Pearl Harbour situation.''

He said that, without the WMD, there was no justification for the invasion: ''I would have to accept that if Iraq had genuinely disarmed, I couldn't justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I've never advocated that.''

So the WMD argument was utterly central to Howard's case to take Australia to war. He couldn't prove it, yet, as he said after Australian troops were dispatched and war was under way, ''I stand by the fact that before we entered the war, we had a very strong intelligence assessment that Iraq had a WMD capability.''

Yet, looking at the same evidence that Howard had relied on, a formal intelligence inquiry after the invasion described it very differently. Philip Flood, a former top diplomat and intelligence official, described it as ''thin, ambiguous, and incomplete.''

Howard and his ministers had, in truth, suspended disbelief in order to support the ally. Howard stuck with Bush even as the US led a woefully poor invasion and occupation.

Saddam was removed, but US policy stripped the state of governing capability; order and services collapsed. Civil war broke out. The mass violence was ultimately arrested and elections have been held.

Howard, Blair and others argue that, although mistakes might have been made, Iraq is nonetheless better off without Saddam. But in a dispassionate study, Toby Dodge, of the London School of Economics, concludes that Iraq today under its prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, is ''an alienated and fractured society with a ruling elite that is increasingly authoritarian and violent.''

In his book Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism, Dodge adds that ''despite the tens of thousands of civilians who have died and the billions of dollars that have been spent, the lives of ordinary Iraqis, in terms of their relationship to their state and to their economy, are comparable to the situation they faced in the country before regime change.''

What has Australia learnt from its complicity in this series of compounded misjudgments? The leader of the Greens, Christine Milne, says ''I don't think we've learnt anything.'' The Greens have called anew for an inquiry into Australia's participation in the war. The US, Britain and Denmark have conducted inquiries, but Australia has limited itself to inquiries into intelligence only.

But Labor opposed the Howard decision to join the invasion. Why wouldn't an incoming Labor government under Kevin Rudd hold an inquiry? ''I can only assume it's because, in government, Labor has also taken a fairly uncritical approach to the US,'' says Milne.

It's also true that, as Labor's foreign affairs spokesman in opposition, Kevin Rudd was outspoken in declaring that there was ''incontrovertible evidence'' that Saddam had WMD.

The Greens have also tabled a bill requiring that future decisions to go to war should be subject to a debate in the Parliament ''so we never, never go to war on the whim of a prime minister,'' as Milne puts it. But neither major party will support this, so it is stillborn.

So future decisions on war will depend once more on the government of the day. Have the likely incoming government, the Coalition, learnt anything from the Howard government's experience?

Julie Bishop, deputy Liberal leader and foreign affairs spokeswoman, was a backbencher when Howard committed Australia to the Iraq war. She recalls that she strongly supported the decision at the time, but she reflects that lessons have been learnt 10 years on:

''There were intelligence failures, and clearly there has to be greater contestability in accepting intelligence,'' says Bishop. ''And clearly the aftermath of the military action, the post-invasion planning, didn't go as one would have hoped — how to win the war, and how to win the peace.

''There's an overall sense that you have to work through the nation-building, after the event, step by step.''

If this means a future Liberal government is more rigorous and more independent-minded than the last one in making life and death decisions of war, then perhaps a central lesson has been learnt after all.

This article was originally published at The Sydney Morning Herald