On abandoning Iraq

I am uncertain what to make of Mr Latham's stand on Iraq.

I'm certain about a few aspects surrounding it. I am delighted that finally, belatedly, Australian involvement in Iraq is a subject for political debate. I am incensed at Mr Schieffer's renewed meddling in Australian politics, and his efforts to muzzle the debate. I'm bewildered by attempts among conservatives to suggest that Mr Latham's stand in some way makes Australia more of a terrorist target than, for instance, beginning a wrong-headed and precedent-setting war in a politically tumultous region that was already compiling a lengthy list of grievances (whether justified or not) against the West. I'm impressed at Mr Latham's refusal to be cowed by these absurd arguments and official US pressure to back down.

But I also think he's wrong.

It is one thing to say that Australia never should have sent its men and women to war in Iraq. Or that Australia should have used its position as an ally to try to talk the US out of its reckless course. I subscribe to both views, and I think its crucial that we reflect on them critically.

But that reckless course was irreversibly undertaken one year and five days ago. Having declared with bombs and tanks that the West will take a responsibility for the welfare of the people of Iraq, we cannot turn away from it. We have gotten ourselves and the Iraqis into this mess, and we have to concentrate on achieving a basic level of stability in the country. I can't imagine that this basic level of stability will have been achieved at the moment an Iraqi sovereign government is installed. In fact I think that may well be the worst of all moments to choose to leave.

(Interestingly, Latham's policy isn't that far from Bush's. Bush isn't in a position to unequivocally commit to withdrawing troops at a predetermined juncture, because the international backlash would be immense—particularly if Iraq descended into general chaos, which is not at all unlikely. But his administration has already fast-tracked the handover timeline in order to speed their escape from the mess they created. "End the occupation"? At this point, and for the forseeable future, I think we should do anything but.)

Pulling Australian troops out at the Iraqis' moment of vulnerability is cheating them of the promises we made them when we were showering them with rockets. Whether Latham made those promises or not, I'm certain he was complicit in them. I marched and marched and marched, and I feel complicit in them. Rather than get the Australian troops out of there, I'd much rather know what exactly they are doing there. Because on that, we've heard nothing.

Scrutiny of our role in the fostering of a peaceful and democratic Iraq should be the major political concern. It should be a key focus for us in a wider analysis of how the "Western alliance" is going about this process. As the Iraqis and Americans are both rediscovering, building a durable democracy is no trivial exercise.

Joseph | 25 Mar 2004

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