Inside Story

Signing up for an invasion

How did two very different leaders — Tony Blair and John Howard — come to join George W. Bush’s “march of folly”?

Tom Hyland Books 16 April 2021 2149 words

March of folly: John Howard and Tony Blair with US president George W. Bush (centre) after the two former prime ministers were presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on 13 January 2009. Olivier Douliery/AbacaPress/Alamy

On the face of it, Tony Blair and John Howard were the most unlikely partners. The young, idealistic British prime minister was the charismatic leader of New Labour, the political personification of Cool Britannia. His Australian counterpart was conservative, pragmatic, cautious and, well, dull. Not so much a daggy dad as a daggy granddad.

But despite their differences in politics, personality and style, they enlisted in US president George W. Bush’s modern march of folly that led inexorably to the invasion of Iraq and the multiple calamities that followed.

Why and how they joined Bush’s crusade to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is the subject of Judith Betts and Mark Phythian’s new book, The Iraq War and Democratic Governance. The two academics show how democratic structures and processes — parties, parliaments, cabinets and bureaucracies — can be co-opted, sidelined or neutered when prime ministers, driven by sentiment and perceived national interests, are determined on a course of action — in this case, to follow a powerful ally on the road to disaster.

Betts and Phythian tell the tale well, methodically comparing the factors and processes that led Howard and Blair to send armed forces to support the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The two men’s shared belief in the importance of their countries’ relationship with the United States was the primary reason they went to war, though they downplayed its importance when justifying their decisions.

Britain has seen its much-vaunted “special relationship” with the United States as a way of retaining global influence after its empire disintegrated and America supplanted its physical power in the wake of the second world war. Australia’s alliance with the United States, expressed in the ANZUS treaty, was based on the fear of abandonment made real when Imperial Japan gave the country the fright of its life in 1942.

Both countries adorn this relationship with sentimental references to common ties of democratic values, cultural affinity and shared wartime service. (US officials go along with Australia’s mawkish marketing of the alliance as “one hundred years of mateship,” politely overlooking the fact that Australia’s contribution to US military adventures is sometimes tokenistic and always carefully circumscribed — as was the case with Iraq.) Implicit in the relationship, particularly for Australia, is the view that military contributions are insurance premiums, periodically paid to maintain the alliance.

For Blair in particular, a strategic assessment of the relationship’s benefits was overlaid by an emotional belief in America’s fundamental goodness. Howard was determined to strengthen the alliance, which also had the political benefit of wedging the Labor opposition. Already mentally and politically attuned to the importance of the United States, both leaders were galvanised by the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. Blair’s reaction was evangelical in its tone: standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush against al-Qaeda was an opportunity to reorder the world, or at least the Middle East, by influencing US policy.

While Howard’s outlook was narrower, his response was heightened by the fact he was visiting Washington at the time of the attacks. He knew then that the Americans would respond militarily. He, too, promised to stand by the United States. Britain and Australia both sent forces to support the US action in Afghanistan in late 2001 to overthrow the Taliban government that had sheltered al-Qaeda. Both knew Bush and his crusading advisers already had their sights set on Saddam Hussein in Iraq, despite the fact he was not involved in 9/11, as part of a bigger project to rearrange the Middle East and rid it of despotism.

By mid 2002 they knew Bush was planning an attack on Iraq, and both had given clear indications of support, which they kept from the public. Howard carefully crafted his response to allow him to insist that he had made no commitment until the very eve of the invasion. Yet, as Howard writes in his memoir, after he met Bush in June 2002 the American president was entitled to assume that if the United States took military action “in all likelihood Australia would join.”

Getting troops into position meant months of managing and manipulating parties, parliaments, cabinets, bureaucracies and the media, in an environment where public opinion in both countries opposed military action. On the evidence forensically mustered by Betts and Phythian, Blair and Howard managed this task with considerable skill.

Blair believed modern decision-making meant that traditional ways of doing things — bureaucratic advisers drafting policy papers to be subjected to cabinet debate leading to consensus decisions — were slow and dated. Having risen to power through an obsessive control of media messaging, he made sure his government was on a perpetual election footing. Old ways of governing created the risk of dissent and media leaks. In this controlled environment, as former British Labour leader Neil Kinnock observed, “disagreement was only characterised as rebellion, not as a divergence that was based on rational consideration and open to persuasion.”

To manage dissent and minimise debate, the detail of Iraq policy was kept to a small circle of insiders, with potential leadership challengers — principally Gordon Brown — excluded. Although Iraq was mentioned in twenty-six meetings of Blair’s cabinet in the twelve months before the invasion, only five substantial discussions took place. Blair limited the information that went to cabinet and ensured there was never a frank and open consideration of risks, options and alternatives. Robin Cook, who was to resign as leader of the House of Commons in protest at the invasion, wrote in his diary: “Tony does not regard the cabinet as a place for decisions.”

Howard’s challenges were different and somewhat easier. His cabinet and MPs were united behind his election-winning leadership and were, in any case, controlled by strict party discipline. Unlike Blair, he faced an opposition that was against the war but had cracks in its unity that Howard could wedge. While he increasingly confined discussion on Iraq policy to cabinet’s national security committee, Howard ensured wavering MPs were soothed by an informal process of consultation, sometimes lubricated with a calming cup of tea.

If Blair shut dissenters out, Howard sought to lock them in while leaving the traditional sources of strategic advice — senior public servants in key government departments — on the sidelines. The heads of the foreign affairs and defence departments later recounted how their advice was neither sought nor offered because the government had already made up its mind. The only advice the government sought was on the nuts and bolts of logistics and capabilities — how Australia could contribute to the war — rather than on the merits, risks and consequences of doing so.

Betts and Phythian offer two explanations for the silence of top bureaucrats who are paid to provide frank and fearless advice. One is that they were cowed into compliance by Howard who, in his first days in office, had sacked six department heads. The second possible explanation is that they agreed with Howard that joining the war was the price that had to be paid to maintain the alliance. This, of course, was not the main reason Howard gave for joining Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” Mention of the alliance was subsidiary to discussion of the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, his potential nuclear capabilities, and his links with terrorism.

Claims about WMD dominated prime ministerial messaging in the months leading up to March 2003 — most notoriously in the dossier produced by Blair’s government a month before the invasion, which, in the words of Betts and Phythian, “did not so much report on a threat as create one.” The dossier, including the headline-grabbing assertion that Saddam could deploy biological weapons in forty-five minutes, led to claims the government had “sexed up” inconclusive intelligence assessments.

The failure to find WMD prompted a series of post-invasion inquiries in Britain and Australia. The most exhaustive of these, chaired by Sir John Chilcot in Britain, was initiated by Gordon Brown after he succeeded Blair as prime minister in 2009. Chilcot confirmed that the US alliance was the determining factor in Britain’s decision to join the war, found that claims about the threat posed by WMD were “presented with a certainty that was not justified,” and concluded that, despite clear warnings, the consequences of invasion were underestimated.

Chilcot also revealed that the pressure on intelligence agencies to provide unequivocal evidence of WMD verged on the farcical. At one stage, British intelligence was citing an Iraqi source who falsely claimed first-hand knowledge of Iraqi weapons programs. It turned out the source was passing on information from a “sub-source” who had been coached by the source to fabricate reports.

Parallels exist between Chilcot and the two post-invasion Australian inquires, the most significant of which was conducted by the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence, chaired by Liberal MP David Jull. It found the government had exaggerated the “moderate and cautious” assessments of Iraq’s weapons made by the Office of National Assessments and the Defence Intelligence Organisation. It found the DIO to have been the most accurate and sceptical, and that the two organisations diverged in their assessments from September 2002, when ONA was influenced by US intelligence reports, some of which were based on the untested claims of Iraqi defectors.

Despite this divergence, the agencies both found that any Iraqi threat was limited and in decline; its nuclear program was unlikely to be advanced; its long-range missiles were in poor condition; there was no known chemical weapons production; and no links existed between Saddam and al-Qaeda.

Jull totally discredited Howard’s stated reasons for going to war. Howard, however, deftly dodged any subsequent storm. In February 2004, selected portions of the Jull report were leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald, the only major metropolitan newspaper that had opposed the war. The leak was a master stroke of media manipulation, as the Herald’s report, based as it was on carefully culled excerpts, largely focused on the finding that the government had not doctored the intelligence it received.

This reporting effectively absolved the government and framed subsequent news coverage when the entire Jull report was released two weeks later. With just a few exceptions — notably Patrick Walters in the Australian — most of the media declared the government had been cleared of “sexing up” the intelligence, while missing Jull’s key conclusion that, on the basis of the intelligence the government did have, no compelling case existed for war. Betts and Phythian rightly judge this to be a massive failure by the media, “which by and large had either not read the [Jull] report or failed to grasp its significance.”

Despite the inquiries’ findings, and well after the war, Blair and Howard continued to insist they acted in good faith while being let down by poor intelligence.

The consequences of the invasion differed for the two prime ministers. Politically, Blair never recovered, the revelations of Chilcot and other inquiries leading to disillusionment and a loss of trust in the Labour Party and among the general public. A total of 179 British personnel died in Iraq, most of them after Bush declared in May 2003 that major combat had ended and that the United States and its allies had prevailed.

Howard had a better war. Unlike Blair, he didn’t face internal party dissent. He had carefully crafted his words in the run-up to the invasion by maintaining he had not made a commitment until the eve of the war, thereby keeping the opposition off balance. Crucially, he ensured Australian forces remained in Iraq only for the invasion phase and in carefully limited roles to avoid casualties. No Australian troops were killed. By June 2003, when the troops were back in Australia for welcome home marches and medals, the insurgencies triggered by the invasion, which would rip Iraq apart, were only beginning.

Betts and Phythian set out to examine how democratic institutions operated in a decision to go to war. They tell this story systematically, comprehensively and with clarity, drawing on a wide range of sources and interviews with key players. On any reading, our democratic institutions failed. This book is all the more powerful because of its sober style. It deserves an audience much wider than international relations specialists. Members of parliament and press gallery journalists should be first in line.

Thirteen years on from the invasion, Howard said that “the hardest decision I ever took as prime minister, along with my cabinet colleagues, was to commit the men and women of the Australian Defence Force to military conflict.” In the wrong circumstances, based on the evidence in this book, crafty prime ministers can quite easily lead their countries into wars. •

The Iraq War and Democratic Governance: Britain and Australia Go to War
By Judith Betts and Mark Phythian | Palgrave Macmillan | €79.99 | 236 pages

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.