Iraq: When will responsibility bite?

George Bush’s announcement of extra troops for Iraq is significant not for its announcements of actions, but for its official admission that Iraq is a horrible mess. See the official US government PDF for details. The scariest bit is the official admission that the Coalition cannot sensibly move responsibility for counterinsurgency to Iraq’s official army and police. The Iraqi government’s role has officially shifted to devising the strategy, though no-one really believes that. Latest statements on the Iraqi forces’ readiness hints that a full transfer of counterinsurgency responsibility is years away.

Before Christmas, Bush declared: “I don’t think the American people are ready to lose yet”. The latest announcement seems little more than a way of killing time, combatants and civilians until Americans are ready to lose.

So what’s the best way forward? I can’t think of one. Bush will send more troops, yet hardly anyone thinks another 20,000 troops will secure Baghdad. The Iraq Study Group made a bunch of suggestions that have already failed (“stand down as the Iraqis stand up”) or which Bush won’t brook (engage with Iran and Syria). The International Crisis Group has the most credible outline of a strategy, but it involves even greater changes to the US approach (example: “halting blind sweeps that endanger civilians, antagonise the population and have had limited effect on the insurgency”).

And yet the alternative – declare victory and go home – does seem to violate a serious ethical standard of responsibility, once summed up by Colin Powell for an unhearing George W. Bush as “you broke it, you own it”.

This, it seems to me, is the ultimate moral point in Iraq. If you invade a nation pre-emptively, causing an unavoidable spike in death and suffering, you create a heavy responsibility to create a better future for the nation you invade. You have to make good on that promise. The same applies in some measure even when you come to the aid of a beseiged incumbent government, particularly if that government has a weak claim to represent its people. The West made good on its promise in Korea, and probably even in Kosovo, but failed to do so convincingly in Vietnam. (And it’s teetering in Afghanistan.)

Success doesn’t excuse breaches of international law (e.g. in Iraq) and failure doesn’t automatically damn an attempt to save a country from an even worse fate (such as Vietnam’s fall into communism). But the end result certainly counts for something in the moral calculus. The use-your-military conservatives in the US and Australia sense this moral point, which is why they’ve so aggressively opposed every suggestion over the past three years that Iraq and Afghanistan are going badly.

That’s the moral calculus. The political calculus is different. Losing wars is bad for your poll ratings. But the poltical and moral calculus are linked. As Iraq’s failure grows, the war becomes less morally defensible, and hence less even popular. Losing is bad; losing after you did the wrong thing is worse. That’s how the politics seems to be playing out in the US.

In Australia, at least to date, the political calculus has been different. So far most Australians don’t seem to have grappled with this nation’s co-responsibility for our failure to deliver on the promise of a better future in Iraq. As Rex Ringschott has pointed out in his 9 January Troppo post, Alexander Downer wants to talk about holding the line and making sure that “insurgents and terrorists are not victorious in Iraq”. Morally this is an unserious approach. Politically, Downer has been getting away with it.

Yet I find it hard to believe that Australia could contribute 2000 troops to screw up a pre-emptive attack on another nation, without its national government taking a public opinion pasting at some point. Australians have a tendency not to pay too much heed to foreign issues, but we are hardly amoral. At some point soon, Iraq is going to start looming larger in the national conversation.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (, editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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39 Responses to Iraq: When will responsibility bite?

  1. I tend to think that the fact that the Government have been saying as little as possible about Iraq lately implies a recognition that public opinion in Australia does matter. We’re now spared the sort of grandiose and hyperbolic rhetoric that Downer used to specialise in when he was in his neocon phase. I think they’re well aware that people are distressed and angry by the chaos and suffering and want to squirm out of their “accountability moment” through downplaying our involvement and responsibility. Just don’t mention the war appears to be the new PR watchword. And Howard is being pretty blatant in maintaining a largely pointless troop presence well away from the action while refusing to sign on to Bush’s latest mad fantasy driven escalation.

    I hope Labor starts running on it, but with the general “don’t frighten the horses” approach of the Ruddocracy, perhaps they’ll keep their heads down too.

    I do wonder what Iraq has done to the “national security advantage” that the pundits used to tell us was the government’s strong suit. But maybe that argument lost in the American midterms along with the GOP.

  2. David Rubie says:

    I hope Labor starts running on it, but with the general “don’t frighten the horses”

  3. I’d suggest they adapt Kennedy’s lines – we were told there were WMD, we were told there’d be development and democracy, etc.

  4. Thx for the post DW. A good one.

  5. Robert says:

    I tend to think that the fact that the Government have been saying as little as possible about Iraq lately implies a recognition that public opinion in Australia does matter.

    I think Mark’s right. And because there is general acknowledgement that Iraq is bad news, Howard et al have to be careful not to be drawn into saying something which comes back to haunt them. That is, though Howard is eversmart like that, this, now, is the time when the pressure is on to be drawn, as answers are demanded. Even comments on strategy by them have to be bland generic, if at all. Silence, better, as she goes.

    Iraq as an Australian political issue is falling into a place set up largely by the chatter of that hallmark decade-long in office. What would be the political fallout if this were Howard’s second term? After ten years issues are flying around the room but which ones matter where and to whom? Iraq is the issue over there in the corner, crawling sadly along the wall. Certainly some Australians would like to nail Howard down over Iraq, but just as they want to, another issue buzzes past their ear and that! would do it too.

    It’s much the same old conversation until there are either Australian deaths or more terrorist attacks: horrible, and yet in each case the Govt could spin it their way.

    Finally, what exactly is a troop injection of 20,000?. Line them up in your mind, and they cover a lot of football fields back towards the horizon, all neat and proud in a row. That is impressive, and advance that on a foreign problem and you’ve a reason to talk about it. What else is it? Each one of those troops, inside him or her, though proud to serve, is wondering right now if they’ll ever come home.

  6. Robert says:

    That previous comment had in my mind a picture of the troops from ground level; actually, if you raise the viewpoint to what we know of high level view of a football stadium where we know crowds are visibly measurable, and it’s an empty stadium. Bugger all. (Makes the feelings each one would surely have more potent, prescient. If one could allowably speak of this from outside, at all).

    It’s a godawful business.

  7. Ken Lovell says:

    Both Bush and Howard emphasised that losing in Iraq would imperil America and Australia. Indeed Howard said

    “If America is defeated in Iraq it is hard to see how the longer term fight against terrorism can be won.”

  8. D W Griffiths says:

    Mark’s post at Larvatus Prodeo is well worth visiting. As Mark argues, it seems likely that Howard has already suffered some political damage over Iraq, and that he has now rigged for silent running on the issue to minimise any further damage.

  9. Thanks, D.W.

    It’s a godawful business.

    I think the two main difficulties are that the US now intends to “clear” Shi’ite areas and this risks both the implosion of the Maliki government and temporarily uniting all or most of the militias/factions against the Americans.

    Secondly, the new strategy is urban guerilla warfare – the US (and perhaps Iraqi) troops will be “holding” areas that are “cleared” – the problem being that they are unlikely to be in any real sense unless they are destroyed. And throwing air power – ie helicopters and missiles into the equation which is part of the surge strategy is going to cause much more destruction and loss of life than the current strategy. Thus parts of Baghdad will most likely come to resemble Lebanon last year or the Gaza Strip now – and that will be exponentially more destructive of life and limb and produce much worse tv pictures.

    So I think that a realistic dose of pessimism about the prospects for the surge suggests that it will get much nastier very soon.

  10. C.L. says:

    …it will get much nastier very soon.

    Mark hopes – as usual.

    Howard should indeed take responsibility for Australia’s part in overthrowng the late twentieth century’s most murderous dictatorship.

    Our particpation in the war was the pre-eminent issue of the last election.

    Howard won both Houses.

    It was also the pre-eminent issue in the last UK and American elections.

    Blair and Bush won.

    Critics should apologise for their objective support for Saddam Hussein. Don’t hold your breath.

  11. Robert says:

    The question though D.W. is what comes of it? How does the damage transfer into any or which changed situation? Iraq right now might be a vote changer, but to whom? Idealists?

    What happens when the fullness of a Howard or Rudd prime ministership flushes through in campaign mode? On homegrown and Australian future issues? At best, the Iraq impact has been simply to add another mark against the current government’s poverty in already set tableaus containing wider issues speaking of cruelty, heartlessness, arrogance (or more likely hubris), meanspritedness, and general lack of humanity. That’s all been wrapped up, long ago. Yes, it adds to the overall picture, but that whole picture can be wiped out, as it has been before, by the usual tactics come decision time.

    Does it change anything for Howard in terms of other foreign policy? Does it help any in Iraq itself?

    Is it boring to even go over it again? If so, what does that mean, when transferred to the voting public? Are they numb to it?

    Ken has highlighted exactly where Howard knows he’s safe, no matter the consequences of the Iraq war:

    “If America is defeated in Iraq it is hard to see how the longer term fight against terrorism can be won.”

  12. Mark hopes – as usual.

    No, I don’t, C.L. Your claim that anyone who foresees death and destruction ahead supports that for partisan reasons is grossly insulting and completely unfounded. Fortunately it reveals your own motivations and the quality of your commentary only all too well. You’re the one who consistently wants to turn grave matters into partisan insults and macho chest beating contests, as this demonstrates:

    Critics should apologise for their objective support for Saddam Hussein. Don’t hold your breath.

    However, out of respect for the author of this thread, and those who wish to discuss these issues seriously, I’ll forebear from further response to your provocations.

  13. Our particpation in the war was the pre-eminent issue of the last election.

    Howard won both Houses.

    I will comment on the substance of C.L.’s points. That is a most extraordinary claim – I’ve never seen it argued anywhere that Iraq was the issue on which the 2004 election turned.

  14. C.L. says:

    Comments not working?

  15. C.L. says:

    Frustrating that you can’t ban people on others’ blogs isn’t it, Mark? You’ve been trashing so-called “surge” for two weeks – before you’d even heard the details and tangential policy commitments. (speaking of “quality of commentary”). Your take on Iraq is monomaniacal: Chimp Must Lose. And you foresee “death and destruction ahead”, do you? Thanks Clauswitz.

  16. C.L. says:

    I’ve never seen it argued anywhere that Iraq was the issue on which the 2004 election turned.

    Well, there was an attempt to make it so but the electorate wasn’t interested. Latham wanted the troops brought home four or five weeks after polling day – that’s how desperately convinced Labor was that Iraq was a winner. So desperate were they that they forgot to make any commitment to leaving a security presence in place to protect Australian officials. So yeah, it was a big issue in 2004.

    It was an accountability moment for Howard. He won.

  17. C.L. says:

    I also posted on the response by Grandma Pelosi & Co but the commbox doesn’t seem up to a hyperlink.

  18. Ingolf says:

    There’s no doubt that as one of the coalition of the willing, Australia has a grave responsibility to Iraq and its people. The more difficult question is whether continued military involvement is doing more harm than good. Given that Iraq is sinking deeper and deeper into sectarian violence, both the US and its partners will almost inevitably be increasingly drawn into taking sides, however much they might wish to avoid doing so. The US, and to a lesser degree what remains of its partners, in effect become another tribal player in a widening civil war. It’s also an unfortunate side effect that any government, party or militia that is supported by the coalition automatically loses critical credibility. This is not a problem that lends itself to an easy solution, or indeed perhaps to any solution at all.

    As long as we’re there militarily, some Sunni insurgent groups will be more likely to cooperate with jihadis and the day when the domestic factions are forced to begin dealing with each other and suppressing the utterly destructive influence of those bent on chaos and terrorism will be indefinitely delayed. The very idea of a united Iraq is losing cogency with each day that passes.

    Unfortunately, Bush’s refusal to talk with Iran and Syria in turn denies any opportunity to constructively engage the various interested regional parties. As far as I can judge, there are very few outside the White House who still profess to believe there’s any possibility of a military solution to this catastrophe.

    That the last 3-4 years have been an immense boon to the extremists in the Muslim world is I think accepted by all but the most intellectually shuttered. The long term consequences of continuing to feed this growing, and in my view partially justified anger and frustration are just horrendous.

    Quite what should be done is clearly something about which people of goodwill can and will disagree. In principle, though, it seems to me that any solution ought to:

    1) Make it clear that the purpose is not a long term occupation. The vast amounts being spent on long term bases and the US embassy are a propoganda gift to all those who wish to sow discord and hatred. And a source of real concern and cynicism to those who wish Iraq well.

    2) Avoid deals like the proposed oil legislation which reinforce the impression that it really was at least in part about exploitation of Iraqi resources.

    (As an aside, given that these two aims may well have been part of what I suspect was from the start a confused, highly divided set of goals within different parts of the US power structure, explicitly and meaningfully disavowing these goals would probably take something close to an internal revolution within the US).

    3) Promise truly significant and ongoing sums to reconstruction and development efforts and make it clear that their use is to be as much as possible in the hands of the Iraqis themselves.

    4) Where it can be safely done — which is probably not often in the current anarchic situation — offer expertise and aid where requested in areas like health, agriculture, sanitation and so on.

    4) Attempt to genuinely engage with all Middle Eastern powers with the aim of discouraging attempts to capitalise on Iraqi instability and encourage their involvement in economic engagement and reconstruction.

    Taken together with a clearly stated objective of disengaging militarily, such a set of goals and promises might just begin the long, slow process of restoring a little faith and making at least some amends for the disastrous consequences of our actions. However well meant they may have been in some cases. Unfortunately, except for getting rid of an appalling dictator, it’s hard to point to any other positive result of the our momentous decision to invade.

    As for the domestic political consequences, I think Robert made some very good points. Perhaps if Rudd and co were to approach the whole matter in something like the above fashion, they could both carve out a meaningful, consistent and flexible position while making it very difficult for the government and its accolytes to use the tired but still marginally effective old argument against “cut and run”. It would also have the great virtue of constantly directing attention to the shallowness of the government’s “thinking” on this matter, both now and in the lead up to their fateful decision.

  19. C.L. says:

    The “realist” school of foreign policy: Iran and Syria might help.

    Beyond parody.

  20. D W Griffiths says:

    The “realist”

  21. C.L. says:

    Bush has just authorised the Americans to drag off a bunch of “staff” from an Ianian “consulate” in Iraq. “Batted about” alright.

  22. Ingolf says:

    Beyond parody?

    In early 2003, Iran indirectly sent a proposal to the US for wide ranging talks. Clearly troubled by the rapid success of the US invasion/liberation, they were as open as one was ever likely to find them. This is how the Washington Post summarised its contents:

    The document lists a series of Iranian aims for the talks, such as ending sanctions, full access to peaceful nuclear technology and a recognition of its “legitimate security interests.” Iran agreed to put a series of U.S. aims on the agenda, including full cooperation on nuclear safeguards, “decisive action” against terrorists, coordination in Iraq, ending “material support” for Palestinian militias and accepting the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document also laid out an agenda for negotiations, with possible steps to be achieved at a first meeting and the development of negotiating road maps on disarmament, terrorism and economic cooperation.

    No response from the US. As far as it was concerned, it held the winning hand and had absolutely no need to negotiate with anyone. You may recall it was also at this time entirely dismissive of any real UN involvement.

    Earlier, in late 2001, the US and Iran had cooperated in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and there had been signs this tactical cooperation could develop into something more strategic. We know how this ended of course with the “axis of evil” speech in early 2002.

    Iran has, unfortunately but inevitably, been the clear strategic winner from the last four years and has also been re-radicalised after a period of tentative openness and rapprochement in the late 90s and early part of this decade. George Bush and his administration have, sadly and somewhat ironically, been marvellous allies for Ahmadinejad and the hardliners.

    It’s not a matter of hoping Iran and Syria might “help” the US as an act of generosity. It’s a matter of recognising that they, in particular Iran, are powerful and permanent players in the Middle East and that no lasting solution is likely unless it at least has their grudging acceptance. It will of course be much more difficult to negotiate with Iran now than it would have been 3-4 years ago but it is by no means monolithic and negotiations are far more likely to encourage the ascent of the more moderate factions than is continued confrontation. As for Syria, it has repeatedly shown itself open to trying to find mutually beneficial solutions.

    So, “realist” . . . . .? Well, if true it doesn’t really seem such a terrible moniker to me. In a way it’s rather amusing that it should be for some such an expression of contempt.

  23. Geoff R says:

    Hasn’t any conceivable mission in Iraq been accomplished long ago? Saddam is gone and there is a democratically elected government. This government is in no danger of being overthrown by any groups sympathetic to either Saddam or Al-Qaeda. What outcome are the American troops guarding against? What do those who support the continued presense of American troops think would be the result of their withdrawal?

  24. C.L. says:

    Sure, Ingolf. If the Iranians said it and the Washington Post reported it, it must have been “true”.

  25. derrida derider says:

    If you invade a nation pre-emptively, causing an unavoidable spike in death and suffering, you create a heavy responsibility to create a better future for the nation you invade. You have to make good on that promise.

    Absolutely. Not least of the wickednesses perpetrated by Bush is his refusal to contemplate real sacrifices in his own political position (eg forgoing tax cuts, a draft) in an attempt to make good on that promise. And the least the dwindling band of war supporters like C.L. can do to show they have some integrity left is to demand accountability – ie resignations – from the great and powerful who have misled and blundered at every turn.

    But what do you do if you can’t possibly deliver on that promise, even with draconian sacrifices? Because that is clearly the situation we’re in now.

  26. It’s a good question, dd. There is clearly a moral responsibility for the COW to try to ensure stability in Iraq. However, the situation appears irretrievable, and it’s I think an “unknown known” as to whether things would be worse or better if they withdrew.

    The real problem is the lamentable failure of the US to have any foresight whatsoever as to what would happen after the overthrow of Saddam, not the incompetence defence. Yes, the occupation was completely incompetent but it is at the heart of just war theory, I’d have thought, that you don’t go to war without a clear perception of what the peace should be like and a strategy as to how to get there.

  27. Iraqi public opinion is fairly clear:

    US President George W. Bush is said to be extremely upset by the results of a recent survey that explored the opinion of Iraqis three-and-half-years after the invasion. According to the survey, conducted jointly by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies (ICRSS) and the Gulf Research Centre, only five per cent of those questioned said Iraq is better today than in 2003. While 95 per cent felt the security situation was worse than before. The poll also revealed that nearly half of Iraqis favour an immediate withdrawal of the US-led forces; and 66 per cent felt the security situation would improve if the international coalition troops left.

    Their “democratic government” has even worse poll numbers than Bush:

    Full cooperation from the Iraqi government concerning the disbanding of all militias is essential for the success of the new plan. Yet, the survey of the ICRSS does not seem promising in this regard also. The poll found that between 84 and 91 per cent of Iraqis regarded the US-backed Nouri Al Maliki government’s performance as “very poor” in the implementation of promises, reconstruction efforts, dealing with sectarian strife, providing jobs and basic necessities. Only about 1.5-3 per cent of them rated the government’s work as “good”. This constitutes another major challenge for Bush’s new Iraq strategy.

  28. Rob says:

    The “let’s talk to Iran and Syria” construct is patently ridiculous. Not even the Democrats have bought it. As an option it killed the ISG report before it was born, despite some of its recommendations for internal governance having some potential traction. You don’t get anything for nothing in this kind of game, and the something Iran would have demanded was leave its nuclear weapons program alone, and for Syria, a free hand in Lebanon. They didn’t like being forced to leave after 30 years of occupation, and they still regard Lebanon as part of greater Syria. Ask anyone who participated in the Cedar Revolution.

  29. Rob says:

    Don’t know if I’d trust your choice of sources on this, Mark.

  30. Well, the centre in question, Rob, was contracted by the former Coalition Provisional Authority to conduct polls for them:,12271,1249701,00.html

  31. Rob says:

    Is that the same survey? There’s a discrepancy in the dates.

  32. No, it’s the same organisation. I was offering that in response to your concern about the trustworthiness of the source, Rob.

  33. Rob says:

    Some of these surveys can be skewed by the way they’re reported, though. It may have been this one — but there was one recently that AP reported all doom and gloom for the US — things were worse since the invasion, etc. — and right at the end of the article were figures that indicated that the majority of Iraqis still approved of the invasion. Which put the whole story in a rather different light. I’ve tried to find the link but google was not my friend on this occasion.

  34. Rob says:

    By source I meant the Gulf News, sorry, not the organisation.

  35. Yes, I see your point, Rob. Obviously the original survey and the report would be in Arabic so it’s harder to look up the raw data than with Newspoll. I’d be very surprised if there’s any room for skewing on the figures for Maliki’s government though.

    I don’t know anything about the Gulf News.

  36. wbb says:

    Gulf News. Well, it’d be Arabic, wouldn’t it. ‘d be Rob’s point. Knowing Rob.

  37. Robert says:

    Mark, I’m with you on the horrors of the situation in Iraq as it now stands, and how that is reflected in public opinion, in various countries. I assume the information we’re getting is a sufficiently fair balance of it – some sources go more one way, others the other.

    And I’m not advocating Currency Lad’s position on this either. But I do accept his perspective, and that the two perspectives: current reality (commonly spoken now) and projected reality (from C.L.’s viewpoint) are not necessarily in conflict.

    I say this also because there seems now a bit of a similar gungho attitude from those who didn’t support the war, as a general vibe – much, much less than the gungho madness of those who supported it, granted – but enough to wonder if there is merit in trying not to fall into the same trap the original supporters did.

    May I have another shot at this different perspective as I understand it from the only one visibly speaking up otherwise?

    It seems that C.L. is coming from a perspective which places events of the Iraq war into a picture which allows for all these horrors, as horrible in ‘reverse’, say, as the landing on Gallipoli – but that overall the good guys won the war and the world was better for it.

    Which means that from his point of view, the perspective which speaks of the horrors and failings is not unlike seeing the Iraqi’s as if they were Gallipolians – give me a second on that. I don’t want to raise any kneejerks on this. But check it out, in likeness of this sort: What you have is suffering in horrific style (not invoking scale here), whereupon those who suffered went on to receive the tremendous benefits after a longer period of time.

    That is, the Gallipolians as part of the greater picture had the horrors but the people they represented and/or were a part of went on to prosper.

    Translated to Iraq: those who are suffering horrors are placed in a longer term perspective to obtain tremendous prosperity from it.

    Now, in C.L.’s perspective, there’s even more value than that. He’s saying, in effect, that both sides obtain tremendous value.

    This is a blog comment and I’ve probably said all that poorly. And it’s a gift to kneejerkers for sure.

    But upon reflection, including the difficulties in C.L’s vision mentioned by knowledgeable commenters above, why cannot it be so that the Iraq war in a longer time will deliver prosperity to Iraq and the US? That’s the debate we now need to have.

    This means that, I imagine, a much longer term assessment needs to be made from those who can informatively provide it. That, if you like, is the challenge at the feet, today, of those who did not support the war and who accept the obvious immediate problems. As one who didn’t support the war, and doesn’t have knowledge as to the long term possibilities, that’s a debate I’m seeking to learn from, from you knowledgeable commenters.


    That said, these are the things C.L’s perspective asks. It asks questions of this premise: “that overall the good guys won the war and the world was better for it.” (That appears the end result of his/this viewpoint. This could be watered down to “the right thing was done, and the right result had”, but it speaks of the former).

    There certainly appears,in this/his perspective, that there are good guys and bad guys. Does this mean this perspective includes or, heck, is born of a personally inherent spiritual fight for a particular type of world order? Or if not, that this perspective includes a give and take from each so overall prosperity can come?

    Also: whose world is better for it?

    I’d like to learn that from C.L, as well.


    Overall in today’s circumstances though, it’s been informative so far, from all concerned.

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