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Cut and run ?

June 15th, 2004

There’s been a lot of discussion in the comments threads over my (implicit) endorsement of Latham’s view that Australia should pull ground troops out of Iraq by Christmas. This is a reversal of my earlier “we broke it, we own it” view, and therefore requires some explanation. My change of heart has arisen for two main reasons.

First, facts on the ground. For a variety of reasons, the occupation is deeply unpopular among Iraqis and this unpopularity extends to any government installed by the Americans. The Interim Governing Council was pretty thoroughly discredited within a short time of being appointed. The new interim government has some things going for it, such as the international recognition implied by the UN resolution, but the reality that US advisors are calling the shots will emerge pretty quickly. Three months would be an optimistic estimate of the likely honeymoon. From what I’ve read that would also be the minimum time needed to hold an election (perhaps with an imperfect electoral roll) and generate a government that would have some more durable legitimacy. I expect such a government would not support continued occupation, at least on present terms, but if it did, there would be time for Latham to reconsider the policy. There’s no reason why we should accede to US wishes to defer elections into 2005 in the futile hope that better results would be obtained in this way.

Second, the illegality of the original war has been compounded by the Administrations willingness to tear up international conventions on torture. It’s clear by now that responsibility for torture goes all the way to the top and that the most horrifying examples, such as setting vicious dogs onto naked prisoners, threatening (and perhaps actually torturing) children in order to extract co-operation from their parents, and so on, were part of a set of policies approved at high levels. Despite initial denials, for example, it’s now been admitted that Sanchez approved the use of dogs. Of course, since thousands of Iraqis have been through the US detention system, and have been released to tell their story to family and friends, the policy has helped to inflame hatred of the occupation. But even if it was effective, it’s something we should have no part of. Nothing short of wholesale resignations and criminal prosecutions of senior military and civilian officials could justify our continued involvement with this occupation.

As this discussion implies, I’d prefer a direct confrontation with the Administration, backed up with the threat of an immediate withdrawal (and. conversely, a willingness to see things through under better conditions). But no Australian government is ever going to do anything like that.

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  1. Don Wigan
    June 16th, 2004 at 08:08 | #1

    Some good points, John.

    A story in the Oz today suggests that Major O’Kane, far from being complicit in obfuscating before the Red Cross, actually urged a more open policy, and continually argued for Geneva Convention treatment (against US advisers).

    The assumption has always been that O’Kane was gagged and then whisked off to Washington to avoid any Cabinet exposure on knowledge and inertia regarding the ICRC reports.

    While that might be part of it, it now seems more likely that it was to protect the trail leading back to US Major-General Miller and other senior heavies.

  2. Fyodor
    June 16th, 2004 at 09:37 | #2


    Your arguments are based upon the perceived moral and legal problems with the occupation, but we do not need to go that far to request the return of our soldiers.

    We committed our forces to the invasion, they fought well and they’ve been there for over a year. As a loyal and trusted ally we’ve down our bit. What’s the problem with them coming back?

    We only have a couple of hundred guys on the ground – their continued presence is purely symbolic, not functional (apart from the small number of soldiers required for embassy security etc.).

    The open, dirty secret is that Dubya faces an election in November, and is shoring up his political defences wherever he can. He obviously doesn’t want any implicit criticism from allies that choose to “cut and run”.

    There are already plenty of complaints emerging in Australia about US government interference (US administration attacks upon Latham’s proposed troop withdrawal) in our upcoming election, but what the hell are our soldiers doing risking their lives to help secure Bush Jnr’s re-election?

  3. Harry Clarke
    June 16th, 2004 at 11:01 | #3

    Taking our troops out because of the atrocities committed in Iraqi jails by Americans seems to come close to punishing the victim. Your last suggestion better — punish the perpetrators at whatever level is necessary.

    Insisting on withdrawing because the interim government’s honeymoon period is forecast to disappear in 3 months rather than 7 (forecast elections in January 2005) is unconvincing. How do you know? Is it a pure guess? With elections the Americans have said they will withdraw if requested. Sounds a good deal to me. Pre-announced withdrawal with a short-term time horizon just seems to be poor policy in a military situation where such announcements spur on forces that neither you nor I approve of.

  4. gordon
    June 16th, 2004 at 12:35 | #4

    Harry et. al. sound like old-fashioned Kremlin strategists arguing about what would happen in Iron Curtain countries if the Red Army were withdrawn.

  5. observa
    June 16th, 2004 at 12:40 | #5

    At the moment, swinging Australian electors are pondering whether a Latham led Labor should be taking a ‘we broke it we own it’ or their ‘cut and run’ stance. Labor can afford to ignore the rusted on viewpoints.

    The quandary for voters is how will Iraq pan out? The truth is nobody really knows. The problem with Latham’s current stance, is that Australia’s international reputation will be severely tarnished, if a Labor govt pull out early and Iraq settles down into a reasonably civil and democratic society. The accusation of ‘fairweather friends’ will be hard to deny. On the other hand, if Iraq turns sour with civil war, our commitment is light and relatively safe and could be withdrawn, after free elections failed to produce desirable outcomes. The key to this decision would be free elections failing. Any withdrawal prior to that, would be seen by democratic voters as cutting and running.

    Over the coming months Labor will face increasing calls from the Iraqi authority, rather than the US to stay the course. Howard can go to the polls as late as April, certainly after Iraqi elections, and could let Labor slowly cook under this heat. In fact, a Kerry win in the US, would make Labor’s stance, appear even more anachronistic. Howard may be in a win-win situation with US Presidential elections on this now.

    Latham could avert his personal electoral risk and the risk to Australia’s international reputation, by reversing his Xmas deadline. Iron Mark flies to Baghdad and on to confer with John Kerry(snubbing Bush and Washington in the process) and returns to announce Labor is now a reluctant conscript like Kerry, which will be reviewed after free elections in Iraq. This would satisfy most democratic Australians. Latham could then announce he would oppose the US FTA, until a proper parliamentary enquiry, because he doesn’t want to rush into this like the govt with the Iraq war, to cheers from his gallery. Having disposed of Iraq, he could settle down to fight on domestic issues. With his current stance on Iraq, Latham and Labor are now welded to that outcome. If Howard believes Iraq will only get better, the Opposition will be sweating in Grand Final mode for as long as he thinks necessary.

  6. observa
    June 16th, 2004 at 12:57 | #6

    Oh, and if I were Howard, I’d ‘magnanimously’ offer the Leader of the Opposition, the use of a military aircraft for the ‘education’ trip. An offer he couldn’t refuse.

  7. Homer Paxton
    June 16th, 2004 at 13:37 | #7

    I can’t se how any foreign troops can go if the leaders are fair dinkum becasue the terrorists will always be there (because of the war) until AQ is eliminated.
    Since the Gaol torture fiasco no allied soldier will willingly surrender because of the consequences.

    Iron Mark is correct when he assetrs we should go after and eliminate AQ.

  8. June 16th, 2004 at 14:07 | #8

    Whats the big rush to make this withdrawal decision now? Just because the invasion was pre-emptive, it does not follow that the withdrawal should be pre–emptive.
    Why not just wait till full Iraqi elections are held in January 2005.
    If the Iraqis want the US & Coalition to go, then it should go.
    If the Iraqis want the US & Coalition to stay, then we should stay. Pr Q seems to agree:

    I expect such a [Iraqi democratic] government would not support continued occupation, at least on present terms, but if it did, there would be time for Latham to reconsider the policy.

    Pr Q has not adressed the policy issue of whether the fundamentalists and fascists might win power if the Coalition withdrew. This is the key military-political issue, which trumps ruffled political feathers in and out of the ME.
    The war-party, including myself, helped to create this mess. But it will get worse if the fundies and fascists win power.
    I can’t get over the feeling that some of the peace-party (Pr Q excluded) are raising the issue of an early withdrawal as a political stick to beat the war-party. Even Pr Q’s comment revealed a certain amount of spite, although in a good cause:

    As this discussion implies, I’d prefer a direct confrontation with the [US] Administration, backed up with the threat of an immediate withdrawal (and, conversely, a willingness to see things through under better conditions).

    The war-party waged war for mainly power political reasons. I am sure that Pr Q would hope that the peace-party would rise above such ignoble sentiments and wage the peace for purely policy reasons.

  9. Michael Burgess
    June 16th, 2004 at 14:35 | #9

    I am not sure what John means when he refers to the illegality of the original war. Many positive interventions have not been supported by most of the international community. William Shawcross’ latest book examines such issues in some detail. Also, when the United Nationals can elect the likes of Sudan and Libya to its human rights bodies, stand by while a million people are murdered in Rwanda etc, and be obsessed with criticising Israel (when it defends itself) then the credibility of International Organisations and international law is hardly greater than that of Western democracies such as the United States and the UK lead by the impressive Tony Blair. On the popularity or lack of the war, the more progressive and secular sections of Iraqi society clearly support the war so I suppose it depends who you side with. Moreover, SH clearly had WMDs in the past and every intention of getting them in the future. Also remember if it was not for Israel pre-emptive strike, they would have had nuclear weapons by now.

  10. John Quiggin
    June 16th, 2004 at 15:30 | #10

    I’ll observe once again that most Iraqis want the occupying forces out.

    The poll doesn’t indicate whether these are “the more progressive and secular Iraqis” or “fundamentalists and fascists”, but since I favour equal voting rights for both groups I don’t see that these matters.

  11. Matt
    June 16th, 2004 at 15:35 | #11

    I and many others would argue that Australia’s international reputation is hurt by mindlessly following the US and that Latham’s stance would actually enhance our international reputation.
    The current US administration is hardly well regarded internationally after Kyoto, Iraq, Guantonomo, policy adoption of preemptive invasions and even the incidents in China pre Sep 11. I think Australia should distance itself from at least some of that.

  12. June 16th, 2004 at 17:05 | #12

    It’s nice to hear that Pr Q favours democracy for pro- and anti-democrats alike:

    I favour equal voting rights for[“fundamentalists and fascists”]

    But isnt this liberal piety a little facile given the current stakes and difficult choices? What of Popper’s paradox if democracy? We cannot give unconditional democratic rights to those who who would use them to destroy democracy.
    It will not do to brush aside the threat of “Fascists and fundamentalists” with something that looks suspiciously like scare quotation marks. These people are notorious for exploiting the liberties of democracy in the electoral mode and then throwing away the rolls forever. Nazis destroyed German democracy after one election in 1933. Communists did the same thing to Czechslovakia democracy in 1948.
    This is not an academic point. Their influence in recent ME politics is not inconsiderable.
    There are no easy choices in this matter. Ritualistic liberals, going throught the motions of liberalism, may well destroy liberalism. It is acknowledged that machiavellian liberals may do the same thing if and when they abjure liberal process.
    Iraqis are currently, under the influence of the terrorists outrages and US prisoner abuse, bucking the US occupation. This may mean that the US may ride roughshod over Iraqi public opinion for a few months.

    The tough question to answer is: will they be any better off after a generation of rule by characters like this?

  13. Factory
    June 16th, 2004 at 19:56 | #13

    JS: but at the start of the occupation Al-sistani was the leading figure in Iraq, nowadys he can be credibly challenged by Al-Sadr. I’m personally in favour of pulling out of Iraq so that it can be democratic, I believe that the longer the occupation goes on, the less likely it is that there will be a democratic, or at least non-oppressive, outcome.

  14. Michael Burgess
    June 16th, 2004 at 22:53 | #14

    Another point that needs to be considered is that if the self-serving French and vote seeking German administrations and others criticising the US had joined in with the US and their allies the situation currently in Iraq would now be far better than it is. A more constructive approach from these actors would have been to pressurise the military to listen to the likes of the US State Department more with their more sophsticated ideas of what is needed in Iraq post-war. Instead, the French etc are more interested in indulging themselves in anti-Americanism. Their is no doubt as Shawcross and Hitchens etc have pointed out interventin in iraq was justifiable and necessary and that the failure of the vast majority of the left and intellectual elite to recognise this has done immense harm to the future of left of centre politics.

  15. observa
    June 17th, 2004 at 01:16 | #15

    Personally, I fail to see how any democrat could fail to stay the course until fair elections in Iraq. If left of centre parties believe like Latham and JQ, they know that the best policy is to withdraw immediately, then surely if Iraq goes pear shaped soon after, they will inevitably bear a fair degree of responsibilty for that outcome. The only way for them to avoid this is to go along with the COW, at least until the latter’s time frame for elections has passed. What is seven months in the big scheme of things? Still, Jimmy the Greek reckons Iraqis won’t have ‘earned’ their national identity until they have a civil war like Greece(although curiously enough when this occurred Jimmy decided to earn a living in Australia). I do wonder sometimes whether this is a leftist view. What’s Greek for viva la revolution?

  16. Sean Kellett
    June 17th, 2004 at 08:30 | #16

    A couple of points:

    Firstly, the work the Australians are actually doing in Iraq: air traffic controlling and training the new Iraqi army. Maybe a case could be made for keeping the trainers there, but air traffic controlling? Surely control of their own air traffic is a sign of true sovereignty and isn’t this what we’re all talking about?

    Secondly, and this is hardly ever mentioned, Australia has already “cut and run” from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Have we already forgotten Mr. Howard’s “we’re just there for the sharp end (of the war)” and headlines in 2003 such as: Australia pulls troops out of Iraq and Iraq exit strategy paid off for Howard?

    This time last year Mr. Howard was telling anyone who would listen that “the last time I was in Washington I made it clear that it could not be assumed that Australia could make a big peacekeeping contribution”.

    So the proposition that Mr. Latham cannot put his own limits on the contribution without threatening the US alliance is hardly credible.


  17. Michael Burgess
    June 17th, 2004 at 14:01 | #17

    There are not enough international troops in Afghanistan to maintain the peace and deliver aid to outlying regions. So the argument that because Australia cut and run in that country it should do the same in Iraq is hardly credible. Oh and on the topic of Afghanistan many critics of Bush et al, also opposed intervention in this country. I have nothing but contempt for them.

  18. Sean Kellett
    June 17th, 2004 at 22:04 | #18

    Michael, you’re right, arguing the case for “cutting and running” from Iraq because we did it in Afghanistran is not credible. So it should come as no surprise when I point out that no one is making this argument.

    On the other hand, I having nothing but contempt for those leaders who reserve the right to limit Australia’s peacekeeping effort, yet accuse others “anti-Americanism” when they attempt to exercise the same right.


  19. tipper
    June 18th, 2004 at 00:18 | #19

    Unfortunatly, I can’t access John’s link, where he asserts that most Iraqis want the coalition forces out
    However looking at the poll findings shows the feelings to be even stevens
    “Should the new Iraq ask the coalition forces to leave immediately after June 30th, because even if there could be civil unrest and security problems, Iraqis should handle these problems entirely by themselves, or should it ask foreign troops to stay on, but only for a limited period of time?

    Total Baghdad Shi’ite areas Sunni areas Kurdish areas Non-Kurdish areas
    Leave immediately 45% 60 53 50 6 51
    Stay on 45% 33 34 41 84 39 “

  20. June 18th, 2004 at 23:38 | #20

    The worst aspect of the prison scandal is that an aussie helped expose the abuse,but our gutless military and government refused to confront the americans over it.
    What a pathetic bunch of arse lickers we are,but why didn’t anyone realise that nearly everyone had a digital camera and that the american trailer trash posing as professional military people had no idea about international or iraqi sensitivities-nor did they care.
    Why did the howard government not try to explain the way it is to the americans?

  21. John Quiggin
    June 19th, 2004 at 16:37 | #21

    On Tipper’s poll numbers, half of all Iraqis agree with Latham (troops should stay on, but only for a limited period). The other half think troops should leave immediately

  22. Harry Clarke
    June 20th, 2004 at 15:56 | #22

    The article by R. Al-Mahaidi in the Weekend AFR “Iraq deserves nothing less than total support” is interesting. The impression it gives is of an Iraq that is performing much better than under Saddam despite serious problems of security and violence and better than the utterly dismal picture painted in much of the media.

    People have freedom of movement and of expression (and are exercising these rights) and markets are operating free from government control. The threats to this developing improvement are real so, quote “Australia has a moral obligation to stay the course. Mark Latham should reconsider his position to withdraw Australian troops by Christmas and thus abandon the people of Iraq at the most critical point in their modern history”.

    The increased personal freedom from the Ba’ath Party coercion is not an abstract gain that can be ignored when one makes judgements about our commitment to the people of Iraq.

  23. June 21st, 2004 at 17:07 | #23

    I was in Cebu City, Philippines last week and I thought I would take a few soundings among the bourgeoisie of the city. These are people who one could, using a Lathamism, outdo any Aussie arselicker. To my astonishment, then was this universal rejection, even outright hatred of the Bush 2 regime. Not that they were concerned about human rights (shooting an opponent is not that big a deal there). Moreoever, they are all pious catholics, with a sprinkling of protestant fundamentalists. What they were mad about was the sheer STUPIDITY of the whole exercise in Iraq.

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