Is Howard defensible ?
The few commentators who were suggesting that the Howard government did not (at the least) know the general facts about Australia’s collusion with Saddam Hussein in stealing $300 million from the Oil-For-Food fund, and encourage the AWB quango to do ‘whatever it takes’ to push the deal through, have gone quiet after the latest revelation that our intelligence agencies knew all about the racket.
Is there a coherent defence of the Howard government’s actions in helping Saddam fund his regime, including its military, while calling for, and eventually participating in, war against him? I think there is, though not one we’re likely to see avowed openly.
The defence is based on what’s commonly called ‘international realism’, the view that every country should look out for its own interests and the devil take the hindmost. As long as Saddam was in, Australia had an interest in trading with him. The sanctions and the Oil-for-Food scheme only enhanced the incentive: a country willing to subvert the sanctions could charge Iraq above-market prices and split the proceeds with Saddam. The Canadians refused to do this, and US firms had to be careful, so Australia got the lions share of the benefits.
On the other hand, the central tenet of realism in Australian policy is keeping sweet with the US. The Howard government was the most enthusiastic backer of war against Iraq, bar none. Apart from Britain, where the government was deeply divided, Australia was the first to commit troops to the “Coalition of the Willing”. The payoff was a relatively low-risk assignment in the Western Desert.
The obvious difficulty with this kind of two-faced policy is that of keeping both partners satisfied. Until the Volcker report came out, it looked as if the Howard government had managed the job, and it may still do so. The US Administration is in too desperate a plight to do anything, even if US wheat farmers are unhappy. We might even get back some of the Iraqi wheat market.
As I mentioned, no-one much has openly avowed this policy, and it’s part of the realist approach, particularly in its Straussian variants not to do so. While the true policy is formulated by the elite, the masses must be distracted with stories about WMDs, hypocritical denunciations of Saddam and so on. The obvious question, reading the various pro-war commentators is which of them were in on the joke and which were, in Lenin’s pungent phrase ‘useful fools’.
As the AWB story unfolds, we’ll get our answer. Anyone who sincerely believed the stuff they wrote about Saddam must surely condemn his allies and accomplices in the Australian government. Surprisingly enough, The Australian has done exactly that. A lot of others are keeping quiet, perhaps still trying to get up the nerve to make the jump. But I suspect the majority will swallow and regurgitate the government’s line on this, as on so much else.