Cabinet Documents Supressing both the Past and the Future

The government failure to release seventy-eight records relating to Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War should spark questions of the future, not merely solidify history. The return of this topic to the public domain is a poignant reminder as to the realpolitik of Australian defence strategy at a time when our collective attention points north towards China. If we view the unnecessary secrecy towards Iraq and Afghanistan not as an isolated incident, but as an indication of a long-term strategic attitude towards war, then the chance of Australian commitment to future wars without democratic debate or scrutiny becomes increasingly high.

Anthony Albanese’s decision to launch a review into why cabinet documents were withheld is necessary, if for no other reason than to further confirm what is widely known but seldom admitted—that we went to the Middle East to build and bolster geopolitical alliances. A 2008 report commissioned by the Australian Army Land Warfare Studies Centre, declassified and reported on by The Sydney Morning Herald, made it clear that our involvement was driven by a desire to strengthen US ties. Here Australian ‘national interest’ thus constituted attendance:

Howard joined US president George W. Bush in invading Iraq solely to strengthen Australia’s alliance with the US. Howard’s—and later Kevin Rudd’s—claims of enforcing UN resolutions, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism, even rebuilding Iraq after the invasion, are dismissed as ‘mandatory rhetoric’.

What should surprise us most about the geopolitical story that will undoubtedly be contained in the supressed cabinet documents is the ideological homogeneity of its actors. For over twenty years the Middle East conflicts gave rise to near unheard-of bipartisan support across the Western world; notions of Left and Right seemed to disappear into the sand as successive governments from Bush to Obama, Blair to Cameron and Howard to Gillard-Rudd committed to fighting the war on terror. Ultimately, then, it mattered not that ‘Australian justification for participating in the [Iraq] war was founded on wrong information’, because fundamentally the truly ‘right’ information was already believed to be known—that Australian security could only be maintained by following the United States. Such political ubiquity clearly demonstrated that the dominant neoliberal position was one that did not challenge the concept of Middle Eastern conflict, but simply its conduct:a choice between more troops or more drones, as embodied by Barack Obama.

As former Defence Department head Ric Smith noted, ‘the message from ministers by [November 2002] was that they did not want strategic advice from the Defence Department’, while simultaneously ‘The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was not asked for, and did not offer, any advice on the pros and cons of supporting American intervention’. In other words, there was an understanding, from the beginning of Iraq, that what was about to take place had little military value; it was the full embodiment of Carl Von Clausewitz’s description of ‘a continuation of politics by other means’.

Considering this mindset, it becomes unsurprising that the military failed to achieve its objectives—because there were none. As one commander noted of the Iraq War, ‘The hierarchy doesn’t know what it wants out of Iraq other than to say we were there and get out without mass casualties’. This lack of strategic guidance becomes obvious when, over twenty years and fifty-four deaths later, the military attempts to perform an autopsy on its performance that it is structurally unable to complete due to its professed apolitical nature. The self-sacrifice comes at the point where the Australian Defence Force (ADF) must openly admit military failure in Afghanistan, yet silently understand that while the war was lost, the geopolitical battle was won, as embodied by our involvement in the F-35 project, the securing of AUKUS and the continued basing of US land forces in our north.

Looking forward, it is hard to imagine that the revelations hidden in the seventy-eight pages will do anything but reinforce what Australia’s path would be in the event of conflict with China. Undoubtedly, the thread of logic connecting Australian national interest to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is stronger than what compelled us to fight Islamic terrorism in central Asia. Yet what should be most concerning is the likely political harmony from major parties across the Western world which will all but make certain Australian involvement, despite an electorate firmly on the fence. Our recent commitment to and involvement in US and UK strikes against Houthi rebels demonstrates our instinctual commitment to coalitions of the willing wherever they appear.

The Lowy Institute poll of 2023 showed that 56 per cent of respondents believed Australia should remain neutral in the event of a conflict between China and the United States, and while surveys from the US Studies Centre put Australian support for military support for Taiwan at 46 per cent in 2023—a decrease from 2022 figures, and notably less than both the US at 35 per cent and Japan at 26 per cent—this is far from decisive support.

Australia’s growing hawkish attitude towards China, as embodied by record defence spending and increasingly grim national security reporting, thus risks de-democratising our decision to wage war. Here a re-run of Iraq and Afghanistan is feasible; our government may follow the path trodden by Robert Menzies who, commenting on Australian involvement in Vietnam, stated that ‘it did not take five minutes to decide that when it came to the point of action we would be in it’. It would also serve us to remember that earlier in Menzies’s reign his own Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, committed Australia to the Korean War without consulting him, under the belief our national interest was immediately threatened by conflict in Asia.

The faux choice resulting from our immediate commitment to war would thus be embodied in a ‘war light’ versus ‘war heavy’ approach, which would serve as the differentiating factor between political parties throughout the Western world. Would you like to guard the rear or fight at the front?—with an answer to either permitting the notion of war itself to continue. In other words, the question of whether, throughout the Australian political landscape, there a de facto assumption permeating the entire national security apparatus that we will join Western forces in a war on the a priori belief it will be necessary to secure our own future needs to be asked. Those unable to consider any other options falsely believe that such a lack of imagination confirms the validity of the decision, rather than being a clear sign that alternatives surely exist but have been purposefully removed from the public debate.

It is the presence of this assumption that has most likely seen the missing Iraq War documents suppressed—an assumption that is only ever tacitly acknowledged to prevent criticisms of reduced national sovereignty. In the first instance, we ought to be prepared to call out the creep towards an already-made bipartisan decision to commit to war where the choice offered to the public is a false one; we deserve a say on the concept, not merely the conduct. Secondly, we should remain vigilant to the realpolitik of war that underscores liberal public discourse around defence of a rules-based global order. How else can we explain a loss of interest in providing such order to both Afghanistan and Iraq at the precise moment the United States did?

About the author

J. A. Ryan

J. A. Ryan is a former officer in the Australian Defence Force. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from UNSW and a Master of Political Philosophy from UPF-Barcelona, and currently works in the national security sector.

More articles by J. A. Ryan

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