John Howard doesn't deserve praise for defending his Iraq war legacy

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Chilcot puts pressure on Howard

It's for John Howard to decide if an apology is required for going to war against Iraq in 2003, says Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Courtesy ABC News 24.

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On Valentine's Day 2003, along with thousands of other Melburnians, I marched in the city streets protesting against the proposed war in Iraq. I remember it like it was just yesterday. My younger sister had come with me, and while I was a protest veteran at that time, this was the first she had been to since a land rights protest we'd gone along to as children.

So horrified was she by then- Prime Minister John Howard's plan to drag our country into a war that felt completely unjustifiable, she joined me on the streets carrying a "proudly unAustralian" placard. It seemed an appropriate counterpoint to Howard's continual reinforcement national pride and the problematic linking of this proposed war to a defence of our own country.

Back in 2003, we knew many things. We knew that despite the reassurances by the US President and State Secretary that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, there was no proof this was the case.

Former Prime Minister John Howard talking about the Chilcot Report.

Former Prime Minister John Howard talking about the Chilcot Report. Photo: Edwina Pickles

We knew that a lot of the interest in the Middle East region by foreign powers had more to do with the fact that it was resource rich than with ensuring peace; the Cold War taught us as much. We were certain that the war was illegal, and United Nations President Kofi Annan later stated as much while on the BBC.


And clearly, by the fact that we were protesting with so many others, it wasn't just myself and my sister who felt this way. The Iraq War protests weren't like the rallies I usually go to either; attended by a broad coalition of the left and/or Indigenous activists. I encountered more than a few people who voted for the Howard government there expressing their dissent. Beginning on the 20th of March the same year, on the day the invasion began, similar numbers participated in four days of action on Melbourne's streets to make our feelings known. Yet John Howard chose to ignore the voting public, and committed us instead to being a part of the "Coalition of the Willing".

It's telling that even in 2016, following the release of the Chilcot Report, John Howard cannot admit any fault in his decision to take us into the Iraq War. His composure in response lies in contrast to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's last week; possibly because this report puts the Blair administration directly in the firing line while Howard has the privilege of distance. Howard stated in his response that the Chilcot Report, developed over seven years and containing over three million words is, in effect, a report based on retrospective opinion.

Thousands protest on the streets of Melbourne against Australia's involvement in the Iraq war in 2003.

Thousands protest on the streets of Melbourne against Australia's involvement in the Iraq war in 2003. Photo: Michael Rayner

But Chilcot hasn't told us anything we didn't basically know all those years ago. That's why we marched.

John Howard's justifications for Australia's involvement have remained similarly consistent. When it was revealed way back in 2004 that Iraq did not, in fact, have weapons of mass destruction, Howard still defended his decision to commit us to war despite this being the major justification for going in the first place. Now, rather than examine how western intervention has contributed to that country's descent into civil war or its role in compounding the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, Howard has instead stated that he thinks "a lot of the chaos now is a result of a premature American withdrawal".

On describing Howard's determination to justify his government's decision, ABC's Leigh Sales wrote on Twitter "Watching John Howard today should be instructive for pollies - he's so on the front foot, taking every opportunity to defend his legacy".

Former prime minister John Howard with former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

Former prime minister John Howard with former UK prime minister Tony Blair. Photo: Dave Thomson

She wasn't wrong; he defended his legacy throughout this press conference. The problem is, he has been doing this all along and his legacy has become steadily less defendable over the years. As a Prime Minister, John Howard was a man of political conviction, holding fast to decisions his government made for better or worse. In the years that have followed; marred by continual leadership instability; there has been a tendency to romanticise the Howard years. It is wrong to do this.

Rather than praising his fortitude, we should instead be demanding he answer some tough questions about what this legacy has meant nationally and globally.

Howard ignored what was right in front of him in 2003 – shaky intelligence and a dissenting public – and he continues to do so in 2016. All those lives lost or ruined, all that money spent, and for what? The Iraqi people are no safer and neither is the rest of the world.

Avoiding these tough realities will only continue the harm, when what the world desperately needs is a firm commitment to achieving a peaceful future.