2 MARCH 2006
As Iraq experiences its most ugly chaos since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Australia’s role in the whole sorry saga seems more surreal than ever.
Iraq is Australia’s Clayton’s war - the war you have when you’re not having a war. But we are at war and for the Iraqis at least, the consequences of that war are profoundly real.
I have long been fascinated by Australia’s role in Iraq, its media coverage and its political impact.
George Bush’s popularity is at an all time low. Tony Blair’s legacy is irreversibly stained in the Labour Party, Britain and the world. The lies and mismanagement of the Iraq War are the main political baggage weighing down these two leaders.
John Howard meanwhile celebrates ten years of office with no significant political fallout from his decision to involve Australia in the Iraq tragedy - nor for his propagation of lies to support our involvement. Iraq will hardly rate a mention as we review the past 10 years.
There is no better demonstration of our sickly democracy than this. Australia went to war for a lie, the war is a mismanaged disaster and our Prime Minister barely has to answer for his role in the tragedy.
Australia’s involvement in Iraq is of course much smaller than that of the UK and US. We have fortunately been spared combat casualties as well. Nonetheless, the symbolism of our membership of the coalition is important internationally and our contribution on a per capita basis is substantial.
A review of US and UK media reveals that Bush and Blair are brought to account for their Iraq decisions on a daily basis. Both the media and opposition largely spare Howard any Iraq based discomfort however.
I would suggest four reasons -
1. An Easy War - Iraq may be hell for Iraqis, Americans and Brits but it seems we are able to wage war there without loss of life. This is not discredit the bravery of those who are serving there. Nor does it suggest that theirs is an easy or safe lot. No, the easy lot is for the government that sent our troops to Iraq and the Australians who elected that government that rise each day without a moment of thought for our complicity in the mess.
The Australian news is fascinating. Most reporting seems to assume that Australia is not even engaged in the conflict. The government is rarely required to explain a strategy or purpose. Reporting on Iraq, usually by foreign agencies, never connects with Australia’s presence there and certainly never presents any Australian position on strategic or other matters. Despite watching the news and reading the papers avidly, I cannot name the place where Australians are serving. Nor have I seen any pictures or footage of Australians in action. I assume the same is the case for the rest of Australia.
So far at least, for Australia and the Howard government, it’s been an easy war. Let’s hope it stays that way for our troops.
2. A compliant media - Australia’s media seems largely happy with the government’s performance on Iraq. There are exceptions of course. The commentators you would expect to dissent do.
The contrast with the US and UK press is striking. In these countries, the connection between US and UK policy and the Iraq War is implicit in reporting. Rising casualties and large and influential progressive media in these countries ensures that Iraq remains in public consciousness.
Led by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the progressive US media still plays a big part in agenda setting. A raft of magazines like the New Yorker, Harpers and Vanity Fair provide in depth reporting on the issues. Even the CBS and NBC television anchors still have a degree of missionary zeal in their presentations. The US blog network is also proving a highly effective political force with some blogs attracting audiences bigger than city newspapers. Check out crooksandliars.com or dailykos.com
Progressive talk back and comedy shows like The Daily Show also ensure the general population gets some critical appraisal of the war.
Our own Rupert is there of course waving the flag for W on the popular FOX network.
In the UK, the classic stalwarts, The Guardian and the BBC ensure that the government remains accountable. The Conservative press doesn’t mind putting the boot into Labour over its war either.
In Australia, well nothing much happens at all. With the exception of the opinion pages, progressive press (SMH and AGE) has gone lifestyle. The ABC struggles on against the odds but is increasingly cowed by the government.
Meanwhile, the press that actually penetrates the wide community - Channels 7 an 9 news and current affairs, talk back radio and the tabloids maintain the illusion that Iraq is a far away war being fought by Americans and Brits.
Rupert Murdoch’s support for the war is widely known and this view is reflected in most news and editorial writing in his publications.
3. A dead opposition - Labor is a disaster. Kim can’t spend his time trying to out Howard Howard on most security and defence issues and then mark out a meaningful Iraq policy. Latham and Crean both lucidly and credibly opposed the war and took firm policy positions. Kim’s views on Iraq have dissolved into the noise of his general ramblings. Once again he fails to pack a punch.
4. You and I - Maybe this should come top of the list. I’m gradually accepting the idea that you can’t just blame the Howard government, the media and the opposition for the political mess we have in Australia at present. No, it’s a reflection of who we are. Australians have traded many of the values of our nation for their mortgages and economic prosperity. It won’t stay this way. But that’s the way it is for now. Nobody really cares about Australia’s role in Iraq - providing our economic and security comfort zones aren’t impacted.
But that’s where the complacency will end. Despite appearances, our participation in Iraq is not without consequences. Any honest analyst from Mick Keelty down (that has not been muzzled by the PM) confirms that our presence in Iraq increases the risk of terrorist attacks against Australians. Common sense would arrive at the same conclusion. And this is a war that was concocted only on a lie to make us safe.