Why the Iraq war
was right

Des Moore puts a case for pre-emptive
action, citing Britain’s going to war in 1939

Canberra Times 1st March 2004

"If you cannot rely on good, accurate intelligence...you certainly can’t have a policy of pre-emption" says Dr David Kay, former head of the team looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But you can - and should.

Individuals in their personal lives, societies in their group existence, governments in their nations’ interests, have ever tried to affect the future in order to secure advantage for themselves or avoid disadvantage.

Indeed, a chief characteristic of mankind since our very emergence, and a principal reason for our survival, has been the exercise of reasoned judgment about the feasibility and sense of taking action today to avoid the consequences tomorrow of inaction today.

That pre-emptive principle underlies such diverse activities as saving part of our incomes, building stockades to keep out wildlife, the Kyoto Treaty, and war.

Pre-emptive war was not invented by President Bush in his National Security Strategy of 2001, nor first put into practice in 2003, against Iraq. Britain, for example, declared war on Germany in 1939 not because Germany had attacked Britain, or was even on the move westwards - it had actually moved eastwards, against Poland.

Britain’s declaration of war was the result of a reasoned judgment about the consequences of doing nothing about a Germany which, though not directly threatening Britain, was nevertheless allied to the USSR and bent on taking over the whole of Europe.

Britain further judged that would entail, first, the loss of Britain’s political independence through German coercive insistence that Britain do Germany’s bidding, and then, ultimately, if Britain resisted German dictation, the violation of Britain’s territorial integrity on the way to German installation of a Quisling government in London.

Australia, in a like exercise of reasoned judgment, believed that, if Britain were defeated, with its navy at the bottom of the North Sea, Australia - not only because it was a British Dominion - would not long be spared Germany’s hostile attentions.

Note that Britain and particularly Australia, when declaring war in 1939, were not under threat of imminent attack and had no intelligence information suggesting they soon would be. Nevertheless, in hindsight as well as foresight they were surely right to fight.

The decision for pre-emptive war against Iraq was likewise the outcome of reasoned judgment, based on intelligence and assessment as well as common sense. The intelligence information has since proved (apparently) to be defective in respect of Iraq’s WMD. Does that in retrospect make the war unjustified?

Not at all, for the compelling reasons given to Congress by Dr Kay, including that if Iraq, even though initially without WMD, had not been dealt with, it would still have become an ever-growing menace to the security and economies of its neighbours and more widely, especially as Saddam had both the expertise and the intent to develop weapons that could easily have fallen into the hands of terrorists.

So it doesn’t matter that many intelligence communities, including those of opponents of the war, overestimated Saddam’s WMD? But it does matter, though less than the widespread under-estimation of North Korea’s and Libya’s and Iran’s nuclear programs.

So best if intelligence gets it right, and in time. And all to the good if the inevitable enquiries into intelligence failure lead to lessons learned. But we need to realise that intelligence collection and assessment are difficult and will never be perfect; and that coming to a reasoned judgment involves intelligent and prudent thought more than intelligence information.

Nothing is more certain than that we and others will be faced again somewhere with the need to decide whether to act pre-emptively. The Iraq war will have served our interests badly if that next decision is for inaction because of misplaced worries about intelligence failure in 2002-03.

Actually, the real worry should not be about the Iraq war’s beginning but about its outcome. Winning the war was one necessary outcome for our initiating the war to be justified. But winning the peace is the ultimate justification.

So if the new Iraq, whatever its governance, turns out to behave just as badly as Saddam’s Iraq by pursuing policies inimical to the basic interests of others, we shall have lost the peace - and with it, the justification for going to war.

The need, as always, is to look forwards, not backwards. We can’t affect the past; we can at least try to affect the future. So pre-emption where sensible, and with reasonable prospect of a good outcome, must not be ruled out in principle or in practice.

Pre-emption was not a sensible policy during the Cold War. But it is the only sensible policy in the new Age of Terror.