Tuesday 4 April 2006


The recent third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by US and coalition forces revealed the woeful state of conservative opinion writing in Australia.

I collect my media in a haphazard way here in Saigon. Sometimes I read opinion on the internet. More often I manage to pick up second hand editions of The Australian, the SMH or the Financial Review from the newspaper boys on Dong Khoi St. It was this random process that availed me of the following pieces marking the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq – Greg Sheridan’s “The Iraq War is a noble cause” 23 March, Miranda Devine’s “From Iraq’s front line, it looks like the media has lost the plot”.

If you’re familiar with these columnists, you could probably predict their positions on the Iraq war. Sheridan and Devine are dependable defenders of the Howard universe and supporters of the Iraq adventure. Their two pieces seemed, with precious little supporting data, to expect us to trust that all would be OK in Iraq and that it is a just and necessary campaign. Both writers fail to address the key arguments posed by the war’s opponents. Nor do they provide accurate accounts of the current realities.

The Sheridan and Devine pieces demonstrate the truly low quality of conservative opinion writing in Australia – predetermined partisan party political positions with facts tailored to fit. The referenced pieces exemplify the appalling lack of intellectual discipline and rigour that characterises most conservative writing.

I have frequently marvelled at Greg Sheridan’s capacity to hold down the Foreign Editor’s job at our only national daily while rarely if ever exhibiting incisive or fresh analysis. He gushes when referring to his heroes Howard, Blair, Downer, Bush, Wolfowitz, (past) et. al. There is a palpable childish excitement in his writing. (Take a look at this piece following Blair’s vist http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18646472%255E25377,00.html. )

He favours the US invasion of Iraq (perhaps it’s best referred to as past policy as it has few advocates today) far more than most US Republican members of Congress not to mention Democrats or the US people.

The core premise of Sheridan’s piece is that despite an appallingly executed post military campaign, “the Iraq War was the right war against the right enemy at the right time waged for broadly the right reasons.” He contends that there was no viable alternative but war. While Bush, Blair and Howard have retrospectively appropriated the “bring democracy to Iraq” rationale, Sheridan posits that Saddam’s desire to acquire nuclear and chemical weapons and to dominate the Middle East was in itself sufficient justification for war. His total incapacity to realise his fantasies is of no consequence. Harbouring the fantasies alone it seems was a sufficient cause for war.

It is logical that Sheridan should be arguing for a more urgent military campaign against a more menacing and much emboldened Iran not to mention North Korea. He does not endeavour to apply his dodgy justification for war to other international trouble spots however.

That Sheridan can make his grand case for the Iraq War without addressing the consequential strengthening of Iran drains his piece of any credibility.

Sheridan’s work always reads as though it has been written to please his US and Australian foreign policy mates. He shows just how out of step he is though when he concludes “Perhaps that makes me a neo conservative. So be it.”

Neo conservatism is on the nose the world over . Condi is doing her best to wind back the failed approach. If The Australian is a mainstream newspaper, is it appropriate that its foreign editor be a self avowed neo conservative? Imagine the outrage if a leftist equivalent, say Noam Chomsky, was appointed Foreign Editor! Where’s Gerard Henderson’s outrage at the extremist infiltration of our newspapers?

The low point of Sheridan’s piece is when he poses the question “Is it wrong that Iraqis vote?”. The suggestion that opponents of the war have an ideological objection to Iraqi or Middle Eastern democracy echoes Howard and Downer nicely but is not worthy of someone purporting to argue seriously about the pros and cons of the war. Pathetic!

The nice thing about Miranda Devine’s piece is that it doesn’t even attempt to present a coherent, fact based position. She asks us to trust that things in Iraq are OK as a friend of hers working in the Green Zone has told her so. Near the end of her piece that is typically disjointed, Devine suggests“ The anti war protesters who are picketing Rice might try having more faith in the Iraqis and the brave soldiers like my friend who are supporting them.” Of course there is no connection between protesting against the war and having faith in Iraqis or admiration for soldiers in the front line. These connections, like the one made by Sheridan are cheap, dishonest and intellectually untenable.

According to Devine, the media is painting an inaccurate picture and the reality is much brighter. We should be assured things are going quite well in Iraq because Devine’s friend has told her so. How so? How can the Iraq disaster be overstated?

It occurs to me the media does not sufficiently report on the depths of the disaster.

The media gives coverage to events deemed visually interesting like car bombings, mosque bombings and the various atrocities committed by Islamic terrorists and sectarian militias and the Abu Ghraib abuses. None of these are pretty stories to be sure. The reality may be worse. Any wider reading on Iraq paints an even more disturbing picture that is inexplicably ignored in the Sheridan and Devine analysis and rarely featured in any media coverage of the war. Some thoughts that come to mind –

• The enormous loss of military and civilian lives.
• The creation of a jihadist magnet and a fulfilment of an Al Qaeda dream by seemingly validating claims of US imperial ambition in the Middle East.
• The emboldening of Iran through the creation of a great Shia sphere of influence.
• Enabling the flourishing of sectarianism that threatens to descend into civil war.
• The weakening of US military esteem and capability as well as the dilution of the standards of proof required to justify military action.
• The failure to assemble a true coalition of modern democratic powers.
• An enormous diversion of military and financial resources that may have been put to any number of more effective uses. Some current estimates put the likely cost of the Iraq war at 2 trillion USD. Original Pentagon estimates expected the war to cost around 50 billion USD. (Australia has spent around 1.5 billion AUD in Iraq so far.)

In the US and the UK, the Iraq debate has transcended party politicking. Some of the most vigorous critics of the war are Republicans or Conservatives and senior military people. Take a look at Condi’s mentor and Bush senior National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft’s views on the war, or former Middle East Envoy and CENTCOM Commander, General Anthony Zinni who has just weighed into the debate again demanding the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld for incompetence. Zinni’s work is especially compelling. His critique before the war has been largely vindicated and his comments since are persuasive. His experience in the Middle East is extensive and he is a respected member of the US military establishment. Sorry Greg, his work seems to be more credible than yours.


He comprehensively despatches Sheridan’s dismal arguments.

As with most major issues facing Australia, the quality of the debate on the conservative side is woeful. Defenders of the war like Sheridan and Devine trot out their spurious facts and leave the hard parts out altogether. There is no wide dissent from the establishment as there is in the US on the Iraq war or much else. Howard walks from scandal to scandal without a bruise. That can’t be a good thing in democracy.

Some interesting pieces that demonstrate the emptiness of the Sheridan / Devine position –

Thomas L. Friedman: Iraq at the 11th hour http://iht.nytimes.com/protected/articles/2006/03/31/opinion/edfried.php

Gen. Anthony Zinni, USMC, (Ret.) Remarks at CDI Board of Directors Dinner, May 12, 2004

What turned Brent Scowcroft against the Bush Administration?

Tony Walker and Brian Toohey also had very interesting pieces on Iraq in the Australian Financial Review on 18 March 2006. It is hard to believe they’re righting about the same conflict as Devine and Sheridan.

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