Defence Minister : "There Will Be No Victory In Iraq"
Australia's prime minister said before the Iraq War began that he thought the conflict would last "months, not years". He is sharp enough to not make the same mistake again when it comes to the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq.
While John Howard spent the two weeks before US Vice President Dick Cheney came to town lambasting any talk of a troop withdrawal as giving in to Al Qaeda and betraying "our good friends" in the United States, he has changed his tune dramatically in the past three days.
Howard has now decided he must leave himself the option of pulling out Australia's combat troops well before the United States does, and without their permission, and on extremely short notice.
This could be called the "Australia's interest" option, and the key to it may be an outbreak of violence in the troubled island nations to Australia's north, like East Timor.
"If we thought (withdrawing troops) was in our national interest to do so, yes," Howard said during a radio interview yesterday.
The marker for when Iraq is stable enough to warrant a total withdrawal of Australian forces has now been pegged by Howard as a "sustained reduction in the level of violence".Talk about leaving your options open.
So only five car bombings a week instead of fifteen? Only 200 executed Iraqis found on the street every seven days instead of 600 or 700?
The prime minister, and a stream of government ministers and MPs have been buttering Australians up for a withdrawal from Iraq while the country still locked in explosive sectarian conflict.
Howard now insists it will be up to Iraqi Army and police forces to look after their own security and to end the sectarian conflicts.
"Some level of (violence) will go on, yes," he said. "You can't establish, as a test of whether you ultimately go or stay, a situation where there is no violence at all.
"Some level of violence goes on in a lot of democratic countries."
True enough. But Iraq is currently the murder, kidnapping, execution, car bombing capital of the world.
"We shouldn't set ourselves an impossibly pure standard of non-violence before we decide to go.
"At the present time the level of violence is totally unacceptable, and until the Iraqis are able to contain it to a reasonable level we should stay."
Naturally Howard refused to be drawn on what actually constitutes a "reasonable level" of violence.
So the prime minister has now left himself two options for his strategy on withdrawing troops from Iraq.
Firstly, he can withdraw the troops through the wide-open "in Australia's interest" option, or he can claim that Iraq is only suffering from a "reasonable level" of violence and withdraw.
Just to help out his master, Australia's defence minister, Brendan Nelson, meanwhile, has declared "There is no such thing as victory in Iraq."
This means, of course, that Howard will never have to declare victory in Iraq before pulling out Australia's troops.
That "there is no such thing as victory in Iraq" will come as something of a surprise to US President George W. Bush and US Vice President Dick Cheney who were stating late last year that "nothing less than total victory" in Iraq would be accepted by the crumbling Coalition of the Willing.
"...the Iraqis who've shown enormous courage to vote on three occasions to elect their own government, they should be the inspiration for what we do," Nelson said, "but there'll be no such thing as victory.
"The most important thing that we do is to make sure the Iraqis have control of their own destiny, and have the moral fortitude and courage to see the job through until they're in a position to do it."This also puts the death-knell on Howard's previous claims that Australia would only withdraw from Iraq when "the job is done". Now it is up to the Iraqis to "see the job through".
Nelson waffled endlessly about "handing victory to the terrorists" in Iraq as recently as February 12.
If he now says that the coalition will never be able to declare victory before pulling out, then doesn't it stand to reason that the insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq would regard themselves as victorious once large scale withdrawals of American, Australian and British troops begin?
Here's Nelson's hyper-charged warnings about what a non-victory in Iraq would mean for, primarily, his own children :
"If the United States is defeated in Iraq...along with the United Kingdom, Australia and other thinking countries throughout the world, my children will face challenges that they will never overcome."
Ten days after that interview, Brendan Nelson announced "There will be no victory in Iraq" on the back of Australia committing to sending another 70 soldiers into the war zone.
The question remains why John Howard and his team of propagandists have so dramatically changed their tune in the course of just one week.
Perhaps it has something to do with the rumours infecting Britain today that Tony Blair was partly motivated to withdraw almost 1/3 of British troops from Iraq due to expected military action on Iran by the US and/or Israel in the coming months.
A sudden and unexpected announcement by John Howard that he is pulling Australian troops out of Iraq (well before the security situation improves) to deal with events related to "Australia's interest" in island nations to the north of Australia may well be the next big surprise from the prime minister.