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Selling the Iraq War

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In the course of reading and research for a paper I am writing in relation to the process by which Australia made the decision to participate in the Iraq War, I came upon an interesting paper by Chaim Kaufmann of Lehigh University, published in the MIT Belfer Centre’s prestigious journal International Security in 2004It is a solid read but well repays the effort. Its central thesis is that in the case of the Iraq War, and perhaps more generally, the democratic “marketplace of ideas” failed to deal with “threat inflation” and manipulation of public opinion on the part of the Bush Administration as it sold the case for war.

In the process it gives a detailed rebuttal (based of course on information available by 2004, not any recent revelations) of all of the “evidence” produced by the Bush Administration, a detailed account of the contrary evidence (and advice from intelligence agencies) that was suppressed, and a detailed account of how public opinion was manipulated – in particular why the threat posed by Saddam Hussein had to be re-characterised: the threat of upsetting the regional order in the Middle East was not good enough as a casus belli – people had to be convinced there was a direct threat of an attack on the United States.

The key take-outs for Australia are, to my mind:

  • Was John Howard a willing accomplice in all this deception or was he too deceived by our major ally?
  • If he didn’t know he should have – that’s what embassies are for and why we have very senior people in the most important of them
  •  If he wasn’t in on it, what does it say about the alliance and how do we protect ourselves from future deceptions within the alliance framework?

Whether he was in on it or not, I suggest that the episode strengthens the case for Parliamentary control of decisions to deploy the ADF, to avoid the dangers of “small group decision making” that military historian Robert O’Neill warned about in his submission to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee in relation to Senator Scott Ludlam’s Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2]. (Dr O’Neill’s submission may be downloaded from Committee’s website here; it is Item 5 on the list).

The published abstract for Kaufmann’s article reads:

Are mature democracies better at making foreign policy than other kinds of regimes? Do their robust civic institutions and a flourishing marketplace of ideas reduce the likelihood of inflated threat assessments and “myths of empire” that can lead to risky foreign policies and, in some cases, war? To answer these questions, Chaim Kaufmann of Lehigh University examines the 2002–03 U.S. debate over going to war against Iraq. Kaufmann concludes that the democratic marketplace of ideas failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s case for toppling Saddam Hussein—despite the existence at the time of information that exposed the speciousness of many of the claims of the president’s foreign policy team. Kaufmann traces this failure to the Bush administration’s successful efforts to withhold or manipulate information that would have substantially weakened their argument for invading Iraq. He considers the implications of this strategy for U.S. foreign policy given the administration’s preventive war doctrine.

Download the paper from here or read the paper on line here.

Academic citation

Kaufmann, Chaim. “Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War.” International Security 29, no. 1 (Summer 2004): 5-48.

Originally published by AWPR, 21 August, 2013 | 5:30 pm

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