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Howard Denies Troop Deployment Is Premature

January 23, 2003

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has defended his decision to deploy additional troops to the Persian Gulf.

Speaking on radio, Howard said: "Self-evidently, unless you pre-position troops you would, speaking hypothetically of course, you would have an enormous gap between when the decision was taken by the United Nations, or in whatever circumstances, to take military action and the taking out of that military action. What any sensible world community has got to do, if it's determined, if the peaceful diplomatic process fails to take action it's got to put itself in a position to take action."

In a comment unlikely to be believed by many, Howard said: "You can always bring the troops home if you decide not to take the action but if you decide to take the action and the troops are not there, weeks, months can go by and a lot of circumstances can change before anything happens. I find it extraordinary for somebody to argue that, yes, I would support Australia being involved in military action against Iraq in certain circumstances but I don't believe the Australian military forces should be given an opportunity to get ready for that."


This is the transcript of John Howard's interview with John Laws on Sydney radio 2UE.

LAWS:

Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, John, it's always good to talk to you.

LAWS:

Always good to talk to you. Do you understand that some people believe that you're premature in the deployment of these troops, that many want to wait until the United Nations make a decision?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know that a lot of people are saying that but I don't agree with them. I don't think it's fair to the troops to expect them, at the last minute, if we were to decide to send them as part of a United Nations force, or hypothetically in any circumstances, not to pre-position them is unfair to them because they're not fully acclimatised and they're not fully ready. The other point I would make is that you are far more likely to get a diplomatic or peaceful outcome if the world community indicates a willingness to take, as a last resort, military action in the event that Iraq does not comply with the United Nations resolutions. And it's very interesting that last weekend Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, said that in his opinion had it not been for the military pressure of the United States the weapons inspectors would not be in Iraq.

LAWS:

Well, all of that is probably right but shouldn't the weapons inspectors be able to carry out the task unhindered, shouldn't they be able to complete the task and then report to the United Nations before a deployment of troops?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think, well not...I mean...what do you mean by that, you mean before military action?

LAWS:

Yeah.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean, self-evidently, unless you pre-position troops you would, speaking hypothetically of course, you would have an enormous gap between when the decision was taken by the United Nations, or in whatever circumstances, to take military action and the taking out of that military action. What any sensible world community has got to do, if it's determined, if the peaceful diplomatic process fails to take action it's got to put itself in a position to take action. You can always bring the troops home if you decide not to take the action but if you decide to take the action and the troops are not there, weeks, months can go by and a lot of circumstances can change before anything happens. I find it extraordinary for somebody to argue that, yes, I would support Australia being involved in military action against Iraq in certain circumstances but I don't believe the Australian military forces should be given an opportunity to get ready for that.

LAWS:

Have the Australian military forces requested that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they have told us that if they are to be ready for all contingencies then they have to be in place according to a certain timetable. Now, I'm not trying to...look, I'm not trying to invoke the military to cover decisions of the Government. I accept full responsibility as Prime Minister.

LAWS:

But you're not telling me that the military are going there are their own request.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no, I'm not saying that, I've said the opposite. What they have spelt out to us is that if you want us to be ready for all contingencies then it's better that we be pre-positioned. But they haven't decided that they should be ready for all contingencies, we have decided that and they have said, righto, if you want us to be an effective part of it it would help enormously if we could be pre-positioned. I mean, it stands to reason that if you are going to perhaps use military forces they have to get ready. Their readiness doesn't come out of thin air.

LAWS:

I know, I understand that.

PRIME MINISTER:

This is what I find extraordinary about this proposition that there's something particularly heinous about the forward positioning or forward deployment. I can understand the argument about not being involved. I don't agree with it but I can understand that. But whether you agree with forward positioning...whether you agree with being involved or not, there is surely an argument in the name of giving our troops a fair go, for them to be pre-positioned.

LAWS:

Yeah, I understand that, that's why I ask the question, did they specifically request that they go early?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, they said to us that if you want us to be ready for all of the contingencies then these are the dates we have to start pre-positioning equipment and pre-positioning people and that's what we're doing.

LAWS:

When it was originally discussed you made it fairly clear that our commitment would be similar to the commitment in Afghanistan but this is considerably larger, isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the two areas where it's different are the possible Squadron of Hornets, that's the major difference. The other area of real difference is that we are providing some back up Commandos and Helicopters for the SAS. We won't have more people in the field, they will be provided as a very necessary back-up because the experience we had in Afghanistan and also in Timor suggested that in order to most effectively deploy and protect the SAS you needed a back-up of Commandos and Helicopters. We're not, for example, sending any refuellers to the Gulf and that is different from what was the case in Afghanistan. So the difference is the back up - and I stress they're a back up in relation to the SAS and potentially the Squadron of Hornets.

LAWS:

Okay. When did you make the commitment to George W Bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven't made any commitment to order our forces into war. We've had discussions and I've made that very clear for months. I've had discussions not only with President Bush but more intensively, as I've said, discussions have taken place between the military. I've spoken on numerous occasions, as has Senator Hill - and I can't remember the first date but I'll get it for you if you like but it's months ago - I said that contingency discussions were taking place between the Australian military and the American military. I said that we had stationed Australian military personnel in the American command structure. I indicated that Australian personnel were going to the Gulf as part of that command structure, or Senator Hill did some weeks, perhaps even months ago. I had my most recent discussion with President Bush yesterday morning. He telephoned me to talk both about North Korea and Iraq. We had about a 35-minute discussion. I can tell you and your listeners, J! ohn, that he does not want a military solution if it can be avoided. He is understandably despairing of the willingness of Iraq to respond properly to United Nations inspections. I put it to him that from Australia's point of view the United Nations process should be followed as fully as the circumstances would allow. I said that there was a strong feeling within the Australian community that the United Nations process should be given a fair go. I said that the weapons inspectors should have more time after the 27th of January.

LAWS:

Did he agree with all this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he took it on board. He didn't dismiss it. He specifically said during our discussion that he was seeking my views. I have the impression that they have not finally resolved their position. People make the mistake that George Bush is just hankering after a war, he's not. He doesn't want a war any more than you and I do and these people who run around saying, oh, because Howard's got this view or Bush has got that view or Blair has got another view they're warmongers, nobody wants war, I hate it, it's horrible.

LAWS:

No, I agree with you.

PRIME MINISTER:

But what we cannot allow ourselves to believe is that if we just walk away from this problem - I mean, I say to my critics, okay, we don't do anything about Iraq, we let the inspections go on forever and they will go on forever if pressure is not applied. There'd be no inspectors back in Iraq if it hadn't been for the pressure applied by the United States through the United Nations.

LAWS:

That's true.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean, people have got to remember...people who say, leave it to the United Nations no matter what, it was the Americans who reactivated the United Nations. The United Nations had done virtually nothing about this for a period of years until Bush went back to the General Assembly on the 12th of September and said you have got to match your responsibilities under the United Nations charter. Now, I think people who are so ready to condemn the President - and there are plenty of them in Australia at the present time and elsewhere - should remember that had it not been for American pressure the United Nations would not have been reactivated.

LAWS:

Now, if our troops reach the Gulf and the UN then refuses to back a war, would you recall the troops?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the question you're asking me is hypothetical and this is too serious an issue for me to hypothesise about.

LAWS:

You spoke hypothetically a few moments ago...

PRIME MINISTER:

About what?

LAWS:

When I asked you questions in relation to the armed forces and what their request may or may not have been.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that's not hypothetical, you know...

LAWS:

You used the word, hypothetical.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, yes because, well I was using that to answer a different question but you're asking me in relation to what the Government's ultimate position is, to spell out precisely what we're going to do in a whole range of circumstances.

LAWS:

No, not precisely, it's a fairly simple question.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I know that, but what I'm saying to you is that we are at present working with other countries through the United Nations process. I hope that works and we will do everything we possibly can. But can I also put to you John that one way of making sure that the United Nations process doesn't work as effectively as it might is for countries to be stating baldly what they may or may not do if the United Nations process fails.

LAWS:

No, but don't you think the people of Australia are entitled to know?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the people of Australia are entitled to know fully what the Government has done and fully what the Government intends to do, and until we know the final working out of this situation, I can't answer that question. Let me put this to you - you may end up with a United Nations outcome that is not black or white, and even Simon Crean has left himself an out on that. Remember he said last week that we're against any deployment, any Australian military involvement unless there is United Nations approval. He said except of course if there is an unreasonable veto. Now that is giving himself an out. Now I'm not criticising him for that incidentally. I rather welcomed it because I thought that was a fairly sensible thing to say. See, one of the things people forget is that some action taken by allied countries in recent years has not been with the authority of the United Nations but has been action that we have supported. The action taken by the NATO countries concerning Kosovo, the action taken against Serbia, that didn't have United Nations approval. And the reason it didn't have United Nations approval was that there was an apprehended Russian veto because of the historic closeness between the Serbians and the Russians. So I mean I can't answer that question yet because I don't know the full circumstances that I would have to take into account in reaching that judgement. I can't rule it in or out.

LAWS:

Alright. So at this time what you can say however is that if the United Nations refuses to back a war, you will not necessarily bring the troops home?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's a series of... that's a triple negative or double negative. What I'm saying is this - that because I don't know the full working out of the situation, I am not going to hypothesise as to what our response is going to be. I don't think that is responsible. Other people have the luxury because they don't have the responsibility. I don't mean that meanly. It's just a statement of fact. In the end I'm the person who has ultimately got to take the decision and it's a very heavy responsibility and I'm not going to make myself a hostage to a whole series of hypothetical statements.

LAWS:

No. Well I certainly don't want to put you in that position. But I think it's a very interesting question and I think it's a question that a lot of Australians would like to hear the answer to, but if the answer is not available then...

PRIME MINISTER:

No it's not a question of the answer is not available. It is not possible to give that answer unless you know the full scenario. And we don't know the full scenario yet because you don't know how it's going to end up with the UN.

LAWS:

No.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean you could end up with the UN where a majority of the Security Council votes in favour of action but one country vetoes it.

LAWS:

Have you made any commitment to George Bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have not made any commitment. What I have told the Australian people is what I have told him.

LAWS:

Okay. So there is no firm commitment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look we haven't been asked to be involved in a military action against Iraq. They haven't themselves made a final decision to do it. Obviously if they do decide to take action, they would not like to do it alone. That is self-evident. And quite clearly the willingness of Australia, the willingness of the United Kingdom and the willingness of others to cooperate, and depending on how circumstances unfold there could well be a number of other countries, all of that would be welcomed by the United States, but all of us in the end - the British, us and of course the Americans - we've got to see how it unfolds before the United Nations. And that is why I'm not at this stage in a position to give the answer to that question you quite properly ask because I don't know exactly how it's going to come out of the United Nations. If it comes out of the United Nations... supposing in theory you had a vote of 13 to 2 in favour and one of the two was a veto, does that mean that the United Nations is totally opposed to taking action? I don't know. I think a lot of people would argue that that is not the case.

LAWS:

What was the mood on board the Kanimbla like?

PRIME MINISTER:

The mood was one of quiet anticipation. Obviously on the part of some, a certain tension and anxiety. But overall they were young, mainly young men and women, who were looking forward to the experience and the opportunity. They appreciated the fact that I was there. They appreciated the fact that I endeavoured as best I could to explain, and I hope adequately, the reasons why we decided it was necessary to preposition them. But I was filled with great pride for their enthusiasm, their sense of commitment and their professionalism. And I had the opportunity of talking to probably a hundred of them and an equal number of their family and friends. It was a very uplifting hour.

LAWS:

Okay. Good to talk to you John Howard as always and thank you very, very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

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