The chronicles of Saddam: Robert Manne, ‘The Australian’ and Iraq’s WMD

A heated debate over the war in Iraq highlights the need for better, more critical political discourse in Australia.

Rupert Murdoch's paper 'The Australian' was a strong proponent of the Iraq war [EPA]

Melbourne, Australia – Australian news media has come to resemble soap opera: there are those outlets that the masses flock to, and whose content equally strives to inform as it does to advertise houses. Analysis of world politics is especially poor – there is no culture of academically rigorous public intellectuals or specialist international affairs journalists as there are in parts of Europe and the United States. As a result, world news is syndicated from other providers, or filtered through the editorial of a select few writers.

Against this backdrop, there is currently a series of missives being fired between an Australian academic and The Australian (colloquially known as “The Oz”), Rupert Murdoch’s premier national newspaper.

The debate was sparked by politics professor Robert Manne’s damning critique of Murdoch’s Oz in a long-form essay entitled, “Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation”.

While the central focus of “Bad News” is Murdoch’s hold over public discourse in Australia as evidenced in The Oz‘s editorial, in support of his general argument, Manne employs a number of case studies such as “the history wars”, climate change and the Iraq War. In analysing the Iraq War, Manne pays special attention to the paper’s editorial concerning Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons (commonly referred to weapons of mass destruction, or WMD).

Second only to international climate change negotiations, the path towards the Iraq War was possibly the most significant international normative disagreement of the last decade.”

For a useful timeline of how the debate over Manne vs. The Oz has progressed since the essay was published in early September, see Manne’s blog post.

Why focus on Manne’s Iraq charges?

I would argue that one of the more salient – yet overlooked – aspects of “Bad News” was its assessment of The Oz‘s coverage of the Iraq War and its aftermath. Among tens of pieces of editorial, opinion and letters to the editor there were few detailed treatments of Manne’s comments relating to Iraq (see below for my brief inventory).

This is astonishing – not least of which because second only to international climate change negotiations, the path towards the Iraq War was possibly the most significant international normative disagreement of the last decade. Furthermore, Manne’s approach to the task here was unique, in that it remains the only case study in which he largely drew upon the editorial of a single journalist – namely, foreign editor Greg Sheridan.

For those especially interested in foreign affairs, in passing judgment on “Bad News”, the battle of Manne versus Sheridan is one of supreme importance. Indeed these are two exceptionally prominent political commentators; Manne draws attention to his having “twice being voted Australia’s leading public intellectual”, and Greg Sheridan is self-styled as “the most influential foreign affairs analyst in Australian journalism”, down a rung or two from his now-defunct blog, where he purported to be “the most influential foreign affairs commentator in Australia”.

Manne’s Iraq

Overall, Manne provides an acceptable account of the Iraq War and the absence of any verifiable WMD stores – his reasoning able and willing, to benefit from hindsight. And so it is precisely this willingness to critically evaluate information before publishing that leads Manne to rightfully maintain that, “it is not so much… support [for the Iraq War] but its tone that is significant and revealing”.

In so doing, Manne catches Sheridan several times barracking for the invasion of Iraq, regardless of his commentary’s clarity of thought, the logic of his reasoning, or its adherence to generally held international norms.

For instance, Manne cites Sheridan declaring that Hans Blix – who had served as head of the international nuclear body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for more than 16 years before assuming the role of chief weapons inspector to Iraq at the time of the invasion – was performing inspections that were simply “not workable”, given the underhandedness of Saddam. And more worryingly still, he finds instances where Sheridan’s understanding of Middle Eastern politics is found wanting, such as his repeated claim that bin Laden’s terrorist group would unquestionably be provided WMD by Saddam, his longstanding and mutual foe.

However, it must be said, in pursuit of the literary form, Manne’s reasoning trips over a number of brave assertions such as: “The key facts concerning Iraq were these” and “The argument of the war party in Washington went like this”. At other times, Manne states quite plainly that, “Iraq possessed no WMD” and later, “September 11 was exclusively the work of al-Qaeda”.

Manne might have more cautiously stated that there were no operational WMDs found in Iraq. Or that, of those biological and chemical facilities and expertise that did exist in Iraq, none posed an imminent threat to US, regional or international security at the time of the invasion.

For surely WMD must be seen as, at the very least, two groups of weapons – nuclear, which were almost without question not present in Iraq by all sound intelligence leading up to the 2003 invasion, and biological and chemical, which are far more accessibly acquired and covertly carried out either as clandestine military or civilian operations (especially in the case of biological agents).

Similarly, Manne may have gone further to make clear that Saddam, as alleged, was neither funding nor supplying al-Qaeda to obtain any form of WMD capability as had been variously alleged by Sheridan.

However, overall Manne makes no gaffe significant enough to disentangle the thread of his argument: that “the task of journalists was to inform citizens of its content and to pose critical questions”, a role Manne argues that Sheridan seldom performs.

Sheridan’s Iraq

Greg Sheridan’s immediate response in the days following the publication of “Bad News” was needlessly emotive. Despite Manne reserving some of his harshest assessments for Sheridan, he surely must expect at least some questioning of his now untenable position on Iraq from other commentators.

Indeed, for one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals to engage one of its most prominent media personalities should not be viewed as undue antagonism. Sheridan is, after all, the one journalist with unrivalled access to the key decision-makers on Iraq – as he claims in a 2004 editorial, since removed from the online version of The Australian, entitled “In the Lair of the Wolf”:

There is a core of faith in the Bush administration…that the US-led coalition will prevail in Iraq. And I am sitting in the office of Optimism Central, here in the Pentagon where Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, chief intellectual architect of the Iraq invasion and high priest of the neo-conservatives, sits.

Sheridan’s response is laden with insults to Manne’s personality and politics, not befitting either a high-profile journalist or a longstanding and exceptionally ‘public’ professor.”

An arm’s length reading of “Bad News” suggests Manne was in fact promoting an intellectual engagement – not just with Sheridan, but Murdoch and The Australian. To be sure, he did err, but the overriding motive for his critique is what he sees as lost potential for a national and well-funded newspaper such as The Australian, a task he seemingly performs out of a personal commitment to national debate.

In my view, having grossly misread the situation, Sheridan’s response is laden with insults to Manne’s personality and politics, not befitting either a high-profile journalist or a longstanding and exceptionally “public” professor.

Where a line of argument does exist within Sheridan’s response, it is to claim that Manne has employed “dishonesty and misrepresentation” when critiquing his views on Iraq and Saddam’s WMD proliferation. However, if Sheridan expected broad support for this contention, he might well have developed a sustained and reasoned argument, rather than summarily dismiss it in his opening as nothing more than a “40,000-word tweet”.

Instead, few errors in Manne’s Iraq narrative are put forward. No concessions or clarifications are made on earlier opinions. No battery of evidence is given to support his previous statements.

It is therefore difficult to engage Sheridan on his WMD narrative, since it is based on the unshakable demand that Saddam had to prove that he did not have the WMD his government had long told the weapons inspectors he did not have:

The only world leader who practised big deception over this issue was thus Saddam… It was Saddam who intentionally convinced the world that he had WMDs so the coalition had to act on that assumption.

This is, as Manne at one point suggests, where Sheridan’s commentary does the greatest harm to national debate – his editorial is not presented as opinion, it is argued as if rampantly obvious fact.

For instance, on Sheridan’s now-defunct blog he discussed Iran’s nuclear situation in 2008 in the plainest of terms:

So at this moment, in the second half of 2008, does the Rice side of Bush or the Cheney side win the argument on Iran? I think anyone who pronounces dogmatically on that question doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

I would expect many final undergraduates and graduate students would “fail” to answer that question the way Sheridan expects.

In his response to Manne, Sheridan appears to seize on what he sees as an opportunity to intellectually disrobe Manne by highlighting supposed semantic fetishes of the academe:

It is odd that Manne calls Australian foreign policy neo-conservative. No one else uses this meaningless term regarding Australia.

There are, in fact, a number of neo-con think-tanks operating in Australia, regardless of whether they are labelled as such on their organisational websites. So this swipe does nothing to restore Sheridan’s foreign affairs credibility.

To see Sheridan write in more discursive and apologetic terrain is exceptionally rare. One of the most delicate is:

No doubt Western intelligence overestimated Iraq’s WMD stores, but it was not a deliberate deception, as repeated inquiries in the US, Britain and Australia established.

To follow was no suggestion of his campaign of misinformation on Iraq and the state of regional WMD leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq.

One of the most telling examples of Sheridan’s logic is an obscure blog post reflecting on the execution of Saddam, in which he asserts that “all human beings are entitled to dignity and respect”, and yet he goes on to suggest that:

There is no hypocrisy in opposing capital punishment in Australia and supporting the due process of law in Iraq as applied to Saddam Hussein and his most senior henchmen.

This may not be hypocrisy, but Sheridan is employing a notion of harm that is based on rather crude distinctions between what is permissible for “us” as opposed to “them”. This is, however, one of the more tender of his attempts at moral absolutism, usefully catalogued by a couple of academics at the University of Queensland.

Alarmingly, just 14 months later, Sheridan’s views appear to have hardened, such that in one of many blog posts on the “extremist, terrorist, Islamist and totalitarian” nature of Hamas, he reasons that:

Yet one virtue of the word ‘war’ is that it forces us to understand that there is an actual enemy, not a sociological tendency, but a living, breathing, intelligent, resourceful enemy, determined on our destruction.

To the extent which Sheridan now sees Manne as his primary “enemy”, we should never have expected an intellectual engagement based on meaningful dialogue.

Which brings me to discuss the more general response to “Bad News” in the media, and as evidenced in letters-to-the-editor and on the blogosphere.

The public response

Despite the many editorials and letters to the editor dedicated to one or other of Manne’s arguments in “Bad News”, I could find only a small handful that directly address his Iraq argument. My review is taken largely from those items catalogued on The Oz‘s website or Manne’s list:

  • The Oz‘s editor-at-large Paul Kelly kicked off by (one assumes) inadvertently sacrificing Sheridan when he conceded Manne’s section on Iraq was the only “serious critique” in “Bad News”.
  • Kelly goes on to focus predominately on the charge that Murdoch personally shaped the paper’s editorial of the Iraq War, which is curiously limited to the unrelated issue of published independent opinion: “While damning the paper’s position on the Iraq war he notes the pluralism on the op-ed page with articles for and against the war. How does this square with the tyrant’s dictates?”
  • In a letter to the editor days later, a Mr Grant Gascoigne of Mitchelton, Queensland, appears to echo some of Kelly’s sentiments: “Rather than attacking each journalist separately, Manne used Greg Sheridan’s take on the Iraq war as an example and then moved on to attacking the general editorial line. That seems to me a more important issue than what individual journalists or commentators might write.”
  • Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell weighed in by relating the US-led invasion to the Arab Spring. To capture the madness of that contention, I quote Mitchell in full: “His discussion of Iraq is untroubled by any understanding of the links between Saddam Hussein’s overthrow and the democratic upwelling across the Arab world all this year.”
  • Mitchell makes no reference to where Sheridan expounds on the idea that the Saddam’s removal by the West is “link[ed]” to the people’s uprisings elsewhere in the region eight years later.
  • Journalist Chris Kenny goes to some effort of quarantining Manne’s Iraq critique to “The Australian‘s editorial support for war”, but not before asserting that Manne’s is a “street-protest narrative of a war based on nonexistent WMD”. Here too, no defence is made of Sheridan whom Kelly first said was “attacked” by Manne.
  • Alarmingly, Kenny repeats Mitchell’s claim that, “the liberation of the Iraqi people, their nascent democracy, the emergence of popular revolts in the Arab world and global co-operation against terrorism and WMD proliferation all are supporting arguments and must be judged against the US giving Saddam Hussein a propaganda victory and leaving him with his WMD ambitions. Manne has no time for such nuanced real-world debate”.

To my understanding, no arms control or international relations specialists have commented on the debate between Manne and Sheridan. I will therefore give some preliminary thoughts in closing.

Adjudicating Manne versus The Oz

On reflecting on Manne and Sheridan’s public stoush, I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s opening to his monograph Iraq: The borrowed kettle, in which he relates neo-con logic to the work of Freud.

Detailing the strange logic of dreams, at one point Freud evoked the fable about a man who is accused of returning a neighbour’s kettle in a broken condition. As Freud retells it, the man offers three arguments in his defence:

In the first place, he said, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all.

This complicated defence – should one of the reasons be accepted as valid – expertly acquits the man of any wrongdoing. However, it also merely confirms, by implication of his negotiating, precisely what the man sought to deny: that he returned a broken kettle.

In the same way, what Manne attempts to show in “Bad News” is that the bar The Australian set for Iraq was unfairly high: it’s not enough to have no WMD, Saddam must prove he has no WMD, because if he doesn’t, the West must invade and make him publicly destroy the stores he surely has.

However, Manne digresses from what I believe should have been this singular aim.

Manne frustrates with his persistent use of needless political descriptors for each of the columnists, such as “neo-conservative”, “conservative” and even “right-wing intellectual smart-aleck”.

In reply, Sheridan missed his opportunity to highlight Manne’s pedanticism, instead focusing on only his being labelled at home with Bush’s neo-cons – a term Sheridan curiously asserts is not relevant in Australia.

Manne’s Iraq analysis could also have benefited from being more focused on the form and content of The Oz‘s editorial alongside what specialist international law and arms control experts such as the Carnegie Endowment or Ploughshares were arguing at the time – as he does when focusing on key elements of Blair’s 2002 report, Hans Blix’s report as then-UN weapons inspector, or the findings of the United Kingdom’s Iraq inquiry.

In response, Sheridan may have instead risen above any perceived personal “attack” and more robustly rebutted Manne’s contention that his editorial was polemic and misjudged mostly his own words.

The Oz might be wise to begin responding to criticism in the spirit in which it is given.”

One feels Manne may have better baited Sheridan into an intellectual debate by more systematically identifying instances where Sheridan’s editorial fails to account for the actual workings of the international system. Instead Manne merely highlights instances of where Sheridan’s editorial differs from reality. There is a difference. For instance, Manne may have gone further in discussing Sheridan’s assertion that United Nations Security Council support was “noble” given its requirement under international law, or where Sheridan claims that UN weapons “inspections are not workable” and are easily led “away from the regime’s laboratories and weapons dumps”, which displayed a supreme misunderstanding of how UN and IAEA inspections function.

In Sheridan’s defence, journalists are surely fed inaccurate and dishonest material daily, and must make judgments by the hour. Put another way, Manne suggests that he took 12 months to research, reflect and draft “Bad News” (along with other projects and demands, I’m sure). Journalists such as Sheridan might produce 40,000 words in a single month.

Furthermore, I imagine the task of writing editorial is considerably more demanding than daily news reportage – one’s personality must be at the fore, time demands hinder-free thinking, and the copy must expound on ideas, not merely rest on supposed “facts”.

I suspect Sheridan especially drew the ire of Manne because he has never been up for the task of independent thought – he instead displays unashamed lack of critical judgment, woeful marshalling of evidence, failure to credit others for use of their ideas, masking of beliefs and ideas as objective facts, repetitive use of selective sources, and shoddy reasoning.

Despite Manne’s narrative on Iraq straying at times, overall he sustains a well-reasoned argument that identifies considerable evidence that questions the ongoing narrative of The Australian‘s editorial on Iraq and Saddam’s alleged WMD proliferation.

The Oz might be wise to begin responding to criticism in the spirit in which it is given. Apart from Manne’s damning assessment of Sheridan, his overall tone and intention is clearly an impassioned plea for greater political debate in Australia, and an explicit recognition that a critical thinking and adaptive news media must be at its centre.

NAJ Taylor is a doctoral researcher and tutor in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He is presently the recipient of a three-year Australian Postgraduate Award, funded by the Commonwealth government’s Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

Follow him on Twitter: @najtaylor or Facebook: /najtaylor