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Cabinet papers: Gulf war boosts Hawke’s popularity

Guided missile frigate HMAS Sydney leaves Sydney for the Persian Gulf in 1991. Photo: National Archives of AustraliaAs his government’s stocks declined Bob Hawke’s personal popularity as leader soared when he took Australia into the First Gulf War in the Middle East.

He led his cabinet into an early commitment to support a US-led blockade of Iraq in August 1990 and three months later dispatched two more Australian guided missile vessels to the Persian Gulf.

On January 17 Mr Hawke received a phone call from US President George Bush and subsequently issued battle orders for Royal Australian Navy ships in the Gulf.

In a briefing last month before the National Archives of Australia release of the cabinet papers, Mr Hawke acknowledged taking Australia into battle was very much against traditional Labor opposition to the Vietnam War.

“But this was a case where people listened to argument and we had the advantage of the close personal relationship I had with George Bush snr,” Mr Hawke told journalists and academics.

He recalled the US President had phoned in the early days of trying to organise an armed response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and told him Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney​ was a reluctant starter because he did not wish to risk wheat sales to the Middle East.

“I said, ‘George you leave Mulroney to me’,”  going on to explain the Canadian had given him fine support when he led the Commonwealth fight against apartheid. “I rang Brian … and said ‘Hey Brian what’s this crap I hear from George that you’re not coming aboard. We’ve got a bloody big wheat trade too. He said, ‘OK Bob, we’re in too.”

The cabinet was advised that the “situation in the Middle East has the potential to disrupt global economic activity” and it was a necessary campaign.

Coming under a United Nations Security Council resolution, but with the protection of US forces, Australian assets had optimal security and a manageable expenditure of resources while also appearing as a “strong partner” in applying “international pressure” to a tyrant.

The cabinet was advised that Mr Bush might have a broader range of objectives in “restoring security and stability in the Persian Gulf” than Australia necessarily endorsed.

The First Gulf War locked down several marked transitions in international security soon after the end of the Cold War, particularly in terms of a new preparedness for international (essentially Western) intervention in “peripheral” states. The consequences, ranging from effects on the health of personnel to the mobilisation of anti-Western feeling, would be enduring, but were not foreseen at the time.

Mr Hawke recalled advising Mr Bush not to push on to Baghdad because it would break trust among the allies.

He said the US President agreed with him.

“Unfortunately his son did not inherit his good sense in these matters,” Mr Hawke said. “The second [Gulf War] was arguably the most massive strategic and diplomatic blunder made by any American administration.”

Mr Hawke said China had exhibit an interest in the Middle East and he believed China and the US should sit down together and agree on a process to try and secure a resolution.

“The simple fact is that the Palestinians and the Arab states do not trust America,” he said.

“But if the US and China worked together the chemistry will change. You’ve got to think outside the box on this issue. It’s been going on for so long. And while that’s there, it will continue to be a source for terrorist organisations.”

Cabinet records release

Cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 held by the National Archives of Australia became eligible for access from January 1, 2016. Information about the cabinet records, lists of the documents and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the Archives’ website (naa.gov备案老域名). Click on the “Collection” tab, then “Popular research topics”, then “Cabinet”.

Requests for access to records not already released may be made via RecordSearch on the Archives’ website.

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