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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

17 - A supporting role



Considering the level of its commitment, Australia could only ever play a minor supporting role in the Gulf War, which began with air strikes on 17 January and ended with a ceasefire on 28 February 1991. In responding to criticism at the time that Australia should not have been involved, Hawke and his ministers retorted that the war had actually begun on 2 August 1990, when Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and since Australia had applied UN sanctions it was already involved. But there is no doubt that the operations after 17 January were qualitatively different. Australian personnel were now part of an offensive campaign in which they faced the prospect of hostile action. Further, Australia was part of a coalition that was about to destroy much of Iraq's infrastructure and kill thousands of Iraqi military personnel and civilians; Australia shared moral responsibility for this outcome. In reality, however, Australia had little capacity to influence these events. Indeed Australia was not even told, until the last minute, when the opening air strikes were to begin.

The Australian Government believed that Australia needed to be involved, arguing its case strongly in Parliament and in the public arena, but it wanted to minimise risks. The experience of Australians in the Gulf War shows that the government had astutely judged the level of commitment necessary to produce the desired political result.

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