Basra is the Waterloo of the Napoleon of Downing Street

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 25/02/07):

Exit with honour has for some time been the British Army’s mission in Iraq. The phrase would be murmured over a late-night whisky by Sir Mike Jackson, the former chief of the general staff, on his regular visits to Basra. Here was another fine mess in which idiot politicians had dumped his soldiers and from which they had to be extricated with reputation intact.

Last week’s report that Tony Blair’s troop reductions followed an army ultimatum that enough was enough in Basra rang true. When I first visited Basra three years ago it was a time of hope. “British rule” was working and clearly welcome. The Shatt al-Arab hotel murals record the glory days when this was an Imperial Airways stopover and George Orwell could imagine Basra as the hub of an air-based new world order. Troops patrolled in soft hats and visitors could roam free. Even public services were improving. There was no sign of the northern Mahdi army.

All this success was blown in three years of Blair’s humiliating subservience to Pentagon policy in Baghdad. Even supplies had to be bought from Halliburton rather than from local contractors. A handover to Badr militias that could have insulated the south from Mahdist infiltration was aborted by Washington’s still-futile attempt to invent a new Iraqi army and police corps. “Good Iranians” gave way to bad Iranians. Civic order is a fond memory. Basra’s streets are so dangerous that the British have suffered 70 killed and wounded in the past three months of Operation Sinbad alone. The army has in effect retired to base and must demolish entire police stations to curb police terrorism.

Only the fantasy world inhabited by Blair and Des Browne, his defence secretary, can now claim the four-year British occupation of Basra a success. A country that can be patrolled only by air or in armoured columns is not controlled, let alone governed. Blair promised last week “to publish a plan to develop the port of Basra later this year”. This is outrageous. Where was that plan before the invasion? The one happy note is that when the British leave the Shi’ite south, it should at least be spared the fury of the Shi’ite/Sunni conflict in the north. Mere gang warfare will ensue.

The most serious threat, Blair’s poison pill to Gordon Brown, is what happens when one of the militias challenging for power in the south decides to evict the hapless Iraqi 10th Division from the British bases being vacated, to get their hands on their armour. Does Britain race back in? Or does it join the “virtual interventionism” of most of Nato in Kabul and stick to barracks? This is a wretched predicament in which to place soldiers. Swift withdrawal from Basra must be sensible, so the army can concentrate on “exit with honour” from Afghanistan.

Last week’s decision has given new impetus to the Iraq blame game. Pundits vie for comparisons with the Dardanelles, Crete, Khartoum or Afghanistan. Such efforts demonstrate only that in matters of war politicians remember nothing and learn nothing. What is extraordinary is to watch the same mistakes made in Iraq — basically waiting on policy dictated from Washington — being repeated in the Helmand desert. Browne and his defence ministry profess confidence in their press releases while commanders scream for reinforcements. To expect a British cabinet to remember Crete or the Dardanelles may be asking a lot, but they seem unable to recall the day before yesterday.

With the collapse of parliamentary scrutiny the prime minister answers for his actions only in press interviews. Last week’s encounter with the BBC’s John Humphrys was another eerie voyage to planet Blair. The response to any bad news was, “Well, Saddam was a murderous, bloody tyrant”, and to any criticism, “Well, yunno, I disagree.” Blair regards the laws of cause and effect as inoperable in his case. Remove the framework of government from a nation and the consequence is “not my fault”. If the ensuing mayhem leads to tens of thousands of deaths it is “not my fault”.

If too few troops are sent to restore order and thousands more are killed, responsibility is still denied. Blair no longer seems to believe that conquering, in his war on terror, is about governing, at least when the news is bad. Responsibility is a will-o’-the-wisp, to be grasped for a soundbite and then set free. Criticism is a job delegated to history.

Others are less patient. The latest attempt to trap the prime minister over Iraq is the demand for an inquiry, repeated last week by two former foreign secretaries, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind. But while such inquiries may have specific relevance, for instance into equipment or force levels, they are inappropriate in allocating political blame. They are certainly not going to trick ministers into that interviewer’s dream, “an apology”.

Blair has already staged three inquiries into the preliminaries to the 2003 invasion of Iraq: Hutton, Butler and a charade staged by the parliamentary security committee. He won each of them, with help from his friendly MP, Ann Taylor, now a life peer. But he won for a good reason. The inquiries were viewed by the media as hanging committees, which is not what public inquiries are for.

Lord Franks’s report into the Falklands war was widely seen as a whitewash of the Thatcher government’s failure to deter the Argentine invasion of 1982. That failure was unquestionably culpable and, had the islands not been recaptured, would have been cause for Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. Yet Franks exonerated her.

When I subsequently asked him why, he declared that it was not the job of public officials to do democracy’s job. It was to find facts and let the public reach its own conclusions. (This failed to explain his exoneration.)

I believe Franks to be right. It is hard to imagine an inquiry that would have made Blair resign over Iraq. If Hutton or Butler had concluded that Downing Street had “cooked” prewar intelligence on Iraq and, plague the thought, tried to scare the British people witless to justify going to war, Blair would have shrugged and said, “I guess you just can’t stop Alastair being Alastair.” As it was, Hutton and Butler behaved like Franks, as dutiful courtiers. The constitution should find other ways of calling government to account.

The most obvious dog that did not bark over Iraq was the cabinet. Almost all Blair’s predecessors regarded themselves as vulnerable to their cabinets. In moments of crisis this is the body that supports or topples a prime minister. It is the central institution of government, composed of the leader’s friends, rivals and potential successors. The party in parliament takes its lead from this oligarchy, as does the party in the country. So tight has the cabinet remained under Blair that it has held a hostile Labour party loyal to his Iraq policy. This phenomenon undoubtedly fed Blair’s sense of omnipotence.

While too much can be made of Blair’s impact on the constitution (or that of any prime minister), his electoral supremacy undoubtedly altered the dynamics of accountability. With the support of ministers and MPs his only challenge came from Brown, which was manageable. No prime minister, perhaps none since Walpole, has been so free of plots and threats to his position as Blair. He could do anything he liked.

There is thus no “blame for Iraq” to investigate. Blair claims the credit and takes the blame. Britain elected a prime minister with so strong a majority that he could overwhelm the normal checks placed on his office. At home he had nothing more urgent to do than press on with Thatcherism in the public services, but his craving for a world role led him to fall for the vague and seductive ideology of global neo-conservatism. It was an ideology that also captured the office that Blair so admired, the American presidency under George W Bush. From then on he was at the mercy of decisions taken in Washington. His inability to influence those decisions astonished those around him. In none of the 20 books on Iraq on my shelf do Blair and Britain merit more than passing references.

From the earliest stage of Blair’s bid for the Labour leadership, his aim was to establish absolute control through the leader’s office. Command, delivery, target setting, “Napoleonism” were the orders of each day. Centre was always right. What Tony wants always ruled.

The greatest irony is that the one policy that has wrecked his legacy is the one over which he sacrificed that control, Iraq.