By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 29/06/07):
There’s an odd myth about Gordon Brown. His views on the war in Iraq are said to be unknown. Whether the myth is put out by Brownites to hint that change is imminent or by wishful thinkers on both left and right who desperately hope for a new Downing Street line on the Iraq disaster, it has no substance.It is not just that Brown was a member of the cabinet that decided on war. There is plenty of contemporary evidence that he was a wholehearted supporter, rather than a man who acquiesced in silence. Two days before the House of Commons voted to attack Iraq, Brown endorsed the government case in measured terms on Breakfast With Frost. In cabinet he was more fervent. «Gordon launched a long and passionate statement of support for Tony’s strategy,» Robin Cook wrote in his memoirs of the last cabinet he attended.
In a dismal hint of his attitude to Europe – Nicolas Sarkozy, please note – Brown joined in the orgy of anti-French rhetoric that Downing Street orchestrated after Jacques Chirac said he was not yet ready to support a UN resolution for war. The then French president’s statement saying he would cast a veto «tonight» was distorted into an alleged threat to block such a resolution at any point in the future. «Brown spoke animatedly about what France was saying – no to everything,» Clare Short recalled in her memoir of the days leading up to the invasion.
Once the decision to invade was taken, the next big mistake was for the US and Britain not to hand the issue over to the UN as soon as Saddam was toppled. Had they done so, as happened in Afghanistan after the ousting of the Taliban, Iraqis could have chosen their own government rather than be put under the rule of an American overlord. There would have been no occupation and the nationalist insurgency might have been forestalled. Short resigned over the issue, but Brown backed the US-UK line, as he threw himself into the largely unsuccessful task of getting international funds for reconstruction.
The best that can be said about Brown’s line on the invasion is that he was not such a crusader for regime change in Iraq as Blair – but then no one in Britain was. The best that can be said about his likely policy as prime minister is that he is more of a realist than Blair. Having supported the twin blunders of invading Iraq and installing a western occupation, will he recognise the mess that has ensued and start to resolve it? If rumours that the new foreign secretary David Miliband had misgivings about the war are not just spin, will he press his boss for change?
Brown’s recent utterances are not encouraging. In his keynote speech accepting the Labour leadership last Sunday he talked of «learning lessons» from Iraq, but did not specify what they were. He talked of «meeting our obligations», but declined to say what these were either. He talked about «defeating terrorist extremism», as though this was the central issue in Iraq – a clear sign that he has not yet bothered to focus on the matter or have candid discussions with Britain’s top brass. They want out of Iraq.
Every report from Basra in recent months has pointed out that the city is in the grip of armed strife between a variety of Shia militias intertwined with criminal groups. It is a chaotic contest in which, in the words of one British officer, «we are just another tribe» – though the British have the distinction of being the least popular and most conspicuous one, hence the fact that they are targeted by every militia. Even Blair publicly conceded that there is no al-Qaida activity in Basra, nor a Sunni insurgency. So Brown’s point about defeating terrorist extremism is irrelevant in Basra.
The new prime minister should read the International Crisis Group’s latest report, Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra, which argues convincingly that Britain’s effort to clean up the city’s police through Operation Sinbad has failed. «Its tangible impact appears negligible. There is widescale diversion of funds and the work performed is often shoddy,» it says. «Today the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before.»
It is not surprising that the British military has pulled most troops back to Basra airport. But they still remain in excessive numbers, at just over 5,000, and continue to conduct patrols which risk soldiers’ lives for no long-term purpose. The death of three more troops early yesterday was graphic proof of that. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the British government has been holding its troops in Iraq as hostages. Blair did not want to appear to be letting Bush down by ending Britain’s part in the occupation.
Brown now has an opportunity to change that. He is a convinced Atlanticist but should have the courage to see that breaking with Bush will not do lasting damage to Britain’s relationship with the US. Bush would not be pleased by a withdrawal but cannot afford to punish or cold-shoulder Britain. Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands are loyal Nato members who supported the invasion then withdrew their troops without seeing their friendship with Washington suffer. France and Germany rejected Bush’s war but have warm relationships with the White House, although both Merkel and Sarkozy are no more willing to help militarily in Iraq than their predecessors. Why should a British departure from Iraq produce more anger than anyone else’s? Is this another case of Britain exaggerating its importance?
The US is not a monolith. Public dissent from the war in Iraq is growing, and the Democrats have largely turned against it. While Bush would feel slighted by a British pullout, the Democrats would welcome it. There would be no cries of disloyalty from them.
Some argue that Britain provides a valuable service in training the Iraqi army. But there is nothing to stop Britain from contracting with the Iraqi government to provide a few dozen trainers, as it does with other armies. The key issue is to withdraw British combat units and end Britain’s part in an unpopular and disastrous occupation at last.
This would be Brown’s best way of signalling change in foreign policy, renewing British respect in the Middle East, and demonstrating a new spirit of independence after the subservient Blair years. Withdrawing from Iraq would also win back hundreds of thousands of disaffected Labour supporters, the party’s core vote. On this issue, courage and expediency go hand in hand.