By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 21/12/06):
Gordon Brown's first hundred days as prime minister have already prompted more speculation than Santa Claus. We assume that there will be showy initiatives and sweeteners for all, not least because he will be tempted to call an early election, in 2008.Today, no issue can be exercising Brown's imagination more than Iraq. The most dramatic achievement the nation's new leader could offer the electorate ahead of a poll is to get us out. Brown knows nothing of foreign policy, and always seems uncomfortable with it. Yet how he must crave a coup.
Most people believe that horrible things will happen after American and British troops leave Iraq, whenever that may be. This is why Bush and Blair are alike desperate that there should be no explicit admission of defeat on their watch. Yet there is little evidence to make us suppose that the prospects can be improved by military means.
The only plausible path to a less bloody outcome lies through diplomacy. If the Washington administration was willing to talk to the Iranians and Syrians, and work actively towards improving the Israel-Palestine situation, there might be a slender chance of averting a regional war. George Bush, however, remains unwilling to parley with people he regards as implacable foes of western interests, and Blair cannot make him.
This means that the presence of American and British troops in Iraq is merely deferring a horror story that will eventually be acted out, whether we leave in five days or five years. It is absurd to suppose that extra time spent on training local troops and police will do anything save make them more effective fighters for their respective factions when the showdown comes. Some American or British forces will have to linger in the north, to quarantine the Kurds from the mess, and to safeguard against Turkey becoming drawn into the struggle. The rest of the country, however, will have to resolve its own destiny. It is no good talking about Britain and the US "staying to finish the job". We are incapable of mending Iraq's fuses, never mind rewiring the country.
It would be logical for Brown to announce in the first weeks of his premiership that British troops will quit southern Iraq by, at the latest, the end of 2007. He could draw a line under the Bush-Blair partnership, and dramatically highlight the fact that he will do things differently. Most of the British people would applaud. Brown would signal the abandonment of Britain's cringe-making role as poodle to the most disastrous US president of modern times. Yet it seems extremely doubtful that Brown will do any such thing. From the moment he enters No 10, foreign policy advisers will crowd around him, wringing their hands and shaking their heads about the risks to the Atlantic relationship should Britain act precipitately.
If this country had declined to participate in the original 2003 invasion, there would have been some sulks in Washington. Sooner or later, however - especially when it became plain that the occupation was a failure - most Americans would have forgiven the British, just as they had to forgive us for refusing troops for Vietnam. Today, however, when we stand shoulder to shoulder beside them in the manure heap, it is a different story. If the British army abandons its Iraq one day before the US troops quit, many Americans will be angry.
This is what makes our predicament so humiliating. We are joined hip and thigh to the US administration, despite the fact that even Blair thinks its Middle East policies woefully mistaken. Bush's presidency still has two years to run. It is unlikely that he will preside over any dramatic foreign policy U-turn while he remains in the White House. His inner circle continues to urge him to remain true to himself and his convictions, whatever polls and doomsayers demand. They want to ensure that his successor, and not George W, is the president who goes down in history as having "lost" Iraq.
Although most smart military people oppose any attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear programme by air attack, the bombing option remains prominent on the Oval Office agenda. This is the problem about dealing with a US leader who takes his cues from God. Bush will remain capable of almost anything until the day he leaves office, which is likely to be after the next British election.
Here is Brown's dilemma. How big a row is he willing to have in order to extricate Britain from Iraq ahead of the Americans? Given his admiration and affection for the US, together with his instinctive caution, he will find it hard to be bold.
In the first weeks of his premiership, he will be invited to the White House, and embraced by Bush with embarrassing warmth. Few people, even those who hold the highest offices in their own countries, visit an American president without awe. It will be a hard thing for Brown to fly home from Washington bent upon quarrelling with the most powerful man on earth.
Yet there is a strong case for urging that he should do it - not stridently pick a fight with Washington, but commit himself to British withdrawal from Iraq. Sooner or later, and almost certainly while Brown is prime minister, the troops will have to leave and the bloody consequences faced.
Britain needs to realign its Middle East policy, not least on Israel. There must be no repetition of Blair's shameful support for Israeli action in Lebanon. The British commitment to Israel's right to exist will remain unchanged, but there is no case for acquiescence in continuing Israeli expansionism on the West Bank, nor for tolerance of Israeli military excesses. Whoever sits in the White House, America's support for Israeli government policies is likely to persist. But there is no requirement for Britain to continue to be identified with the great Palestinian injustice.
Brown has an opportunity to take a new direction - not as an opponent of the US, but as leader of a nation which must be free to pursue its own beliefs. Our needs and policies often march beside those of the US, which is welcome. But never again should we join a Washington administration in supporting actions directly inimical to the interests of the British people.
Today, thanks to Blair's identification with Bush, we find ourselves facing enemies whom we do not wish to fight, and associated with causes in which we have no belief. Brown will be offered a chance to break the shackles. He should take this, however much it hurts.