Damned if you leave, damned if you don’t

By Martin Samuel (THE TIMES, 14/11/06):

START WITH the day it all began. On September 11, 2001, when American Airlines flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Centre, it wiped out a lot of human life between floors 93 and 99. Survivors almost exclusively came from below the point of impact. Those above, the 1,000 people on floors 100 to 107, were stranded. At the point of collision temperatures raged at 1,000C, all elevator shafts had been destroyed, emergency exits were impassable.

After the second plane hit the south tower, approximately 600 other WTC workers were trapped in the same position. It is suggested that 8 per cent of the people killed in the city that day fell to their deaths from the upper floors; most are believed to have leapt intentionally. In the north tower, the second to fall, the proportion that jumped may be as high as one in six. So, you see, there is not always a way out, not always a viable exit strategy. Sometimes there are two choices, equally unthinkable. Which, coming right up to date, is where we are now in Iraq.

Pull out, and leave carnage and a Middle East crisis far greater than any that existed pre-invasion. Stay in, and oversee the same. Pull out, and admit that our military personnel have paid with their lives for a catastrophic error of political judgment. Stay in, and ensure they continue to do so. This is not Hobson’s choice, because the customers of Thomas Hobson, livery stable owner of Cambridge, at least had one. Take the horse in the stall nearest the door or none at all, he would tell them. The illusion of free will, maybe; but still different to what faces us in Iraq, which is nearer to Morton’s Fork. John Morton, Lord Chancellor to Henry VII, devised a method of tax collection that also left no room for escape. If the subject lived in luxury, he clearly had enough money to spare for the King; if he lived frugally, he must have substantial savings that could be donated instead. Either way, rich or poor were forked; as is our coalition in Iraq.

The argument that there can be a no-mess, no-blame divorce from the chaos exists only to feed a desperate need for vindication on the part of those who took us to war, and those who supported the decision. If there is an escape hatch then we can pretend that it was there all along and our only fault in an otherwise well-conceived operation was not finding it sooner. The war was a success but we mishandled the peace, will be the extrapolation and like most of the positive posturing around this daily disaster it will be self-serving and wrong.

One of the main reasons to oppose the invasion of Iraq was its entirely predictable aftermath. It suits many commentators to peddle the falsehood that the events of the past three years could not have been foreseen when the basic problems were glaringly obvious: the potential for a high death toll that would turn the population against the liberators, the rallying of disparate factions around insurgency, the inherent divisions within Iraqi society that could only limit the success of any nation-building exercise, particularly as the country would be recovering from the trauma of a homicidal maniac dictatorship, sanctions and war.

The idea that Iraq’s post-conflict tragedy could therefore only have been anticipated by psychic wizards with brains the size of Jupiter is just another way of stopping us getting a lot of white guys by the throat and trying to shake some sense into them.

The upsides were foreseeable, too. The liberation of Baghdad, free elections, a death sentence for Saddam, but how do these isolated showstoppers weigh up when one random day in Iraq (Sunday, November 12, 2006) brought the deaths of four British soldiers, three American soldiers, 35 would-be police recruits and 75 civilians, found dumped in Baghdad and Baquba, bullet-riddled and hand-cuffed. The morgues are full. Nation-building, indeed building-building, is now off the agenda.

Bechtel, the company that received much of the $21 billion dollars for reconstruction since 2003, will quit when its contract runs out. Escalating violence has rendered much of its work futile. Hospitals stand unfinished; Baghdad’s seven million citizens receive six hours of electricity each day. Iraq needs 9,000 megawatts for its national grid; Saddam gave it 3,948 megawatts prewar; post-war the coalition has provided 4,400 at best.

“The country never stabilised,” said Bechtel’s boss in Iraq, Cliff Mumm. “It just went down and down and continues to go down to this day.” Bechtel had 52 employees killed and 49 wounded in three years, mostly locals. Many projects went uncompleted because the workforce was simply too terrified to return. In Basra, on one site, the security manager was murdered, the manager resigned after receiving death threats, a senior engineer quit after his daughter was kidnapped and 12 employees of the electrical-plumbing contractor were assassinated in their offices followed by 11 employees of the concrete supplier. Unsurprisingly, Basra’s children’s hospital remains unfinished.

Bechtel is lucky. Bechtel can go home. Those on duty for Queen or country have no choice. Parts of Iraq are now an al-Qaeda training camp. Others are under the influence of the fundamentalism that so terrified the West in the first place. What is clear now is that while coalition troops remain they will be a target for insurgents; yet if they leave, the religious civil war that will follow will be so spectacular that the reputations of those responsible for managing this region will never recover.

So we vacillate, wildly, pitifully, like those poor souls on the top floors of the twin towers, caught between one thousand degrees and one hundred storeys, clinging to the same doomed hope: maybe we’ll bounce.