Iraq – the best story of the year

By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 17/12/07):

Never make predictions,” said the American baseball manager Casey Stengel, “especially about the future.” Alas, I have never been able to resist an invitation to emulate Nostradamus, though without developing the flair for ambiguity and impenetrability that has enabled his enthusiasts to claim that he foresaw everything.

So when, for the January 1 edition of this newspaper, I was asked to write 100 words of predictions for 2007, I embraced the task with diligence and as many prophecies as possible were squeezed into the space available.

So imagine my horror when I opened the page of predictions and discovered that most of my colleagues had deftly managed to offer the fewest possible hostages to fortune in their contributions or had written elegant homilies on how mad it was to be straying into this line of business in the first place.

Daniel Finkelstein noted that “the record of experts making predictions is not very good” and, hence, the best strategy was “to forecast that what happens in the coming year will follow very closely what happened last year”.

The first of these rules is undoubtedly robust. My favourite expert insights include “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” (Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943) — my household, incidentally, has those five — along with “who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” (H.M.Warner, the founder of Warner Brothers, defending the silent movie, 1927), and “All attempts at artificial aviation are not only dangerous to life but doomed to failure from an engineering standpoint” (the Editor of The Times, 1905).

The second rule works most of the time but is less useful than it might appear. It is no help if the event involved lacks a precedent. This is demonstrated by the distinctly mixed record of my own reckless predictions. These were, on the one hand, that Gordon Brown would be elected Labour leader unopposed, that Nicolas Sarkozy would become the President of France and that Steve McClaren would not be in charge of the England football team by December 31 and, on the other, that Hilary Benn would be elected deputy leader of the Labour Party (Harriet Harman surely has made the case that he should have been) that Jack Straw, not Alistair Darling, would be the Chancellor (Mr Darling seems to be striving to show that Mr Straw was the smarter bet) and, worst of the lot, that Barack Obama would not run for the US presidency (I blame Oprah).

And there was one more that defied the notion that “the future is the past” completely. It was “Iraq is more peaceful in 2007 than at any time since the 2003 invasion”. Not only is this essentially correct but it is the most important story in the world this year.

By any measure, the US-led surge has been little short of a triumph. The number of American military fatalities is reduced sharply, as is the carnage of Iraqi civilians, Baghdad as a city is functioning again, oil output is above where it stood in March 2003 but at a far stronger price per barrel and, the acid test, many of those who fled to Syria and Jordan are today returning home.

The cheering has, of course, to come accompanied by caveats. Security has certainly been improved, but it remains fragile. Basra and the surrounding areas, handed back by Britain yesterday, are not as violent as they were a few months ago but this comparative peace has been bought at a high price in terms of tolerating intolerance (particularly towards women).

Also, there is a telling contrast between what has been won by the American “surge” and lost through the British “slump”. We once boasted about the virtues of a “softly-softly” style, allegedly honed in Northern Ireland, but the truth is that the British Forces have been so softly-softly that the local militias long ago decided that we were not very serious about using our troops to exercise influence. The Baghdad Government is not impressive and what progress there has been is despite, not because of it. There is much hard work to be done if a constitutional settlement is to be completed.

Yet none of this should detract from what has been achieved in Iraq so unexpectedly this year. First, the country will now have the time to establish itself. A year ago it seemed as if American forces would have been withdrawn in ignominious fashion either well before the end of the Bush Administration or, at best, days after the next president came to office. This will not now happen. The self-evident success of the surge has obliged the Democrats to start talking about almost anything else and the calls to cut and run have abated. If the US Army remains in Iraq in strength, continuing on its present path, then deals on a constitution and the division of oil revenues between provinces will be realised.

Secondly, the aspiration that Iraq could be some sort of “beacon” in the region is no longer ridiculous. It will never be Sweden with beards, but there has been the development of a vibrant capitalist class and a media of a diversity that is unique in the region. Were Iraq to emerge with a federal political structure, regular local and national elections and an economic dynamism in which the many, not the few, could share, then it would be a model.

Finally, Iraq in 2007 has illustrated that the words “intelligent American policy” are not an oxymoron. The tragedy is that the approach of General David Petraeus could and should have been adopted four years ago in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s enforced departure. One prominent American politician alone has spent that time publicly demanding the extra soldiers which, in 2007, have been Iraq’s salvation. That statesman is John McCain. Is it too much to hope (let alone predict) that he will reap his reward at the polls in 2008?