By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 30/05/07):
The Iraq inferno refuses to die down. Gordon Brown, Britain’s forthcoming prime minister, is currently promoting his book on “courage” at various literary and Labour party venues. In both Bristol and Hay-on-Wye the question was raised: if he were really courageous, why did he not admit that Iraq was a mistake? It is one thing to admit, as he has, that “mistakes have been made”, but that is hardly controversial. What of all those leaks and murmurs that he was really against the war?
If Brown really had courage he would have opposed it when doing so might have meant something, when he and most cabinet and party colleagues knew it was a mistake back in 2003. He could have told Tony Blair that there was no remotely plausible evidence to support an unprovoked military invasion and mobilised the party to prevent it. That he did not do so denies him the right now to distance himself from “mistakes”. As the second most powerful man in the cabinet, he could have stopped this war and did not do so. Now it is emphatically his war. Like yesterday’s Baghdad kidnapping of Britons, not a day passes without it yielding ghastly news.
Blair, in my view, had genuine reservations about Iraq but, like a cab-rank lawyer, overcame them because he had accepted the White House brief, with Margaret Thatcher’s prodding, irrespective of how ill-conceived it might prove. This led him to mendacious and possibly illegal decisions, but he never acted unconstitutionally. He secured full cabinet and parliamentary support, and saw his mandate upheld at the 2005 general election.
For those who supported Blair then to demand that he and Brown “admit a mistake” and “say sorry” is hypocritical and meaningless. Where were they when their MPs gullibly marched through the lobbies at Blair’s bidding and when those same MPs presented themselves for reselection? Where were they when local Labour parties supported the leadership? How did they vote in 2005? There is now a cry for yet another inquiry into the invasion and occupation. That will merely enrich lawyers and yield more cries of whitewash. Inquiries are not meant to do democracy’s job for it. That is for the political process, which eventually hanged Thatcher. It was not the law that failed over Iraq but Britain’s democratic institutions. They legitimised this disastrous war and impending defeat. It is democracy that should “say sorry”.
The question now is whether the disaster will drag on because Brown lacks the courage of his alleged private convictions. Can he regain Britain’s policy initiative and distance himself from America in pursuing military disengagement? Can he put the past behind him?
Much of Brown’s premiership is doomed to take place in the past tense, if not the pluperfect conditional: “If only we had had …” Most of his public revisionism concerns centralisation, privatisation and the NHS, where the mismatch between his second thoughts and his actions can be fudged. In Iraq there is no such let-out. British policy is either implausible (“we are training Iraqi forces to take control”) or craven (“we are waiting on Washington”).
Past evidence suggests that Brown’s pusillanimity will continue. The difference between him and Blair is that he will support America grumpily rather than sycophantically. How far that will comfort the families of dead Grenadiers is unclear. Brown has not said he will withdraw British troops from Basra in the face of American protests. He seems reluctant to confront Washington and hand de jure control in southern Iraq to local militia commanders (de facto control having been surrendered long ago).
Monday’s talks between America and Iran in Baghdad were potentially of significance. In the first place, at least two previous attempts had been vetoed by Bush’s Rasputin, Dick Cheney, indicating the latter’s waning potency. The talks also suggest that serious players in the region are exhausted by America’s string of strategic and tactical errors and are even wearying of the pleasure of seeing Washington and London shoot each other in the foot. The occupation is generating sinister forces that threaten the stability of every regime in the Middle East and the Gulf. With America pleading for help, why not offer it – at a price?
Dealing with Iran is what much-abused Iraq pundits advised Blair to do at the start. When Britain occupied Basra, its putative governor, Sir Hilary Synnott, dealt with local sheikhs and power brokers. Common sense suggested using the Badr brigades, Iran-backed anti-Saddamist militias, as the basis of a reformed army in a semi-autonomous south. Shia clerics were bound to return to the holy cities, and there was no way of resisting Iranian influence. So at least harness it to the cause of peace and reconstruction.
This advice was disregarded in favour of creating a “ground-up” democracy. Blair did not believe that the Pentagon could be wrong, and nor, we assume, did Brown. The militias were left to form their own popular bases, and Iran was left in the cold. Basra duly succumbed to faction fighting and Mahdist infiltration. A region that had once welcomed British troops was reduced to a lawless jungle where Britons now offer target practice for any passing insurgent.
Brown should confine his troops to base pending withdrawal. He should halt patrols, often led by gung-ho incoming officers eager to score “wins” where their predecessors counted losses. Britain is incapable of shoring up the authority of what is laughably called local administration. Last winter’s Operation Sinbad, designed to cleanse the incurably corrupt police, led only to a rise in attacks on troops. As for training Iraqi forces, all the training in the world will not overcome fear, corruption and the knowledge that, in a year or two, any Iraqi soldier will be wearing a militia uniform or be dead.
Iraq is now wholly anarchic. Outsiders have lost all leverage to bring order to chaos. Brown must withdraw fast and leave local power to resolve itself as it may. He can then concentrate on what promises to be an even greater horror bequeathed him by Blair, but for which he too is responsible – Afghanistan. Every nightmare predicted by sceptics is coming to pass: 57 soldiers have died and one is now lost every week, dying to defeat the Taliban, which will not happen, and dying to suppress the opium crop, which will not happen. Rather than join Blair in insulting other Europeans for refusing to lose soldiers in such a fruitless war, Brown must find the courage to stop losing his own.