The need for an old foe

By Sir Basil Markesinis, professor of common and civil law at University College London (THE GUARDIAN, 30/08/07):

Nearly 40 years after the Americans escaped from the rooftops of Saigon, this great country may be on the verge of a second retreat, this time from Iraq. To be sure, this exodus has not begun yet, and President George Bush’s recent speech on the “lessons from Vietnam” suggests that he is in denial. How superficial the parallel was that he drew has been noted by many. The consensus is that the speech was little more than spin, preparing official reaction to the publication of General David Petraeus’s report on the effects of the “surge” of US forces in Iraq.

Yet no amount of spin or simplification should conceal the magnitude of the Iraq disaster and the damage to America’s reputation. On all counts, US planners misread how their “liberation” would play in Iraq and in the region as a whole. Today, the image of American predictive power has sunk as low as that of its intelligence services.

Among the numerous lessons that the US must learn from its Iraq misadventure is that the help of Russia is crucial. If Washington hopes to retreat from Iraq without igniting a Middle East powder-keg, it cannot persist with its approach of the last decade, in which no opportunity to humiliate its old foe has been missed. Dick Cheney’s speech in the Baltic states concerning human rights in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is just one example. It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Mikhail Gorbachev’s charge of hypocrisy: this from a country that runs Guantánamo, practises extraordinary rendition and has come close to resorting to torture in its own territory.

Worse still, American treatment of Russia on a whole range of issues has nourished resentment and assisted the reawakening of Russian national pride. The Russians had to stomach this in the late 90s. Not any longer, however, given their newly discovered wealth in oil and gas. Here, too, the US has blundered, pushing swaths of Europe to adjust their interests to fit in with Russian energy wealth. Inviting Putin to have a lobster meal with Bush is hardly the way to make up for blunders stemming from a philosophy which he knows full well has not changed.

Giving a more active role to Russia in “managing a phased new settlement”, along with a genuine attempt to solve the Palestinian issue, could be the first real steps towards neutralising the American fear of chaos and local strife. For in the region Russia has better links with countries such as Iran than the US does, and acting in concert with the US, it could forestall rash decisions by other neighbouring countries to intervene during the transition. Of course that would mean that American oil giants would henceforth have to share and not monopolise the “action”. But then, are we not told that American involvement in the Middle East was never motivated by financial gain but mounted in the interests of a wider and more lasting stability? Satisfying Russia’s crumpled pride might also help reduce tension even in Europe.

If we need Russia’s help, we must seek an accommodation with it across a broad spectrum of issues. This will be neither easy nor painless, but the alternative is more of the same, as General Sir Richard Dannatt warned in a recent speech. To some of us this looks like an unending and unnecessary clash of cultures and religions, terrorism the only winner. Thus we must try all alternatives before committing to a “generation of conflict”, as the general described it.

The Anglo-American axis must also swallow its pride and enlist the active support of Europeans, especially France, which was not the only major country to try, rightly, to pull the US back from its folly in Iraq but is also the only continental European state with a network of useful relations in the Middle East.

No amount of cosmetic enthusiasm should be allowed to disguise the formidable problems that lie ahead. To minimise the chaos that now prevails not only in Iraq but also in Gaza, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to let us focus squarely on the threat of international terrorism and the restoration of peace to the Middle East, we hope that Washington learns the lesson of true unilateralism – and also realises that the damage caused by its bad planning and likely to follow its retreat will be mitigated only by involving global partners, not least in Russia and Europe. In short, the days when the US decided and its “friends” demurely followed must end.